“I acknowledge that you can't be a designer and have nothing to do with corporations....That's how it is, and you're either going to go into a shell, go into academia, kill yourself, or figure out a way to swim with the barracuda.”

- Tibor Kalman

a plan | swimming with the barracuda.


“every jerk you meet these days is working or starting a dot.com...”

quote “I'm ready to throw the towel in. The stress just isn't worth it...”

In the 1980s, when corporate design reached maturity and blossomed into the slick, far-reaching, multimedia branding extravaganza we all know and love today, a few of the foremost practitioners in the field got restless and began asking pointed questions and examining the role of the design community. The most notable of these individuals was Tibor Kalman.

Tibor saw what was happening in the industry. He understood the powerful role designers played in influencing public opinion. Unfortunately, they were often paid (and paid well) to make dirty corporations look clean or make a product look like it could do more than it was designed to do. After years of feeling guilty over engaging in this sort of practice to pay his bills, he made a conscious decision to change the course of his life's work. He pushed himself to the next level, and strove to inject meaning in his creations, communicating messages that would potentially have a social impact on a broader audience.

Peter Hall of ID Magazine offers insight into this transformation:

“If a single motive could be said to characterize [Tibor's] progression, it is Kalman's desire to startle the people around him. The work just changes as his sense of audience expands; at the beginning it is - as with most start-up design firms - the person paying for the design services has to be startled. Then it is the rest of the design profession that Kalman is attempting to lift out of complacency. Finally and most ambitiously, it is the general public that falls into his sights...” - Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist

Because of his passionate beliefs, Tibor was often met with criticism by other members of the design community, as he suggested that they too take greater social responsibility for the influence their work had on society and culture. Never one to seek shelter or mince words, he often targeted the institutions and leading practitioners of the “professional” design community in his criticisms. However, he stuck by his guns, as he strongly believed that the “A-List” design studios were sending the wrong message to aspiring young designers in action and deed. In one such instance, he took the monolithic AIGA to task for rewarding companies “just for the fact that they had hired hip designers. It didn't seem to...be the role of design in the world. I wanted to make sure that people saw the other side of the coin and the contradiction in their positions.”

Tibor worked hard to ensure that his body of work orbited around his core moral and ethical philosophy. However, he took great pleasure in reminding people that he was neither independently wealthy or a purist. His work was often funded by corporations or institutions “that were not in and of themselves scummy, but got their money from scum,” and he had a very realistic outlook on how life in the business works. He knew that the challenge was to find that magical mix of message and money, method and madness, that convinced the client to turn over the editorial reigns and trust in his artistic vision.

Tibor had the opportunity to watch the fledgling Web design industry emerge before his untimely death in 1999. In his last interviews, his frustration with technology and the unrealized potential of the Web bubbled to the surface. He was obviously aware of the great potential of the medium (as evidenced in an interview with Steven Heller in Design Dialogues), yet marvelled that the Web was filling up with useless corporate sites, meaningless design, and marketing drivel. In true Tibor style, he seemed to be impatiently thumbing his nose at leading practitioners of the profession with comments like “I don't see anything on the Web that's interesting. It's so f*cked up as a technology, and it's [lagging] so far behind the aspirations that people have for it.”

Never one to be afraid to explore and conquer new mediums, no doubt Tibor saw the ocean of opportunity before the design profession...an ocean thoroughly infested with dot-com barracuda.

And, oh, the difference he might have made had he dove in. >>>


[ &*$#@~! ]

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