In thrall to capitalism

Tibor Kalman once pointed out that the aim of much design is creating wealth. Jim Davies has second thoughts about the moral emptiness of branding

Rifling through my bookshelves the other day, I came across a copy of ‘Tibor Kalman/ Perverse Optimist’. It’s hard to miss – the single word ‘TIBOR’ in brutal white caps running down the spine, and a garish Mumbai-painted pastel portrait on the cover. For those of you with short memories, Kalman was the mercurial founder of the influential New York design consultancy M&Co, who went on to edit the controversial, Benetton-sponsored Colors magazine.

Published in 1999, the year he died from cancer, the first few spreads of the book are reminiscent of his work on the magazine – arresting images, culled from all corners of the globe, overlaid with simple, yet profound, statements. Curiosities, eye-openers and juxtapositions, all guaranteed to make you think.

But the one that struck me most was of a crouching photojournalist trying to get a picture of a young African man running with an AK47, as others lie terrified on the waste ground around him. The yellow overlaid text reads, ‘Most media, architecture, design and art exist for the sole purpose of making wealth.’

It may be obvious, but as we go about our daily business making one brand or organisation stand out, how often do we stop to recognise this truism? Yes, we’re all trying to provide for our families, to ‘better’ ourselves, to reap some reward for our hard work, but ultimately, all we’re contributing to is a cycle of wealth creation by trying to persuade people to part with their money for this rather than that.

It was this realisation and accompanying feeling of moral emptiness that led Kalman to put M&Co on hold at the height of its success and do something more meaningful in the shape of Colors. Bearing in mind that the magazine was at its most visible over a decade ago, the themed issues now seem almost prescient. They tackled ecology, religion, sex, race and consumerism head on… timeless, emotive subjects, many of which have since developed to a point of crisis and forced themselves on to the political agenda.

That’s not to say Kalman had the gift of second sight. The newspapers were also alive to the dangers that lay ahead, but they didn’t present the case as compellingly. His approach turned the whole editorial process on its head, using startling visuals as a starting point, creating a vivid picture story, and then supplying the words to fit. This allowed the magazine to cut through the language barrier and speak to an international audience.

For me, one of the most poignant covers was a close-up of a small waterfowl, glistening in thick black oil, floating on a pitch back sea, a blazing red eye reminding us of the life still beating inside. The coverline reads ‘How much is a life worth? A flea? A duck? An elephant? A human?’

In a world that’s reached tipping point, Kalman’s messages seem more relevant than ever. He shows us that graphic design can – and should – be used as a vehicle for social change. Ironically, he wasn’t seen as a voice of reason during his lifetime, but something of a seditious trouble-maker. His drive and vision made him difficult to work with, and his methods were often provocative and outrageous. But with hindsight, we can see that the ends justified the means.

Next time you’re feeling bored, unmotivated and having a ‘what’s it all about?’ moment, think of Kalman, and start planning your next move.

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