Ben Bos (1930–2017)


This is my tribute to Dutch graphic designer, author and tireless organizer Ben Bos, who died on 3 January 2017, aged 86.

I have never known any other professional who was as active as Ben at that age – energetic and curious about the world until the day he took off, quite unexpectedly. I was probably not the only person in the design world whose impression of Ben Bos was a bit distorted until I got to know him and his work a little better. To me, he was ‘simply’ the most business-like designer at Total Design, where he led his own team, specializing in corporate identities until his departure in 1991. My somewhat unidimensional impression of Bos completely changed when in 2003, as a jury member of the Netherlands’ Best Book competition, I saw a book he wrote, and for which his wife and creative partner Elly Bos-Bonsen did the splendid image research: Wie denkt u wel dat ik ben? (‘Now who do you think I am?’), his contribution to a famous series of yearbooks for the Dutch graphic world. A very personal book about identity, it was witty, multi-faceted, imaginative, smart – I suddenly realised Ben had the sharpest pen and probably the broadest mind of his generation of postwar functionalist designers. Four years later, I was invited by Hugo Puttaert to write an article about him for Belgium’s Addmagazine, an imaginative bi-lingual (French-Dutch) periodical produced for paper distributor Papyrus. I had a good conversation with Ben and Elly in Antwerp; Ben liked my piece, and in 2010 asked my permission to republish it when producing a catalogue of his work, in English and Persian, together with his friends at the Nazar Research and Cultural Institute, Tehran, Iran. I made some minor updates, and translated the article. Here it is. Not an obituary, but an honest attempt to grasp Ben’s broad palette of writing and designing in a few words.

• • •


A remarkable book was presented during the latest conference of AGI, the international designers club, in Amsterdam: ‘AGI – Graphic Design since 1950’ is a monumental survey (3 kilos, 800 pages) of the design profession as it has evolved during the past half century. Ben Bos, himself a monument in the Dutch design landscape, edited the book.
At 77, Bos remains a whirlwind of activity. Today he mainly works as an author and editor.
‘Doubly gifted, they say’ is the title of a brief autobiography that Ben Bos wrote a few years back at the request of a publisher. In fact, ‘doubly gifted’ is an understatement. In the course of a career that spans over fifty years, Ben Bos has not only proved himself to be a versatile, meticulous and bold designer and an excellent writer, but he also served as an editor, draughtsman, photographer, teacher and organizer. For 28 years he worked for Holland’s
117 best-known design agency Total Design (now Total Identity), and the design team that he led invariably was the studio’s most efficient one. Clients such as Ahrend – his first employer – and Randstad remained loyal to him for decades, even after he left Total Design in 1991.
His many contacts with colleagues outside the Netherlands frequently led to publications, such as a recent article on Wim Crouwel in the Iranian design journal Neshan. At home, he took the initiative for the Dutch graphic designers archive (NAGO), which proceeded to save dozens of designer archives from chaos and destruction. And now there is this AGI book, in homage to 600 colleagues past and present, edited by Bos in collaboration with his wife Elly. It is a thorough reference work, based on two and a half years of painstaking detective work, and one that the AGI rewarded with its own Oscar, the Henri.

Text and image
Books have surrounded Ben Bos all of his life. His father and grandfather were bookbinders. Respect for paper, wrote Bos, was a ‘sacrosanct house rule’. Even during the German occupation – Ben Bos was ten years old when Hitler’s army invaded the Netherlands – there always was plenty paper to go around. Young Ben eagerly used this paper to make drawings. With a colourful toy typewriter he embarked on his first typographical explorations; while a Kodak 35mm camera, which he received from a cousin shortly after the liberation, enabled him to indulge his fascination for photography. He had many other interests, including athletics, mountaineering and aviation, and in the intensive club life that went with these, he soon began to play a remarkable role as a ‘newspaperman’. Ben created magazines and newsletters that he edited, illustrated and designed. ‘Designed’ as a matter of speaking only, because he primarily considered himself a writer – a design career only appeared on the horizon at a relatively late stage.
At the age of 24 he started working as an advertising assistant for Ahrend, a manufacturer of (mostly) office furniture. At Ahrend’s he became the man of ideas, who produced the staff magazine, conceived sales ideas and wrote advertising copy. ‘Oddly enough,’ Bos said in an interview, ‘it took a text-oriented job to fire up my real passion for design.’ He registered for a ‘lay-out’ course at the Amsterdam Graphics School and attended night classes at the school that later became the Rietveld Academy. With the iron discipline that is uniquely his, he combined his Ahrend job with intensive evening studies for six years. These introduced him to a design movement that was to dominate the post-war Dutch landscape for decades: Functionalism. Wim Crouwel was his most influential night school teacher. Although he was only two years his senior, Bos viewed Crouwel as ‘the maestro’, whom he admired and even worshipped. Crouwel in turn valued Bos’s dedication and talent. ‘He was somebody,’ Crouwel later said, ‘who gave me the feeling I couldn’t teach him anything.’ Bos begged to differ. He only took himself seriously as a designer after proving to himself that he could make ‘a little Crouwel’: a poster in the austere, lucid style of the master. Bos was attracted to this idiom, a graphic language that represented clarity, objectivity and order.

His own signature
In his Ahrend days Ben Bos had already acted as Crouwel’s assistant. In 1963, when Crouwel and fellow designers Friso Kramer – industrial designer for Ahrend – and Benno Wissing founded Total Design (TD), Bos was invited to join ‘the big adventure’, initially as studio manager, and later as the leader of his own team. Bos gradually developed a style of his own. He remained true to the principles of Functionalism, but wasn’t dogmatic. ‘If I compare my work to his,’ wrote Crouwel, ‘mine is much drier and more principled. Ben’s oeuvre is pictorial, colourful and lyrical.’
That is not to say that it couldn’t be highly systematic, too: Benno Wissing, TD’s systems guru, taught Bos how to use patterns and grids as the basis for an efficient and lucid design, without restricting the designer’s freedom. This combination of lucidity and pictorial strength led to a remarkable oeuvre of logos, some of which are still in use today. As a team leader, Bos wasn’t easy to get along with: he was hard on himself and others, emotionally demanding; but he often managed to get the best out of his co-workers and became a tower of strength in the agency. In the seventies and eighties Total Design repeatedly threatened to fall victim to its own ambitions. It took on many cultural jobs, which were prestigious but not very profitable; there was a considerable turnover in staff and management; and in the early eighties the purchase of a prohibitively expensive design computer, the Aesthedes, caused irritations and financial difficulties. But even when the agency was in trouble, Ben Bos and his team always proved reliable. Bos was the only one who consistently made a profit with his team; it was ‘the cork that kept the company afloat’. Bos had specialized in corporate identity and repeatedly managed to attract clients that gave the company an opportunity to make some money. The Randstad Group, which developed from a modest temp agency into a multinational company with Bos at its side, is the best example of this. After leaving TD, Bos continued to work for the Randstad Group. As a consultant on the international implementation of corporate identities he travelled around half the globe. He didn’t exclusively focus on corporate design, though. Bos remained a newspaperman. He worked on the redesign of the Algemeen Handelsblad, which merged with NRC shortly after. He subsequently drew the front-page title for NRC Handelsblad. Later he supervised the redesign of Het Parool newspaper. He proved his editorial abilities in publications such as the 2002 yearbook in the Grafisch Nederland series: Wie denkt u wel dat ik ben? [Who do you think I am?] The book also illustrates his wilfulness: he managed to bend the assignment for a book on corporate identity into a kind of carte blanche. The result was an intriguing, multi-layered book about identities.

Ben Bos has long been viewed as one of the coolest, strictest and most businesslike representatives of Dutch Functionalism. On closer acquaintance with his work – including his work as a writer and editor s– the picture becomes more complex. It is always subservient to the commission or to content, but not impersonal. It is balanced, yet emotional. It is an oeuvre that often present a rather austere face, but where the human aspect always plays a part.

autumn 2007 – spring 2010

In 1993, Ben Bos founded NAGO, the Nederlands’ Graphic Design Archive, which is now part of the Wim Crouwel Institute. This is his poster for the first NAGO exhibition, 1994.

Typography for the office of insurance company Nederlanden 1870.

• • •

Below: One of Ben Bos’ major identity projects was the ever-evolving identity for Randstad Holding, the Dutch temping agency. Top: brochure cover showing the grid that Bos used for the company’s logo. Based on the logo, he later developed a complete alphabet (bottom).

• • •

J.A. Commemorative carpet for AGI, Oaxaca, 2000