Tibor Kalman by Miry Yun

“Graphic design is a means, not an end. A language, not content.”     -Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist

According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), “In the mid-1980s two names changed graphic design: Macintosh and Tibor.”[i] Often referred to as a Provocateur, the “Bad Boy of Design,”[ii] or a Perverse Optimist (title that gives name to a monograph about his life and work), during the 1980s and 1990s Tibor Kalman developed one of the best-known and most influential bodies of work in the field of graphic design: he excelled as a magazine editor (Colors), an art director (Artforum), a creative director (Interview), and an industrial and graphic entrepreneur (M&Co).

Born in Budapest in 1949, Kalman emigrated to the US at the age of seven. He grew up in Poughkeepsie (NY) and attended New York University. Although he was educated in journalism, not design, Kalman managed to get a job as the creative director of a bookstore that would later become Barnes & Noble, which forced him to learn the basics of graphic design as he created store signs, shopping bags, and the original B&N bookplate trademark, which is still in use today.

In 1979 Kalman established the design firm M&Co (named after his wife), which started off by doing standard design studio work such as print advertisements and CD covers. However, Kalman was not satisfied working on such conventional projects and as soon as the company was more established, it became more selective to only take upon work that matched Kalman’s philosophy of “using good design for a good cause.”[iii] As an example, Kalman devoted M&Co’s seasonal self-promotional gifts to advocate support for homeless people, and in Christmas of 1989, he sent out to his clients a secondhand book full of notes that contained facts about poverty along with a twenty-dollar bill and a stamped envelop addressed to a charity (giving recipients the option of donating the money).

It might have been the fact that he entered the design profession by chance that allowed Kalman to “bring with him none of the prejudices of design school training”[iv] and think of graphic design as a tool to create positive socio-cultural impact. Kalman was against the practice of design for design’s sake – he believed that “good design” was worthless unless it was supported by a message. Although many of his written works carry his fervent disapproval of corporate takeover of culture and the tendency of designers to conform to corporate authority, this theme is most strongly expressed in his manifesto “Fuck Commitees.” Kalman always urged designers to take a greater responsibility for how their work influenced the surrounding culture, and he believed that the mass communication factor of graphic design should be used to increase public awareness of a variety of social issues.

Tibor Kalman’s method relayed on questioning all boundaries and expectations set by the ordinary, and the result was work that most critics either praised or criticize for its “sexiness, obscenity, and sensationalism.”[v] He defined the best type of design as “unexpected and untried” and declared, in regards of his working methods: “In design, I am always trying to turn things upside down to see if they look any better.”[vi] A curious fact about Tibor Kalman’s working process throughout his career is that while he always retained the creative control, he had to hire young design school graduates to execute his ideas because of his limited knowledge in areas such as typography. Even the majority of the work done by M&Co cannot only be attributed to him, but rather to his employees. Kalman never claimed to draw well, nor did he have any formal training in design, which, once again, highlights the critical role of ideas and concepts in design.

Kalman’s real chance to freely advocate his beliefs and play his self-procclaimed role as a social activist came with the launching of Colors, the Benetton-sponsored magazine he founded with Oliviero Toscani in 1991. Colors contained almost no advertisements, and each issue concentrated on a single topic of cultural taboo such as race, religion, AIDS, violence, and warfare. It focused on multiculturalism and global awareness, which was communicated through a combination of bold graphic design and strong, compelling imagery, including one of the most famous issue on racism (issue 4), in which he confronted the audience about the existing racism in everyone. In order to get his message across, he created a collection of full-page manipulated images showing various celebrity icons racially transformed. (Queen Elizabeth is black, Pope John Paul II Asian…etc.).

Even during his last years, as he battled cancer, Kalman continued to pro-actively pursue his mission by participating in lectures and arguing in writings. Today, his design principles and influence still prevail through the work produced by those he influenced: his legacy is evident in designers such as and Stefan Sagmeister, Alexander Isley, and Steven Doyle (who worked for him at M&Co and left to eventually start their own successful firms), and in social activist groups such as Adbusters or Undesign.org


[i] Steven Heller, “Tibor Kalman: Provocateur.” AIGA. http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/medalist-tiborkalman

[ii] Steven Helle, “Tibor Kalman, ‘Bad Boy’ of Graphic Design, 49, Dies.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/05/arts/tibor-kalman-bad-boy-of-graphic-design-49-dies.html

[iii] “Tibor Kalman: (I Believe in the Lunatic!). http://designhistorymashup.blogspot.com/2008/04/tibor-kalman_01.html

[iv] 2004 Hall of Fame: Tibor Kalman. Art Directors Club. http://www.adcglobal.org/archive/hof/2004/?id=196

[v] Tibor Kalman Overview. Art+Culture. http://www.artandculture.com/users/179-tibor-kalman

[vi] An Hour Conversation with Tibor Kalman (Video file) http://discussion-for-you.com/video/4543.cgi

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