In 1978 Ben Bos (1930-2017) was invited to become a member of AGI, Alliance Graphique Internationale, a select group of international designers. For Bos this was a glorious occasion: it indicated he was recognized to be one of the world’s leading designers; he was allowed entrance to the design professionals’ Pantheon.
It was not his first glorious experience. Years before – he was studying at the IvKNO (Institute of Arts and Crafts, later Gerrit Rietveld Academy of Art) in Amsterdam – he got commissioned to design a poster for Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co. He found he was happy with the end result and even confident that it was approaching the quality of work common to his guru, the much admired Wim Crouwel. This, said Bos, was as liberating an experience as the AGI membership invitation. In 1963 Bos was invited to join Total Design, the first multidisciplinary design agency in the Netherlands. Benno Wissing, Wim Crouwel and Friso Kramer were its prominent directors. Ben Bos would be an important member of this leading design studio for almost thirty years.
Bos was already twenty-four before he was able to decide that a designer was what he wanted to be. His earlier fields were photography, sketching, writing and design, but without expressing any preference; he had no clear-cut plans, which made him employable within many disciplines. He had been a copy writer and advertising assistant at furniture producer Ahrend starting 1953. “I had all the fun in the world with rejuvenating their staff magazine. I wrote for it, I shot the photographs, and I was its designer.” Bos appreciated Ahrend’s philosophy: their visuals had to be clear, clean, simple, and in line with the rules of typography. He fell under the spell of graphic design and decided to follow one year of evening class in ‘lay-out’ at the graphic school in Amsterdam, after which he entered IvKNO to take their five-year-long design course, five evenings a week. He graduated with honors from both institutes and, already in his thirties, could call himself a real designer at last.
“In comparison, my work is much ‘drier’, more ‘rectilinear’. Ben’s work is more expressive, colorful, lyrical. He loves to create and arrange beauty.” Wim Crouwel
Still in school, Bos got in touch with Wim Crouwel. Bos: “An absolute maestro. I admired Wim immensely. Like he, I was attracted to the Neue Graphik, to clarity, simplicity, structure, and strict organization of design elements. Even so many years later I can look in baffled admiration at the functionalism created by the Swiss designers Richard P. Lohse, Joseph Müller-Brockmann, Armin Hofmann and Hans Neuburg. Wim Crouwel, too, was a full-blooded functionalist, and a dogmatist to boot. In the late 1980s, at a time Wim was accepting his umpteenth professorship, I listened to him giving a speech about functionalism just as inspired as he’d done thirty years earlier. Amazing.”
Functionalism was in fact the only serious design philosophy of the 1960s. Most well-known Dutch professionals were following it: Pieter Brattinga, Benno Wissing, Ton de Heus, Charles Jongejans. Others followed their own individual philosophy. Dick Elffers and Otto Treumann created designs characterized by a coloristic approach, almost like free art. Bos appreciated their work much but preferred to give a functionalist direction to his own designs. He said: “I just wanted to make Crouweltjes (little Crouwels) and didn’t feel ashamed of admitting my devotion. Still searching for my own direction, Wim was my guru, my guide at a time I needed one. He was just two years senior to me, but already very arrivé.” By then promoted to be Ahrend’s art director, Bos was invited to assist Wim Crouwel with many of his projects. “I was Wim’s part-time right hand. Until the deck was reshuffled, two years later.”
“Ben was less strict than Wim Crouwel. He used a different argumentation. It made his work more human.” Daphne Duijvelshoff
Bos has classified Crouwel’s work as dogmatic, a definition that indicates he learned to take some distance from his guru’s philosophy. “Wim’s oeuvre is defined mostly by his countless designs for museums, with the posters and covers of catalogues being the most outstanding examples of his creativity. The interior pages of his catalogues show a highly systematic approach in which all information and images are easily accessible. They do not show the designer’s identity. I really admire his innovative work – such as his New Alphabet – or his three-dimensional work – think of the Expo 1970 Dutch pavilion in Osaka – more than his catalogues, which doesn’t mean these are not beautiful.”
The type of clients Bos often worked for rather demanded a different approach: “I was expected to translate their message and invest my own ideas about its visualization.” His work for Ahrend and Randstad, a temp agency, reveals his own design philosophy. What Bos called ‘engaged, social photography’ dominates, even if it is only by showing coffee cups on an office desk Ahrend was trying to sell. Or someone just passing a desk, a blurry figure. “For Randstad I selected images that were, on purpose, not merely glamorous. The socially moved photos of Ad van Denderen expressed what I was looking for. They showed people sweating too. I tried to ‘add value’ with my designs. That made a difference.”
His own way
Bos the designer differed from Crouwel even if the two of them were convinced functionalists. Where Crouwel was mostly moved by art and architecture, Bos added a distinct social conscience to his designs. From 1957 to 1991 he worked, for instance, for the Amsterdam organization aiding homeless people (HVO). He wrote and designed their fundraising brochures, contributed to their magazine and was involved deeply with the organization. He also worked for two years as a member of the construction team of Nieuw Vredenburgh’s care center for elderly people. His connection started with the commission to design a signage system but ended with his involvement with the architectural plans drawn by Van Gendt and Mühlstaff. As always he tried to create warmth, livability, and humanity. These side activities pointed to his strong social conscience. “Creating a nice environment for the elderly is totally different from facilitating efficient communication. It requires a warm-blooded approach, an added emotional value. Yet, efficient communication cannot neglect emotions either; they improve effectiveness.”
Ben Bos started at Total Design as their head of studio, leading the teams that worked under Crouwel, Wissing and Kramer. Their team members, though, were accustomed to engage directly with these three giants in design, and saw Bos as merely interfering. Bos decided to form his own design team, a wise decision also for Total Design because his efficient team always made money. “My team kept TD afloat. Somehow I managed to attract the right commercial clients: Ahrend, Furness, Randstad, De Gruyter. These projects generated more income than the enormous number of projects we did for the cultural sector. My schooling (HBS-A, a more business-like high-school) and my experience at Ahrend helped establish a position that fitted business clients well.” With changing times came changes in Total Design’s direction. Kramer, Wissing and Crouwel left the company (at different moments). The competition in the design sector grew. The market was suffering from economic pressures. In the 1980s, a new team of directors (including Ben Bos, Loek van der Sande and Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthof) decided to strive for more efficiency and to invest in a, for those days, unique design computer, the Aesthedes.
“With his clear designs Ben Bos continued Total Design’s ideals and he made these work. Not per se as an artist, but with his design-in-servitude.” Anthon Beeke
Bloodless tool box
According to Van der Toorn Vrijthoff no human designer could compete with the precision the Aesthedes made possible. Ben Bos: “I agreed with the investment in the Aesthedes; it would take over much of the time-consuming and boring work on details. But something else happened: all designs looked as if they were for paper money; everything ended up having multiple layers, which all fit together perfectly but in a bloodless way. The Aesthedes was a magnificent tool box, but as early users we only knew how to handle some of the tools in it and as a result kept repeating the same solutions. I couldn’t stand this. I hated it so much that one day, when my kids received a Spirograph from their grandparents, I forced them to repack it and hand the bloody thing back. I didn’t want to see another machine that could draw perfect concentric circles which looked creative but were not, not at home; having something like that at work was already more than I could handle.” The ‘Knights of the Spirograph’ ruled Total Design for a while, but the way the computer was used dehumanized the designs. “Yes, I was one of the directors who allowed this to happen. A new generation with new ideas was emerging and my mistake was to think that I could stay at the sideline and send them in the right direction. No way. I should have remained on top of it.”
“Ben had his doubts about the Aesthedes design computer. More possibilities, yes. But, the designs became rather driven by technology. This, Ben really hated.” Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthoff
Bos left Total Design in 1991. There was no more place for this “keeper of the past, this standard bearer of old norms.” He could sense it. He knew for certain he had to go when a conflict erupted within the board of directors about the ownership structure of Total Design and no open discussion was allowed. Immediately Bos was asked to join the directorship of 2D3D, a well-known design group that, as word had it, had confined itself to The Hague. “I joined them to broaden their market and to help them reach greater heights by bringing innovation and upgrades. But I remained an intruder, out of place, the keeper of a warehouse full of books with stock photography. Also, their meeting culture was deadly. I never knew people could waste so much time discussing so little.” Bos endured this for less than two years before he decided to continue as an independent designer, consultant and writer.
“His team was a closely disciplined unit, a fortress within Total Design. They worked hard. They delivered and made profits.” Paul Mijksenaar
Ben Bos’s professional life was dominated by long-term relationships. Thirty years at Total Design. Scores of years working for Randstad. He worked in the employment of Ahrend from 1953 to 1963 and as a freelance designer from 1991 to 2004. During his years at Total Design, Bos was only loosely attached to the Ahrend projects they did. Nevertheless he signed for all designs for the introduction of the ‘Revolt’ chair and the famed ‘Mehes’ office furniture system. At the end of the 1960s, Bos designed Randstad’s corporate identity program; in the 1980s he coordinated its restyling and after he had left Total Design in 1991 he still was a design consultant for Randstad. He remained involved internationally with Randstad until 1997 and helped create its distinguished face in the United States. After his 2D3D episode, Bos worked for several old and new clients; and he wrote a lot: articles for the magazines ‘Design in Business’ and ‘Identity Matters’. He published books, such as the 2002 Christmas issue of ‘Grafisch Nederland’ and the important AGI book ‘Graphic Design Since 1950’. He co-edited these books together with his wife Elly.
“The AGI book presents only AGI members; it is an encyclopedia of the greatest designers of the world and it reflects the international design community. To become an AGI member you have to be nominated; a jury of ten decides whether to follow the recommendation, or not. It took two years to edit and design the book. It wasn’t a well-paid commission, but the point was Elly and I could show our involvement with the profession. I was an AGI member for more than thirty years and I chaired their Dutch branch for twenty years. The book was worth all the effort and care its production demanded.”
Originally the theme of the “Kerstnummer” (Christmas issue) 2002 of ‘Grafisch Nederland’ was supposed to have been corporate identity. Bos: “I had written so much about this subject during my career that I had to be careful to not just echo my own ideas and experiences. In the end, the book – a wonderful collection of stories from different individuals and groups – was about identity in general.”
Bos also made himself available for contributing to different social causes, which he hadn’t been able to do in the previous years. “I read an article recently  in which a network of creative individuals was introduced, in Apeldoorn. They offered their services with a 90% fee discount to all kinds of needy purposes. What a wonderful idea.” Bos continued his work for HVO (homeless people); he had started his support in 1957 and designed most of their printed matter until 1991. He usually donated his work; only when Total Design was going through a rough patch he had to work at cost. “I had so much admiration for HVO’s director, Oncko Heldring, who passed away three years ago. I designed the announcements and his gravestone. To express my high regards I put Oncko’s name high on top of the stone and thus managed to add content to the design. Design has its ‘sexy’ sides but shouldn’t disregard the social aspects of its community; designers have a social responsibility too. I regret I don’t find many expressions of awareness of this obligation within AGI or BNO (Association of Dutch Designers).”
“What I learned from Ben Bos is: a design can only have strength if the designer is driven, if he or she loves the profession and is emotionally involved.” Joost Klinkenberg
An American AGI member asked Bos to design a poster about the ‘Katrina’ disaster in New Orleans in 2005. Other designers were involved, too, and the posters were to be sold on the Internet; the revenue would benefit victims of the flooding. Shortly after I had delivered my design, AGI members met for their yearly congress, in Berlin that time. I put up my New Orleans poster and was surprised by the lack of interest it received. Eventually I discovered that only a few professional designers and students had contributed to the project. It did not raise much money. It set me thinking: why was it so hard to spend a little time and offer support? The earthquake in China didn’t inspire many AGI members to offer their professional contribution either.”
In later years, Bos connected to the Iranian design community. He already knew Morteza Momayez (1935–2005), a designer of international fame, who had been a professor at the design department of the University of Tehran in the times of the old regime and who had successfully promoted graphic design in his country. Bos showed his designs in Tehran, together with the French designer Alain Lequernec’s work, at the time of the memorial service for Momayaz in 2005. Bos was published often in the handsomely designed Iranian professional magazine, ‘Neshan’.
“In the days of the elections in Iran I sent my Iranian acquaintances, most of them people who supported Mousavi’s progressive Green Movement, three ‘green posters’. These appeared on lots of websites; lots of people showed their gratitude for my support. It disappointed me that BNO didn’t publish these designs in the monthly overview of new work by members in their magazine ‘Vormberichten’. I guess candy wrappers are more important. See, this is why I was so pleased to read the announcement about the initiative in Apeldoorn, where creative people offer their services at a much reduced fee. I hope similar initiatives will follow in other cities. The scope of our responsibilities as designers and the impact of our work is much larger than we tend to think. We only have to be aware of it.”
Author of the original text: Dirk van Ginkel, September 2010
English translation and editing: Ton Haak
Final editing: Sybrand Zijlstra
Portrait photo: Aatjan Renders