As creative director of the renowned Total Design (1966-1991); an initiative of ambitious designers who wanted to redesign Dutch design, Ben has been at the forefront of European graphic identity design, spanning most of the latter part of the 20th century. When Ben Bos kicked off OFFSET Dublin 2013 he was a legend in every sense, so passionate about Design and supportive of the event, he could be seen all over the venue engaging with the other speakers and delegates a like. We spoke to Ben ahead of his second appearance on the OFFSET stage, this time at OFFSET Sheffield 2016.

Can we start with this iconic photograph from 1963. You all look very ‘cool’ and very serious about the great adventure you are about to undertake. Can you remember what you were thinking when this photograph was taken? You look so deep in thought?

At my age the art of remembering is certainly not at its best. So the answer is short and sweet: NO! About a year ago a colleague of mine was writing about my former teachers at the IvKNO (the predecessor of the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam) and asking me about what projects Charles Jongejans, our principal tutor in typography, had given us? My reply was, “Dear Jan, that was 56 years ago, I just have NO IDEA!”.

But to be fair, I do have some clear memories of that time. The photo was taken in my own room. The Herengracht building was under total refurbishment, it was one of the most severe winters of the century. Every time I look at the picture my eye is drawn to the attitude of Benno Wissing – he looks very animated and alert, about to spring up with an idea or suggestion. At that stage I had been working with Ahrend for nine years – starting out as their copywriter, taking evening classes at the Amsterdam Graphic College (graduating in layout after one year with honours), followed by five years attending IvKNO evening classes, four or five days a week (also graduating with honours). I was also running a small design practice of my own at the same time, and developing my position at Ahrend as the ‘man of ideas’. This approach ensured I became art director there eventually.

At the time that photo was taken, I had the feeling that my ‘practical’ experience as a designer had been virtually non-existent. So there I sat, surrounded by the already famous Wim Crouwel, Benno Wissing and Friso Kramer, our ‘Senior Designers’. Painfully aware of my humble achievements, I allowed myself the title of ‘Junior Designer’, emphasising the big gap between the ‘Senior Designers’ and myself. I was given the responsibility of supervising the studio staff. So what I might have been thinking when that photo was taken (in February 1963, I think) was: “LISTEN, ABSORB, NOTE, LEARN” and “TRY TO RAISE YOUR OWN STANDARDS AS FAST AS POSSIBLE… YOU CAN DO IT!”
Overall, my output had been very limited at that time and I was not too sure that I could cope with the expectations of the Senior Designers. Was I stretching too far? What heights could I reach? Later I realised that ‘Junior’ was indeed a bit unwise – the title ‘Designer’ would have made things easier for me. I had probably settled for ‘Junior’ because of my great respect for the other guys.

Meeting in 1963. Dick Schwarz, Friso Kramer, Benno Wissing, Ben Bos, Paul Schwarz, Wim Crouwel. Photo: Jan Versnel

It was very modest of you to describe yourself as a ‘Junior Designer’. And yet Wim Crouwel was only two or three years older than you at that time. You were a great admirer of Wim. Do you think he helped to shape you as a designer?

Yes, although he was only about 640 days older, he really did have a great influence on me at that time. Wim had achieved a lot more than I had in only a couple of years and he was by far the most innovative designer among the small group of ‘real’ graphic designers working in Amsterdam back then. At the IvKNO, Wim was my absolute design hero. From time-to-time he gave me commissions for texts, illustrations, layout jobs and work he was not too interested in doing himself. My dream was to make some ‘Crouwel’ style work and eventually I made a poster that I was happy with. From then on I knew I was on the right track.

Your logo for the Randstad Uitzendbureau was created around the same time Wim was experimenting with the New Alphabet, a font based on the limitations of the computer screen. Was this perhaps an influence on the Randstad ‘r’ symbol?

Many people share this feeling with you, but the Randstad ‘r’ is just another sans serif letter – the great difference with the ‘New’ version was that I used circular elements to make it more refined, far less academic and basic. And of course, I mirrored it to create the symbol, which is more human, like arms reaching out. I added an emotional element to the design. The circular parts were chosen because I also wanted to address the very high percentage of female temporaries in those early days of employment services. Over the years, I came to the conclusion that the great difference between Wim’s approach and my own was that I considered ‘emotion’ as a real and valuable aspect of the functionalist philosophy we shared. It took a long time before I realised that my approach was different, but no less valuable.

It must give you great satisfaction to see a logo you designed in 1967 still in use today?

Well yes, but I have no contact with Randstad HQ and its communication department anymore. In 2010 that organisation (then called Uitzendbureau Amstelveen) celebrated its 50th birthday. They asked me to design a special logo and for the first time in my life they rejected my proposals. Not just one, but five of them! After the last refusal the communication manager told me that he would have a go himself, assisted by his daughter – never a good idea. They then invited a small group to make a book on the history of Randstad. I was interviewed by the author over two days, gave them a rich collection of slides, and travelled to the studio several times to advise them on the design.

Curiously, I never got a copy of the book. But later I understood why. I myself had a special celebration on the occasion of my 80th birthday, that same year. My wife Elly had secretly organised a big event in Amsterdam – lots of guests and speakers (including a former Randstad communication director), films, a projection of my work on three huge screens and finally a presentation of the book Ben Bos 80, From Our Reporter which included 12 stories I had written over the years about special ‘adventures’ with my clients. Two stories were about Randstad and one in particular about their American CEO. The story was humorous, but also honest and revealing. My feeling is that they were not amused. So we lost contact after 44-years…

Many would say that you were the ‘unsung hero’ of Total Design, but your star has risen in recent years, especially with the publication of Design of a Lifetime. But perhaps Benno Wissing was even more of an ‘unsung hero’ and less well-known outside of the Netherlands. How do you rate him and his work when you look back now?

Early in my time at Total Design I started working a lot for Benno – he was a great teacher. In many ways I learned more from him than I did from Wim at the academy. Benno was very generous and was open to sharing his knowledge and skills. He was a great designer and became famous of course for his signage system at Schiphol Airport. Benno’s warm personality made him initially a valued colleague and eventually a true friend. I remember in 1968 he was quite moved by the Paris student protests – he had a rebellious spirit, which unfortunately coincided with his midlife-crisis.

He had a lot of personal difficulties at that time, and we drifted apart. Benno left TD finally in 1972 – this was a great disappointment for Wim who regarded Benno as his only true peer. Benno started his own small design group, remarried and ended up as Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the US. Sadly, a few years later he had a stroke and was paralysed. Happily in 1991, I was invited by the RISD to make a presentation and workshop and as a result Benno and I were reunited and renewed our friendship. After that we remained close and we visited him every year until he passed away in 2008. I wrote two small publications on Benno Wissing. One on the occasion of his Honorary Membership of the BNO, in 1992. I also made an exhibition of his work in the ‘new wing’ of the Stedelijk Museum. I wrote another article on him for a series called ROOTS which is produced by the designer Robert van Rixtel from Eindhoven. The issue on Wissing came out in 2002 – Elly and I also made a short film for the presentation of that ‘cahier’.

Looking back, yes I believe Benno was a truly great designer. His clients were very diverse, and in many ways, I think the challenges he faced – which many would say were less glamorous than Wim’s work in the cultural sector – marked him out as a highly-creative, versatile and innovative designer. The results of his work in identity design, signage for airports and hospitals, retail design and of course his work for the Holland Festival stand up to scrutiny even today. He was simply with Total Design for too short a time to reach the level of fame he truly deserved.

Ben Bos speaking at OFFSET Sheffield 2016

You are best known for your identity projects with Randstad and Ahrend. However, one of my personal favourites is the identity you made for Furness (Logistics & Distribution). In recent years, there has been a lot of talk in design circles about ‘modular’ or ‘dynamic’ identities, but surely this was one of the first examples? Can you tell me a little bit about the thinking behind that project?

Yes, of course. A personal favourite of mine also. Furness, HQ based in Rotterdam, was a multifaceted holding company. When we started to work for them back in 1968, all their business was related to maritime activities. They owned extensive quays, harbour and warehouse facilities in Rotterdam and Antwerp. They had a small fleet of sea-ships for the transport of liquid gas and were in the business of loading and unloading ships – they also had domestic and international road transport. Very soon they added activities in insurance, computer services, real estate and expanded into car and van dealerships. Many of their original activities were born through by mergers and acquisitions. So what they wanted from me was a ‘mother-logo’ for the holding company itself, as well as ‘related logos’ for the subsidiaries. I was attending the 1968 Icograda meeting in Eindhoven. On the first morning, during an interval, I drew one ‘maritime’ flag and added another one on its ‘tail’ and went on for a while.

I was almost convinced that I could form a whole circle that way – the circle of a holding company, ‘embracing’ the diverse divisions of the group. Colour for the holding company? Sea-green. That’s it, the concept for Furness was there! An hour later, there was an announcement –Russian tanks had invaded Prague to crush the Czechoslovakian uprising. There was great emotion. My colleague Stanislav Kovàr and his young daughter Zuzana were devastated and had to return home immediately. The Furness concept was accepted very shortly after that and I developed it with my assistant Wim van der Weerd, who eventually made the design guidelines manual. All divisions were colour coded and had their own specific logo. We applied the identity to all equipment, buildings, ships, vehicles and printed material – designing the internal and external magazines and annual reports for two decades. The project was celebrated and featured in a prestigious Japanese book on identity with 12 pages showing the variety of applications.

Our fee for the circle logo was 18,000 Guilders, the most expensive logo I had made to date and a record amount for those days! They were a very good client and were willing to accept advice. They were influenced a lot by us, especially in their personal behaviour – for instance their dress code became less formal, more like designers… And every year, when I completed the design of their report (which I did in their office, as the figures were confidential), when the last page was signed-off, we went to Holland’s best fishmonger restaurant next door, and had a marvellous dinner with the finest, fried sole.

Although your work for Ahrend is well documented and celebrated, curiously most of your work for them was before and after TD. I am interested in why Ahrend regarded you as their ‘man of ideas’ and I am also interested in your own little design studio FORMatie2, also formed a time during which you were busy working on projects for Ahrend.

When I joined Ahrend, I worked initially as a copywriter but soon developed new and innovative concepts for their publicity material. We produced a magazine for their clients and I came up with ideas, a new kind of prose and concepts. We won several national publicity awards for it. Soon after this success, my boss, the head of publicity, went to the board with a plan to exploit our creative reputation by turning us into a profit centre. He then invited a colleague of mine from Ahrend Hilversum to become the art director of our creative group. He wanted me to contribute to their work for external clients. I was angry about the situation and I let him know about it in no uncertain terms.
We didn’t speak one word more than necessary for a whole year. Happily in that year, the founders of Total Design approached me to join them so I could announce my departure. A few years later, Ahrend developed a very innovative new approach to office furniture design called Mehes, a distinctive furniture system which is still going strong today. So my former boss at Ahrend agreed a ‘peace deal’ in order to be able to give me the commission for the promotion of all new office products but now under my Total Design umbrella.
When I left Total Design in 1991, Ahrend organised a three-way pitch between Total Design, BRS and 2D3D, where I had gone to work. We won that pitch and it was the beginning of a new relationship. At the end 1993 I left 2D3D to make my hands free for Randstad USA and Ahrend. With my wife I founded a small studio which we called FORMatie2 and from there I continued to work for Ahrend until 2004, 50 years after my first contract. I then organised and designed a small furniture museum (Ahrend Mobilium) at their flagship store in Amsterdam.

Ben, we’ll finish our conversation there and thank you for being so open and honest. You have given us great insights into the history and workings of life at Total Design, a studio in which you were a vital player for 30 years, and that was arguably the most iconic European design group of the 20th Century. More importantly, it has been a privilege to learn more about your life and experiences as a designer.