The genius of Wim Crouwel

Entering legendary graphic designer Wim Crouwel’s retrospective at the Design Museum we were struck by the sheer body of work - anything and everything from scribbles, sketches, posters and photos - on show.

Now we know at 83 Wim has had some time to amass all this - but the breadth of it all couldn’t help but make us just a little bit  embarassed for any creative block we may succomb to in the office, now and then. Like when the Haribos run out.

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Wim told us he was lucky to have been working at a time when a designer could tap into and define the spirit of the age, one before mass computing allowed a million different spirits free rein.

Ironically,  it was the encroaching world of computers that led to his infamy in the graphic design world. One of Crouwel’s most infamous typefaces, the New Alphabet, consisting of just horizontal and vertical strokes, was designed soley to be read on cathode ray screen. It was reviled and loved in almost equal measure. Loved for it’s chutzpah, reviled because, well you couldn’t actually read it unless you had a computer and back then, hardly anyone did.

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“I had some very outspoken critics of my work, I was often attacked, they called it the new ugliness. These people had an enormous longing for the past and they blamed designers and architects for all the bad things in the world. In the beginning I had sleepless night but after a while I thought, ah, let them talk.”

The New Alphabet was later adapted by another designer for the Joy Division singles album, Substance. So does Wim still think it’s possible to capture a sense of the age through design?
“It’s very difficult today. I still try. But you always have the influence of other people. The profession has changed so much. I can do a poster in an hour on my screen now in an hour. In those days you sketched for days and days and worked it out large scale. On one hand I’m very jealous of today’s designers with all these possibilites but at the same time I think it’s hard to be recognisable and stand out.”

A Graphic Odyssey is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, until July 3
Words by Mat Smith

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