ANTI‑

In 1995 I put huge effort into writing an article for Publish, a magazine now completely forgotten, about another magazine, Colors. My copies of the resulting January 1996 issue are somewhere, except I cannot put my hands on them because I foolishly didn’t put them back in their one and only designated place.

Luciano Benetton had hired Tibor Kalman, late of M&Co and a god of ’80s graphic design, to run this Benetton-funded quarterly, which had less to do with the company than any in-flight magazine does with its parent airline. It was an editorially independent division of a retail and manufacturing behemoth; the magazine and the behemoth were decades ahead of their time. I liked Colors a lot.

Tibor was halfway dying of cancer when I talked to him. I have no notes confirming my direct memory of writing the phrase “describing his health as ‘moderate,’ ” but that’s what Tibor had told me on the phone.

While beloved blinkered progressive Pentagrammer Mr. MICHAEL BIERUT has his own style of blowing jovially through client objections like a ribbon at a finishing line (discernible in his Studio 360 segment about redesigning Christmas), nobody, at all, was like Tibor, least of all Paul Rand.

He couldn’t draw a straight line, let alone a square. He couldn’t render, sketch a comp, or do even one single thing that could be described as design or illustration. Yet he is one of the greatest designers of the 20th century.

Tibor was so brusque and impatient that his manner was offensive even by New York standards. While his primary client cohort (artists, musicians [Talking Heads]) acted as a sort of bubble wrap around Tibor’s popping firecrackers, even M&Co had the occasional client that was vaguely corporate. Tibor got away with murder with all of them.

Mr. BIERUT is not really Tibor’s converse; Spiekermann is. (Note the disparity in how these designers are referred to. Maybe – maybe – Spiekermann’s wife calls him Erik.) Spiekermann’s abrasiveness with a smile means he works best with a CEO or somebody else he can just be honest with. (Paraphrased: “You have hired us to do something you yourselves cannot. You should trust us.”)

I recall the one and only time I was ever allowed to speak at ATypI (Vancouver, a mere 15 years ago). Rest assured it’ll never happen again. My esteemed colleague and I had separate presentations scheduled, but we sat at the same table, and lo there came a moment when Spiekermann introduced my esteemed colleague as just that: a colleague, but of everyone in the room. Spiekermann didn’t know him from Adam, really, though of course he’s highly competent or he couldn’t be my friend in the first place.

Tibor sidestepped his unpalatability with legit corporate clients by running off to Italy to edit Colors. Spiekermann got screwed in the business more than once, though that didn’t stop him from installing a full Bulthaupt kitchen. (Apparently a barter deal, and, according to my acquaintance who saw it, almost beyond belief.) Now he’s pumping out shitty letterpress agitprop in his dotage.

Here, in the vernacular, “is where I’m at” vis-à-vis Tibor and Spiekermann.

I can improve anything (often dramatically and in one fell swoop – the Spiekermann example is opening up the tracking on the Economist’s pages and the job was halfway done right there). Canada, the industrialized nation most hostile to expertise in general and to design in specific, has a shitload that needs improvement.

The shyster who took Paul Arthur for a ride in the latter’s last years of his life told me once I couldn’t be put in a room with a client. I would agree. Pace Miles Drentell, clients may be necessary but are not really important, and indeed are sometimes irritants.

I now think Spiekermann’s charm offensive at ATypI was insincere. I think his entire bonhomie act is, too. He fooled us all. But if there’s any impulse he and I share, it’s toward rigour.

Now imagine a design consultancy that barely designs anything but instead severely unfucks severely-fucked-up failed design. Like asset-stripping, but what you’re stripping away is incompetence and an inability to communicate. I have another esteemed colleague, who was always nice to me until he was as nasty as anyone has ever been, who rescues failing nonprofits, and demands 70% of his fee up front. Here we rescue failed design.

The whole enterprise would be predicated on two scenarios that exclude each other: We’d have nothing but clients who could handle my blurting “Jesus fucking Christ, you people are incompetent” to them in a meeting whose time they’re paying for and I’d never actually have to deal with clients in the first fucking place, merely doing what they themselves cannot.

I’d need one or more partners who were as competent as I am and wouldn’t vote me out of my own company, or connive to take the place over, indeed as Michael and Elliot did with Miles Drentell’s company, DAA. (Miles admired the audacity and kept them on staff.)

I’ve had 15 years to mull over what couldn’t ever happen in the first place. Tibor is deceased and I don’t trust the gloss of the Spiekermann story. There aren’t any designers who get away with murder anymore.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2018.09.13 14:10. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2018/09/13/kalman-spiekermann/

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