This interview was recorded in London on 28 May 1999, and published in Slovenian translation in the cultural magazine ‘Emzin’ (vol. 9, nos. 1–2). In making this transcription, we have made some clarifications and expansions of what was said.
Petra Cerne Oven writes: Robin Kinross is a typographer, publisher, critic, and author of numerous articles in the field of visual communication and typography, published mainly in the UK, the Netherlands and the USA. He has contributed regularly to magazines such as Information Design Journal, Blueprint, Journal of Design History, and Eye. After secondary school, he studied English literature at (what was then) the North-West London Polytechnic in London, and then, from 1971, he studied Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading. He founded the publishing imprint Hyphen Press in 1980.
As I was looking for his house, it crossed my mind that he could hardly have thought of a better name for his enterprise. According to the Slovene dictionary, a hyphen is ‘a graphic symbol used to separate and link words’. Kinross’s dedication to graphic symbols used daily to create and pass on visual messages and his interest in the areas of typography that often seem to be ignored and neglected have resulted in some projects which have certainly not been ignored within typographic circles.
He is not a speaker; words come out of him after long pauses. As thoughts develop into sentences, more thoughts emerge and overtake the previous ones, and so throughout the interview he keeps correcting himself, keeps trying to specify his thoughts, and do subconsciously what he does day by day: arrange the text meticulously.
Being used to the sharpness, clarity and dislike of compromises in his written arguments, I am puzzled by the gentle voice and almost childlike curiosity which characterize his communication. He puts a bottle of water and two glasses on the table, laughing spontaneously and saying that he had seen it in ‘real interviews’ on TV.
PCO: Why did you decide to study typography, after English literature?
RK: It’s a complicated story. In fact I’d become interested in typography earlier on, when I was still at secondary school, about 15 years old. Actually this is quite a common story here in England. There was a little press at school. This was part of the art department: the drawing teacher had decided to get a press. Somehow I was drawn to this, especially setting type by hand. I can remember being so excited that I couldn’t sleep at night: it was that kind of real love. That always stayed in mind. I was persuaded to pursue respectable academic subjects, but I suppose I never lost that wish to make something. Doing literature, I did become unhappy and wanted to find something more practical. That was what happened. The Department of Typography at the University of Reading was still in a formative period – this was the early 1970s – and it wasn’t difficult to get in. In fact at that time it was called ‘The Typography Unit’ (within the Fine Art Department): a pleasantly marginal title. There was no heavy competition to get in then. Michael Twyman, the lecturer who had set up this Typography Unit, took anyone – well, not anyone, but he was very welcoming.
PCO: How did you know about Reading? You heard something?
RK: I’d read a review of Michael Twyman’s book Printing 1770–1970, which had just come out, and which said there was a course that he was running. So from that I knew about it.
There was another thing: while I was at secondary school there was another course, at Watford School of Art, run by Anthony Froshaug, whom I later became involved with, as a friend. Already at school I knew about that typography course, partly because we were living near to Watford, and I got the prospectus for it. Years later, I told Anthony this, and he said ’you’re probably the only one of us who still has a copy’. But I didn’t apply for that; it would have been at too low a level. And in fact the Watford course did not last long: they could not get enough good students.
Perhaps my story is not typical; but I have met quite a few people who find their way to typography indirectly: it can take quite a bit of time.
PCO: What was so influential at Reading? In Modern typography you write ‘many of the ideas put forward here have been everyday currency there’.
RK: To read the history of the activity, and to take history seriously, was one thing I learnt at Reading. And the idea of a body of literature of the subject. So: D.B. Updike’s book Printing types as this great work. Maybe it’s completely out of date, but you can learn from it. There’s a strength still in books like that. And also, what you see in Updike as well, the unity of theory and practice. Updike was a working printer; yet he was a historian. The two things went hand in hand. For me that is the best thing at Reading. The place still has some sense of the two things going together: history or theory, and practice. Often the same people would be teaching you one or the other, and in the same rooms. It’s very different from what happens in the London colleges, where you have two sets of teachers.
PCO: What would be the comparison Reading and other schools?
RK: A basic difference at Reading is the lack of a strong visual or drawing culture. There are no lessons in drawing. There is an art department, but it’s separated. I don’t know what the relations are like now. When I was at Reading, that Department of Fine Art (that was its proper name) was on another campus – the old campus in the middle of town. You had to get a bus to go there, and there was very little contact. I remember that one of our typography students wanted to learn etching at the art department, and Michael Twyman’s reply was ‘and what if you wanted to learn the flute?’. In other words, art was seen as just as relevant or irrelevant to typography as music. Michael did think fondly of a connection with architecture, but there was no architectural school at Reading. The Reading typography department was very much on its own. That was partly the idea of it. ‘We have contact with linguistics or sociology’ was the hope. In the days when I used to think about this, I did think that it could be a weakness. There weren’t the conversations that one might have with an architecture student or an industrial design student; which you would have, say, at the Royal College of Art or the other London colleges. Now one might contrast it with the typography course at Hague Royal Academy, which is very concentrated on typography, but it takes place in the context of an art school. The students there have a real strong visual sense.
PCO: So how do you actually describe yourself? Graphic designer or typographer or publisher?
RK: I used to say ‘typographer’, in the days when you had to say what you were in your passport. It was a matter of slightly romantic allegiance, because I never practised it in the way that most people do. I also did a lot of writing, and now I do a lot of editing – which means, reading other people’s writing, and working with texts and working with another designer. So I think now I’m an editor, and in the Continental sense, or the French sense of ‘editeur’. That also means ‘publisher’. I’m pleased with that idea; it has some of the same good qualities as ‘typographer’. It’s not so much visual production as word production. That’s what I do.
PCO: In your writing, one can see that you are interested in any other topics: architecture, sociology, languages. You explain graphic design or typography in relation to other areas.
RK: It’s been part of my development; though I don’t quite understand it. There is some family history. My mother was someone who could have worked in a publishing house – except she got married and had three children, and that was her life. But she was a wide reader, and a close and critical reader: very attentive to the writing. She would always read the things I’d written, and always said what she thought about them. So I guess she was a strong influence. This goes back to the last question about ‘editing’, and editors have to have a wide knowledge, or this is something they develop through working on other people’s writings. But the other thing here, which I can see also in friends of mine, is that we became interested in politics, and with that you develop a broad set of interests. The friend I’m thinking of in particular is Paul Stiff, now at Reading. We’re the same age and have had some of the same experiences. That period of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a strong political period. So, if you were at all involved in left-wing politics, it was natural to be interested in philosophy; you’d want to know what was going on in the cinema, what was happening in Latin America; you’d be reading English history. You had to be interested in a lot of things.
PCO: You accumulated a lot of ideas. Was that one of the reasons you established Hyphen Press, to put these ideas into reality?
RK: It wasn’t a conscious plan at all. It was something I fell into.
PCO: I know, but I have to ask you – because of the first book, What is a designer.
RK: Yes it happened with that book. There was something Anthony Froshaug once said to me: ’you’ve got the publishing bug as well.’ He’d had it too. A lot of people have it. It’s some wish to disseminate: to produce books or texts or information, and spread it around. Maybe it is a bug or a disease. There’s something I do continually: if I see a newspaper article that I think will interest someone else, I cut it out and give it to them. Or I make two photocopies, and give one to that friend and the other to someone else. Maybe that’s the publishing activity at its most basic: perhaps it’s an instinct rather than a disease.
Now to tell the story of the first book, Potter’s What is a designer. It had been important for me as a student at Reading. That’s where I discovered it. It was part of a large series, very cheap, and it really jumped out of that series (edited by John Lewis for Studio Vista). I thought the book was marvellous: it confirmed things for me, and it suggested fresh things. Then I began to hear about Norman Potter. He was part of this network of people that I had begun to become involved with. Anthony Froshaug was the main person I got to know. Froshaug was a very old and great friend of Potter. So that was how I met Norman Potter, by introduction. First I wrote a letter to him, saying ‘your book is out of print, why don’t you get it into print?’.
PCO: ‘Do so!’
RK: Indeed. Norman wrote back saying ‘well, actually I’m just think of doing that’. Norman was a special man. He was a romantic. At that time he was living on a small boat in Cornwall. He had a plan for a whole series of books: a writing programme. He said that he was thinking of writing a series of crisp pamphlets or packets (as typed sheets). He wasn’t really thinking of getting them printed. This was before I met him: we wrote a few letters first, then one or two phone calls. By this time I’d decided that I really wanted to work with him as an editor on this book. We weren’t sure who would publish it. We went together to Studio Vista, the first publisher, and said ‘either you reprint this book, or give us permission to do it’. By that time they’d already been taken over at least once by a larger company. It was clear that they weren’t in any position to do it. So then it was up to us to do what we wanted. That was when I became a publisher. At the back of this was that I’d inherited some money, so I knew I could pay the printing bill. It’s a dangerous position to be in. You can produce the book, but then you have 2500 books and you have to get rid of them. In some ways, it’s no help. Better is to struggle for that money: to start struggling before the book is produced, so that you are fired up to get the money back. But anyway, that was my position. The book grew to about twice as many words as the first edition had. I played the part of editor in this.
PCO: You were not just the publisher.
RK: Norman and I became partners. Not business partners, nor friend-partners. But linked together in a project. I don’t think he would have done the new edition without me. And I was certainly very much under his influence. That was a problem. I accepted too much. I think now that ideally he needed someone to say ‘no’ more often than I did. However, he used to complain about my lack of praise for him. He would say ’you’re a very hard editor!‘. So I wasn’t a complete push-over.
It’s quite a strange book. It was the ideal book for me, at that time. It had flaps on the cover, and it was printed letterpress. I think of it as ‘the last letterpress book’. The printer went out of business soon after it was done. It was like leaving the sinking ship of that technics: everything was going down, but, well, we produced this book.
PCO: Your book Modern typography was published in 1992, then reprinted in 1994. What is it that makes your approach different from other writers in this field?
RK: Since we’re talking about publishing, can I go back a bit? First I suggested it to another publisher, and I wrote it for them. Then I quarrelled with them and withdrew it. Then it was about five years before I decided to publish it myself. Part of this delay was in the process of showing it to other publishers, and waiting for their reply. It took a long time. I was already, in another part of me, a publisher. Except that I had some resistance to publishing my own work. I thought one shouldn’t do that. But after publishing Potter’s second book Models & Constructs, I was on my way to being a more serious publisher, and then I decided to do Modern typography myself. I remember a long conversation with Norman Potter and a common friend, in her garden, one summer evening. Norman persuaded me. He was a brilliant arguer: fantastically strong in reasoning. He said something like: ‘You have to publish it yourself. That’s part of the content.’ He thought that the book itself should be a kind of demonstration: an exisistential acting-out. Perhaps it’s like asking a composer if they can play the piece that they have composed. It’s an exaggeration, but publishing the book myself was a kind of validation of what I was arguing. Certainly the form of the book, the design of it – although now I’m not happy with that – I felt this had to confirm or support the arguments of the book. That was a strong issue with the people for whom I wrote it. They never paid me anything, but let’s say they commissioned it. They wanted a lot of pictures in the book. I wanted some pictures, but I didn’t want it to be a picture book. I wanted it to be relatively small, and they wanted quite a big book. That was when I fell out with them. And that was always an argument with the other publishers I showed it to. I wanted to try another approach. The picture section is a bit of an experiment: just a few items and shown like butterflies in a case, on 32 pages, and with quite long captions. There were a few other things like this: not unique, but not the obvious way either. This is the kind of freedom you have as your own publisher.
PCO: What about the content? I’m thinking of your idea that modern typography started 250 years after Gutenberg. That was quite a new approach?
RK: Yes, but I can think of some quite important precedents. Well, there was a conversation and a book, which helped me to come to this view. The book was Kenneth Frampton’s Modern architecture: a critical history, which has exactly the same span. Frampton has always been important for me. He’s an architect originally, also British by birth and training, though he now lives in New York. After some years of professional practice, he became an architectural critic and historian. He is someone who has tried to maintain the theory-practice link. Some years ago he took a year off from his position as a teacher of architectural history (at Columbia University, New York), to go back to work in an architectural office. I don’t know how this worked out, but it was a sign of his desires. I wrote with his suggestions in my mind, and his book was a good model. And at the back of Frampton’s book is the theory of Jürgen Habermas about ‘the continuing project of modernity’ (he published it first in a lecture of 1980), which I quoted at the start of my book, as a kind of hypothesis, which I would test. The conversation was one I once had with James Mosley, at the time of a great Neoclassical exhibition in London in the 1970s, put on by the Council of Europe. James made some remark like ‘well, this is modernism, isn’t it?’, referring to this culture of the time of the French Revolution of 1789, and just before. That turned a switch in my mind.
I really wanted to take another view. There had been so much emphasis on the great movements of twentieth century design and art: all the ‘isms’ of Cubism, Suprematism, blah blah blah. That stuff may be true, but I wanted to let in some fresh air, and one way of doing that is to change the perspective.
I suppose the most telling and consistent criticisms I’ve had of the book is from people who have said that I give a narrow account: that I’m arguing for a narrow rationality. For example, one of these critics was Gérard Mermoz. We had some polemics in Emigre magazine. He complained that I’d left out Dadaism, because it doesn’t fit with my thesis about rationalism and the development of reason. It’s a good point. I was consciously deciding not to give much attention to Dadaism. I felt it had had enough attention and I wanted to look at what I thought were less fashionable, less celebrated things: for example, the history of measurement. This could be very boring – although I find it rather interesting – but anyway, it hardly features in the existing histories of typography.
PCO: The book is out of print. If you re-publish it, will you change things, or do you think it is still …
RK: No, no! It’s a difficult matter though. I do intend to revise it and publish it again. I think it will get longer. One of my clear wishes is to write more about other cultures in Europe. It was a very North European view of the world. I’d like to have some discussion of the Latin cultures, meaning Italian, also Spanish, even some words about Portugal – in the periods when they were interesting cultures. So, obviously, Italy in those years between the two world wars; and maybe earlier too. One of the things I felt I was discovering was the fact that different cultures have interesting periods in typography, as in anything else. It depends on a lot of factors, I’m sure. It’s like a spotlight moving around. You don’t try for a consistent coverage. You rest it on what’s interesting. Now I begin to think that I should have a look at the Far Eastern cultures. Maybe I should make the effort to look at what’s been happening in Japan. My first thought had been: that’s another script, and it’s a completely separate world; it’s far too difficult for me to know anything about Chinese or Japanese typography. Even Russian and Greek typography I excluded for these reasons. All those people who write about Russian typography, without knowing a word of Russian: it seems superficial, or certainly unsafe. But maybe I should become a bit more adventurous.
PCO: There are some people there who you could have contact with. I heard about the ParaType foundry in Moscow, for example, and Maxim Zhukov in New York.
RK: Right. And he was someone I only met about three or four years ago. Now this is the other big thing I want to think about. I wrote that book around 1985. So what happened four years later? We had those big changes in Europe and Russia. People say the world changed in 1989, and I think it did. There are a lot of assumptions in that book which I should try to reconsider. I’m especially thinking of Germany. One of the important experiences for me was going to East Germany in 1987, and in fact that did make me revise the first version of the book a bit. I gave some place to East German culture. That was something new, from the British perspective. No one had really bothered to think about it – or they had thought in their heads, but no one had written it down. Now East German culture has gone, officially at least.
The whole thesis about modernity is affected by these changes. Put briefly, it is a political thesis, about the spreading of enlightenment, the spreading of democracy. In fact this book here [on the table] is relevant: T.J. Clark’s Farewell to an idea, published this year. It has exactly the span we’re talking about, from the eighteenth century to 1989. Well, I’d thought all this before I’d heard of Clark’s book, because it’s obvious. Modernism is connected to socialism, to ideas of social progress. So when this vision of the world – communism or socialism – comes to an end, at that point in 1989, one couldn’t believe any more in that romantic idea. Something happened then.
I had the difficulty that I’d written the book before 1989, but was publishing it after 1989, somewhat ‘on autopilot’, not wanting to rethink what I’d done. And, emotionally, I didn’t and still don’t want to let go of the hope of progress. I was holding out for some vision of a good state of things, and beating off these … I don’t know. I see some lonely journey through difficult country, as in a Western movie. The Indians are attacking, and the lonely waggon carries on. That’s a bit of fantasy, and now I don’t think you need to bother with those visions any more. The whole thing is different.
PCO: You are interested in different countries, and you publish books by authors from other countries. What are the stories behind this?
RK: To give it credit, ATypI (the Association Typographique Internationale) has been important here, especially the conference they organized at Oxford in 1990. That was a way of meeting and becoming friends with people in other countries, and feeling you had colleagues there. That was how I met Jost Hochuli (although in fact we’d met earlier, when I was a student); but we re-met in 1990, and our collaboration grew from that.
There’s another thing, which I can’t explain very well, but I was always drawn to people who’d come to Britain from other places. In the years when I was a student, very often that meant people who had emigrated here in the 1930s and 1940s, especially from the German-speaking world. I suppose I felt that this place is an island, is limited in what it offers: the foreigners who have come here contribute something. It was always very exciting and attractive. I can remember vividly how I met Marie Neurath: seeing her across the room and hearing her Germanic English. She had a great dignity, was beautiful – she had an aura about her. It was a way of breaking out of England, to know such people.
There’s something else. Both my parents were Scottish, but I was born down here in England. I think I never felt completely English. There was always some sense of difference. We’d go back to Scotland for holidays, and had relations there; as a child, on special occasions, I proudly wore a kilt. Sometimes it’s been almost obsessive – not to like anything in England. Well, people have those phases: disliking your country, or where you’re living.
PCO: The people you present or write about are not at all international stars. They are not ‘great designers’.
RK: It’s a matter of belief; though, again, I don’t know where it came from. I suffer from a certain moralism. I’ve tended to make moral arguments, such as: ‘this person has been neglected and should be better known’, or ‘this is an honest man; the world is full of dishonest people who are always in the headlines, why don’t we pay attention to the ones who aren’t in the headlines.’ I’m now quite curious about my friend and greatly honoured colleague Karel Martens. He was a good case of this. With people like him, you always meet them through friends. My first Dutch friend was Françoise Berserik; we were students together at Reading, and ever since then, I had a friend in Holland. Before she came to Reading (on a one-year ‘ad hoc’ course), Frans had also been a student at Arnhem, and just as at Reading or any college, there’s a group of people around the town who are students, teachers. So she knew Karel in that way: he had been a student and later a teacher there. That was how I met him: going to Holland, and Frans saying ‘why don’t you go and see Karel?’ So I met this man who I thought was doing very special work, and a tremendously nice and good person too. He and his wife Lous offered to put me up for the night before they had even met me. Not immediately, but after a bit, I wrote something about his work. Also I used him as the best example of what I was arguing in Modern typography. His work provides the last illustration. It is like the case of, say, a music critic who finds the present-day composer who exemplifies their theories. You support that artist.
PCO: He was your composer.
RK: Yes, he was. But it got more complicated.
PCO: He won an award.
RK: Yes, he began to become a celebrated person. When I met him early in 1991 there was a small group of people in Holland who knew him and respected him. But now in Holland anyone interested in design would know about him, and in other countries too. He’s a good example, because he’s not at all a public person. He doesn’t like to give lectures, and he’s not very good at that. He stutters a little, sometimes. He doesn’t have a public persona. But he’s entered the public consciousness more than I might have expected. For example, he’s got a permanent teaching position at Yale University: he goes there once a year to teach a project. He’s never been like some monk in a monastery, but things are more open for him now. Also one of the features of his work is that it’s not dogmatic. He is open to the world, and lets himself makes mistakes. He collaborates a lot with other people. For example, this issue of the magazine Oase [on the table] was done with a student. It was done in the Werkplaats Typografie (Typography Workshop), which is the course or ‘institute’ (they use that word ironically) which he set up in Arnhem with Wigger Bierma, an old student of his. With some of the things Karel has done, if he’d done them alone, they’d look different. He really does collaborate, and usually with younger, less experienced people. What happens is not pure. It’s not like the great designer who pursues their own style, with a studio that reproduces the work of the master.
The first big change in Karel’s life, after I had met him, was that he got a teaching job at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht: a radical institution. It’s a place where you have to be avant-garde. You have to be constantly confronting and critical. It’s tough for students. I think they get frightened. All the time they’re expected to be shocking and amazing. Some of them hardly do anything …
PCO: Too much pressure.
RK: Yes, too much pressure. I’m sure Karel was affected by this school. Some of the things that have happened there have had some meaning. He’s no longer teaching there, except in a token way. But I’m sure that he was changed in some way by the experience. One reaction was that he went the opposite way, in teaching. He set up this very small, very practical course, as a cell within the art school at Arnhem. There aren’t any lessons. People do real jobs and the learning happens through this, at the desk. It’s an experiment. I don’t know any other place like this.
This relation with Karel has been very important for me. It’s all that one could wish for, really: meeting somebody like that, and doing things with them. I learn from him; maybe he learns something from me, I don’t know. There is someone else I’ve had something like this with – Richard Hollis. I’ve written about both of them. I can’t remember which one of them it was, but I once said, as a joke: ‘did my article get you some more work?’ And whoever it was – I think it may have been Richard – said: ‘no, but it gave me confidence.’ I think with Richard I was the first person to write anything about his work, so maybe it was true. In fact both parties get something from this. It’s a two-way process.
Karel has been very important for my Froshaug book. This project has been going on so long; at certain stages it has just stopped. At one point he said to me: ‘we should meet every month, and we’ll talk about what you’ve done.’ Like a tutor. That was tremendous, and there he was giving me confidence.
PCO: You have mentioned Marie Neurath. You wrote your MPhil thesis on Isotype, and you knew her as well. Can you say something about Isotype: what it is, and what is its importance.
RK: Let’s say it has two dimensions. One is purely historical: what happened at the time. The other is something more essential, about ways of organizing information. That second dimension is the one that still needs explanation and propagandizing. The first dimension is pretty interesting too. Where it comes from is Vienna in 1925 and this strange figure of Otto Neurath. He’s one of those people who doesn’t really fit in anywhere. In some ways he was living outside of his time. He also had a romantic idea about the Enlightenment: those people who know everything, are in touch with many areas of knowledge, and can bring that knowledge together. So he was involved with projects of encyclopedic knowledge, especially later on in his life. There was the almost crazy project of the ‘Encyclopedia of Unified Science’. But in Vienna after 1918 there was a remarkable local political development, especially in housing. Isotype really comes from a housing museum, explaining to the people what was going on in the city’s housing projects. In a way it’s quite banal. A town council and a little museum: nothing special. One of the enduring lessons is of the team who came together to make this work. Otto Neurath was a consultant figure. Marie Neurath was the intermediary who did the detailed, planning work: the designer, we’d say, or ‘transformer’ was their term. Then Gerd Arntz was the main artist they employed, who had a brilliant talent for simple graphic marks. He was an intelligent man – not just the dumb artist. He contributed a lot. Those three were the core of it.
Then because of politics in the 1920s and 1930s, and because they had international ambitions, they spread the work to other parts of Europe, also to the USA, and they had that adventure in the USSR. Because they had a utopian vision of international communication, no part of the world …
PCO: Was out of reach!
RK: Yes exactly. Neurath did have a manic aspect. He was someone who couldn’t stop working, who sees endless possibilities. He’s a curious case. Partly he has completely utopian hopes. Partly he’s a realistic man, who knows you have to make friends with the chairman of the town council: be nice on Thursday because the vote will happen on Friday – there’s all that local politics in it. I think Neurath was quite good at that.
The great thing of Isotype, which is what Michael Twyman saw when he discovered it and then got the archive for Reading, is the logic of arrangement. It’s not simply putting things in rows from left to right. For example, take the famous births and deaths chart, with the births going one way and the deaths the other way. It’s a simple thing, but already there you have something that begins to be complex. It has a system that you may be able to put into words and tell someone else how to do it. Except that in the imitations of Isotype, you see how other people misunderstand it. The imitations look crude. The things that Marie Neurath did are the true Isotype. It’s a familiar paradox. You develop a system. In principle you can tell other people how to do the work. But when it comes to it, you realize that it’s actually a little bit more complicated. You begin to think that it needs the original people to do it right. In other words, it’s more like art than it is like science or method. What that art is is not exactly mysterious, but it’s a subtle matter. That was what my dissertation was about: describing all these charts, and trying to explain how they worked – some of the visual subtleties in them. It’s like a lot of design that’s any good. It’s not art. It’s serving a function; it’s useful stuff. But there are a lot of complexities in how it’s made.
PCO: How was it possible for them to accomplish it all. Did they have quite big offices, with people who drew for them?
RK: They had a short period, around 1928—30, when they were really very busy for a publication called Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft. It was a big portfolio or folder of 100 charts, for the Bibliographisches Institut in Leipzig. There was a good fee for the work and they could employ several artists. There was a network of people who were invited or who in fact came to Vienna. One who came was Peter Alma from the Netherlands; and the Dutch designer Piet Zwart was invited but didn’t come. One has the impression of designers coming from all over Europe to work there. Tschichold was another. It’s a bit like, let’s say, MetaDesign and FontShop in Berlin now. Something is happening and people come to work there from other countries, maybe they stay just for a year or so. Maybe they’ve just graduated or they are still mobile people. I think this did happen with the Neurath group, to some extent.
PCO: Was that part of the idea that the work should travel?
RK: Well, you can see that when these people got back home, they began to do some things in the same spirit. That wasn’t planned. What was consciously planned was to open branches in other countries. That happened. I think it was something of the period. It was a time of some sort of international spirit, of realizing that world communications were developing. The paradox was that it was also the time of looming world – or European – disaster. That’s the dreadful paradox of the whole modern movement in Europe. You get this crazy optimism. But also you can see the clouds coming, if you dare to look into the sky: these terrible things are going to happen. Neurath knew that. For example, they had branches in London, in New York, in The Hague. When things got bad in Austria, they would have a place to go to. The branch in London was more or less a cupboard in someone else’s office. To go back to the Reading collection, some of those charts are there because they were there in London in 1934, then through the war years. I’ve forgotten the details, but it is true that the things that survived of this work were the things that were not in Vienna in 1934. The things in Vienna then were all destroyed.
PCO: They left everything in Vienna in 1934?
RK: Yes. They had already opened the branch in the Netherlands a few years before: there was stuff already there.
PCO: That stuff came to England?
RK: Some of it, later on. Some is now in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. There was one of those brave Dutch people (John Pront) who looked after material through the war years, when it might of been difficult for him if this had been discovered.
PCO: What happened after the war?
RK: Otto and Marie Neurath left the Netherlands in 1940, just as the Germans were invading, and came (in a boat) to England. They were interned at first, as with all ‘enemy aliens’ in Britain then, but after release, they resumed their work. They did some very touching and nice work during the war here – in books and films. Gerd Arntz, the artist, was originally from Germany and was called up to fight in the German army. After the war he stayed in the Netherlands, and kept on doing Isotype-like work, as well as pursuing his work as an artist.
Isotype was, of course, always part of its context. The things that happened after the time in Vienna were different. You might say there isn’t any one Isotype: it’s what happened in these various situations and contexts. You can see this idea of universal communication, and a method of how to do it. Maybe it would be the end of pictorial communication, with a method for how to do it. Except that it was made by particular people in particular circumstances in a certain period. This work is there in Reading, but I still regret that there isn’t one properly published account of it.
PCO: Your thesis?
RK: I should have tried harder, at the time, to get it published. Now it’s an ancient document. I did have an idea of a small book which would explain what this is all about.
PCO: How to make it?
RK: No, I resist that. It’s not a recipe. It’s more like reading a recipe, then putting it away, and then …
PCO: Create your own.
RK: Yes, it’s more like a few very simple, important basic rules. But it doesn’t tell you how to make the whole dish.
PCO: What about things that have been done after Isotype, for example Otl Aicher’s pictograms? How has Isotype influenced such things?
RK: The pictograms are a bit misleading. It’s not the whole story. My idea of the whole story is that it’s about arrangement or configuration of elements, words and images. I don’t think influence matters, except in a deep way. I hope that, people respect it and carry on some of the traditions. There’s another topic that I’ve been a supporter of. This is the system for British road signs, developed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert in the late 1950s and 1960s. I would say that their original system of signs has something of the same spirit as Isotype. This means the pictograms, yes, but also the whole system of deployment of elements: the treatment of words, the colours. There is a way of thinking here that you can find in other places. (Here I could add that at some point I realized that it is this ‘way of thinking’ that links all of my persistent interests: Tschichold, Froshaug, Isotype, Jock Kinneir, Karel Martens … ) But there has been this mania for pictograms and logos everywhere …
PCO: It came from Isotype?
RK: I don’t know. But certainly with logos, they stop you thinking.
PCO: Is graphic design history important for graphic design education?
RK: This may come back to what we said about Reading. I’m very suspicious of separated history. Why should I think of this comparison? But anyway, if you are training soldiers, maybe you have lectures on the history of battles. I can just about understand that. In the same way, if you are training graphic designers, should you have lectures separate from doing projects? For me, the history of graphic design should be quite an integrated view, and a realistic one, like a history of war: this was the campaign, this was what happened in this battle, how much did it cost, who got killed, what was the weather like. That’s what would excite me. Not ‘here is a great poster from 1933 – here is another great poster from 1817’. What I want more is ‘this poster from 1817 was made because of the great interest in – whatever the topic is, and there was a development in printing technique which made it possible to make it so big, and there was an enlightened customer who had this much money to spend, but he ran out of money and this is why there were only …’ In other words, a more realistic level of discussion. I’ve seen that students who don’t think they are interested in history are actually interested in this kind of discussion: they are drawn into it; it connects to their own experience. The great hope is that by focusing on some things in detail, you can tell a lot – much more than if you see 100 posters but don’t hear anything about them.
PCO: For that sort of method, you need a lot of material.
RK: Yes. You need to do some work as well! Or someone has to do a lot of research. You see this all the time in those terrible lectures where a designer shows their work. But they can be interesting when the designer shows the project and tells the story. If they can step back a bit and give some idea of what was going on at the time, put themselves into some relation to other things.
PCO: How should graphic design education change now, in response to the changes in context and technology?
RK: I’m not the person to ask this of. I feel too outside the topic. I mentioned Karel Martens’s attempt, with the workshop he’s co-leading. That’s a great thing, but I know you can’t apply this generally. It can only happen as an exception. So I can’t throw light on this. Here I remember friends who had no education and seem to be fine, as designers.
PCO: You already began to answer a question I had about the graphic design stars who are preaching at conferences around the world. Sometimes they just repeat the same stories. How do you see this phenomenon of the graphic designer as star? There are a few designers who are famous all around the word: all the students know them. I don’t want to name them. It’s a phenomenon of our time.
RK: Of course, I don’t like it at all. I can be as cruel and nasty as you want – against these things, these people! I was quite intrigued by Neville Brody as a phenomenon. Was he perhaps the first of them?
PCO: Yes, more or less.
RK: Perhaps because I know him, or knew him, a little … With Neville, or someone like him, one would say he’s an anti-star. He would say he doesn’t like hype. Those people come originally from the punk culture, and they are against large corporations. Now to forget about particular people, the paradox is this. The critical, independent music culture is against stars. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like to think they don’t like heroes. And yet, at the same time, they …
PCO: Are producing them.
RK: Yes, and they go to large concerts, and there’s a kind of hysteria there, with people waving their hands above their heads. It doesn’t attract me. Well, I come from an earlier culture, and an earlier generation. We were against heroes. As Brecht said, we wanted ‘a land without heroes’. We thought that heroes only brought disasters. We were in favour of equality and collaboration, working without hierarchy. All those ideas. They are ideas I still hold to. I want to carry on with them.
PCO: What kind of disaster did these heroes bring?
RK: [Hearty laugh.]
PCO: I ask because they are producing clones around the world.
RK: I try to avoid it. But I can remember someone telling me: they were at one of these lectures, and as the lecturer came out of the hall there was a queue of people waiting for him to sign his book for them. It didn’t seem healthy. It stops people thinking for themselves – if all they are thinking about is the latest work of the hero.
PCO: Do you think, in this connection, that the role of advertising is playing an ever greater role?
RK: That’s another step backwards. We thought that graphic design was something that had cut itself off from advertising. In the 1920s and 1930s, this was the development: there was advertising and there was commercial art. Graphic design came out of commercial art. It wanted to do more useful things. It was graphic work at the service of people. Not trying to seduce them, but giving them information: being useful in the world. Now, the latest period seems to be one in which the commercial culture is so strong that it swallows everything. Everywhere you go, you can see a logo – a Nike symbol or whatever. Art has hoped to be a place of refuge from commerce, but even in a catalogue for an art exhibition, you’re with it: who is the sponsor of the exhibition? A bank? It begins to affect those tasks which you thought were just making useful graphic information. Should it be an advertisement for this company as well? It seems like a step backwards.
PCO: A lot of design is judged through the eyes of advertising. Awards for design reflect this. The general population sees just these huge posters, they don’t see the small things …
RK: The old tradition of the poster artists now seem much more attractive. I used to think they were nice, but superficial. Now one takes more pleasure in it, if it still exists. I used to dream that it existed in the old East Bloc. Really delightful posters, without obvious advertisting content – theatre posters …
PCO: Well, theatres don’t have money for billboards. Billboards are made by McDonalds or that sort of company.
RK: Those cylindrical things are what I’m thinking of. It was a kind of public museum. Sure, the posters were advertising something, there was also an idea that this was art for the street. Also it was specific to a particular country. You wouldn’t see McDonalds everywhere. You’d go to Prague and it would be different from Budapest.
PCO: You said that some of the areas of design are neglected. Or maybe we designers think they are neglected. People don’t feel responsible for designing a boring timetable for a bus company, and clients are not interested in that.
RK: I think it follows from the circumstances. If you mention timetables here in Britain, they really follow from the bus or train companies. The timetables used to be very good here, but now they are not good at all; or certainly there is no good comprehensive timetable for the whole railway network, because it has been split up and is run by different companies. You can explain that by the culture or the circumstances. Do they want to spend the money on providing this information? If you’re a commercial company, probably you can get away with minimum information. If they would do it thoroughly, perhaps they have to spend too much time and money on it.
PCO: Does that still mean that designers should teach the clients that they need this? I know that the public services here are becoming private now. They should care more about this …
RK: This is a great problem in Britain. The development has been away from the public realm, away from any idea of public conscience or consciousness. You’re right. It is partly the responsibility or the initiative of the designer, to open the eyes of a client. Of course that is very often what happens in design. The client comes with an idea in their mind, saying ‘do this’, because it’s what they already know. So the designer may say ‘well, there are other ways: why don’t you do that’. Yes, it should be that kind of dialogue.
PCO: I remember your article [in Information Design Journal, vol. 7, no. 1] about MetaDesign’s work for the transport authority in Berlin. If MetaDesign had such problems, in such a chaotic situation, one wonders how anyone can do anything.
RK: Yes, except that was relatively early in their career. The MetaDesign phenomenon is an interesting one. I don’t know if it’s still true, but Erik Spiekermann used to say that in Germany design is done by advertising agencies. His attempt with MetaDesign was to try and make something that would be a force against the advertising agencies. That was why they grew it, so that it would have ‘clout’, to use an English expression. If you have 40 people working in an office, the client already believes in you. If they are a big company – like the Post Office – they want to deal with another big company, or at least a biggish one. They can’t believe in 3 people in an office; they want to see 40 people there. Going back to the designers I’ve been involved with – Erik Spiekermann has been another, though I haven’t seen him often recently. I wrote what I think was the first article in English about his practice, for Blueprint in 1987. Around then I heard this story from him: that ‘we could do two things: stay small’ – as they were at that time, about four of them, more or less hippies, guys with long hair in a room in Berlin – or they could decide ’we’re going to do something’. They decided to do something. I think it’s an honourable course to take.
PCO: And to what extent is there an ethical responsibility in graphic design. Now we can start to talk about reading – you wrote something about this in Fellow readers.
RK: It’s not easy. You can’t really define these things. But it’s certainly one of the differences between postmodernism and what I thought was or is modernism. This is one way of getting into this topic. I – not just me – we thought that postmodernism was cynical; it didn’t have (in certain definitions, at least) any sense of seriousness or – I really hesitate with the word ‘ethical’ – but something along those lines. There are all those arguments about honest construction, or good materials: a long tradition of argument about truth in design. For example, if you are making a building, and you have the main structure in steel, but then put some bricks on the outside walls, like wallpaper, then they are not part of the structure. So that is something one could disagree with. One could say that’s dishonest design. To be honest design, those bricks should be supporting the roof. And bricks are a lot of labour, put in place one by one. Could you not find a simpler way of making that wall? That’s why one takes architecture: the arguments are easy to see. With graphic design – the arguments are really not so important.
I can remember another story of Karel Martens. One of his students at the Jan van Eyck Akademie at Maastricht had designed a poster. Visually it was quite exciting. It used some recently developed ink. When the poster arrived in an envelope, it smelled â€“ it was quite unpleasant. I am on the mailing list of the Jan van Eyck, and I got one through the post: it struck me forcibly. Karel told me that he had said to the student that this was no good: ‘you should not make stinky posters’, as he put it. The poster was about a lecture or a conference; there was no purpose in the smell; it was just a bit of thoughtless work. OK, no one got hurt. But Karel’s point was ‘the smell is part of the poster too’. It’s not ethics in the sense of life or death. But there’s a certain …
PCO: There are interesting questions. Nobody gets killed because of the colour of a poster. But, for example, with safety instructions in an aeroplane, graphic design has a serious role.
RK: Yes, there’s the whole field of information design. That’s where people would go if they really want to do socially useful graphic design; or working for charities.
PCO: These are areas where there is usually not much money. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
RK: Yes, these are interesting areas.
PCO: What about the question of reading, perhaps a hot topic. You criticized the idea that the designer should interpret the text for the reader. How do you look on – what do you call it? Postructuralism?
RK: Yes, or ‘deconstruction’. I think that argument has gone away now. But certainly four or five years ago, it was there. I’m not sure why I got so involved. It certainly was an argument, that’s the right word. There were people making these manifestos, even, about what graphic design could or should be. My attempt was to discuss the arguments, and not the design that followed, or was said to follow, from the arguments. I thought the arguments were bad ones, and false. If you see what you think is confusion, and you think you know what the muddle is, then you go and say to the people saying these things ‘look, you’re confused’. [laughs] I begin to think that people found that quite strange. In graphic design, that is not so expected. Of course in philosophy or in history or other such areas, it happens all the time. That’s partly what philosophy is: people saying ‘look, this is what’s going on here’.
There is another thing I began to realize, which is that there was a specifically American dimension to this. It connects with what is called political correctness, which I begin to think is largely a matter of people surviving in a multi-cultural society. It becomes very dangerous to criticize anyone for anything. The immediate way in which someone will respond to criticism is to say ’I’m a black person; I’m a woman; I’m gay; I’m a disabled person; I’m an old person; I’m a young person.’ Everything comes down to what you are. There is no room for ‘is this a good argument? is this a bad argument? does it make sense?’ All you can say is ‘look at me’. It’s what is called identity politics. There were some arguments I had with people, where I felt I really couldn’t say anything, because I would be taken as criticizing them personally. I suppose this became a wish of mine: to make arguments for some sort of objectivity. So that it is possible to make remarks about a piece of work that is in the world, without any criticism of the person who made it.
I guess it all became quite muddled, with several kinds of argument happening at once. Plus, a lot of half-understood theory, with people just parroting things. A student at Central Saint Martins once told me ‘we had a lecture, and we were told that common sense doesn’t exist’. I felt I knew for sure what that lecturer had been saying: ‘common sense is the voice of authority; it’s a kind of repression; it’s your parents telling you to behave properly: “it’s common sense” they say’.
PCO: They reduce the idea.
RK: Yes. And I sympathize with this a lot. All of us have been teenagers. We know those problems. But that is too simple. If you throw everything away, then you end up with nothing – or with complete freedom, with individuals saying ‘I have a right to do this; don’t say anything about me, because you’re interfering with my personal rights’.
I’m not sure how this really connects with the deconstruction arguments. But I think it does, because part of that argument is to say that each reader makes his or her own reading: ’don’t interfere with the reading that I am making; it’s mine.’ So yes, to boil it down, that was what that was all about. And now I think it has passed on. What is fashionable now, in purely visual terms, is not that wild deconstruction. Things have changed.
PCO: In connection with the question of theory: it is interesting that in this visual era, so many graphic designers have started to write about graphic design, as critics, as journalists. I’m interested in why this is happening, and I wonder about the quality of what is written – if these writers don’t have much practice in writing.
RK: It depends. I would forgive anyone who can write nicely. (As W.H. Auden wrote in his poem about W.B. Yeats, who got involved with some doubtful politics: ‘Time that with this strange excuse / Pardoned Kipling and his views, / And will pardon Paul Claudel, / Pardon him for writing well.’) But one would judge design on what is produced, not on whether the desiger can write well. Why this is happening, I’m not sure. I think some of it has to do with the rise of education. People think that a way of gaining credibility, or simple academic points, is to write articles. Having written a book is a kind of status symbol. You have married a nice-looking husband or wife, you have a car, you have good clothes, and you have a book with your name on the cover. Superficially, it’s just another piece of equipment. I’ve met and heard and seen enough designers to have an idea that there is a bit of truth in what I’m saying. Certainly it’s true with design practices. Just to have a book about what they have done is like a badge or a passport.
PCO: Something they can show.
PCO: And how do you see the status of graphic design criticism – compared to literary criticism or film criticism.
RK: It is still uncertain; in fact I don’t know if it has any status. One of the difficulties about it is that often you’re touching on more sensitive areas than you are with reviewing books, say. And also, in graphic design the criteria are not clear at all. Most people would agree that it’s not a simple question of formal criteria. It’s not like art criticism, where there is some idea of what success in a painting or a sculpture could be. You can talk about good work and bad work. But with graphic design, it’s not just one person making something. Usually it’s several people causing something to be made by other people; the client is there, playing an important part. It’s much more complicated. You can’t judge so quickly as you can with painting or a novel. I don’t think that anyone has worked out how to do this properly yet. Now in Britain we have these competitions: for a time there was a BBC TV design competition, and so on. So you get ‘the best product design of the year’. It’s really a lottery. I mean: who knows? There’s a network of people who are in the design world, who know each other, who know what is going on within this circuit. The writers write about the things that the other writers have already written about. I’m not sure what general rules there are.
PCO: Can design criticism help in the development of the profession?
RK: I think that it can be part of some sort of public dialogue. So the designers would read what the critics have written: that part of the dialogue happens. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but there used to be a missionary job that had to be done, to explain that there is this thing called graphic design. Perhaps people still don’t know what it is, really. Just to talk about it, to say ‘that was designed’, was one function of the graphic design critic. That is before you ever go on to say ‘this is good; this is bad’. I don’t know if that battle has been won or not.
I’ve had this discussion a lot with Rick Poynor, the first editor of Eye magazine. He’s a missionary in this. He still believes in the necessity of public criticism, and raising the consciousness of graphic design.
PCO: He calls it critical journalism
RK: Yes. I thought of him yesterday, because he wrote an article for The Guardian, in their supplement called ‘Space’. It’s usually about architecture and interior design. [Fetches and opens the magazine.] I haven’t really read his piece, but it’s about these symbols which are certainly graphic design, about male cancer.
PCO: He was a pioneer in this field, or he made a big impact with Eye.
RK: Yes, certainly he’s the most articulate and convincing person I know in this field. One of Rick Poynor’s important arguments is that he is very sure about the question of quality in writing: it’s not enough just to say true things; it has to be well written. I think that is part of his argument. (I might add that truth is a function of good writing: can’t be separated from it; and writing can only be good in so far as it is true; though this might contradict the lines from Auden that I quoted.) That was always a great struggle in running Eye. Rick would always say they didn’t get enough good writing. He had to spend too much time rewriting what came in. It’s a continuing problem. There’s a lack of people in this field who can write.
PCO: What will happen to Eye now that Rick Poynor has left?
RK: It’s now edited by Max Bruinsma. He’s Dutch and lives in Amsterdam. The magazine has a hands-off feeling to it. I mean like a bicycle with no one holding the … [laughs] It also got a new designer, by coincidence. The old designer and editor had left at the same time, more or less. This new designer plays a much stronger role, affecting the editing of the mazine. I’m not involved with the magazine at all now – I was before, slightly – but when I talked with someone else with a similar relation to it, we agreed that it’s a design—led magazine now, and the writing plays a secondary role. [After this was recorded, Max Bruinsma left Eye; it is now edited by John Walters.]
PCO: Compared to what it was before?
RK: Yes. I’m not sure if anyone would have noticed this, but the writing was carefully edited before. Perhaps it didn’t make a strong impression, just looking at the magazine, but it was carefully done. Now, if you look, you can see that the writing has slipped. There are things in it which I know Rick Poynor would not have allowed.
PCO: Design criticism has mainly been written by people who have been art historians. To what extent can art historians explain design?
RK: I might say ‘not at all’. It depends. I don’t see anything in art history that prepares you for design. This goes back to something I said earlier, about being interested in the process of how things happen. But, having said all that, I should acknowledge that art history has changed. It has become more historical or more social. What I meant was the old idea of looking at paintings, and the details of how a hand was painted, and tracing the influence of a preceding artist, and being able to check whether the hand was painted by Rembrandt or by an imitator – that sort of art history. I don’t think that’s any use to design. Of course, what is useful is any training or discipline that teaches you to look at the whole story of what happens. But I would react against the suggestion that art history is in a special position, and this derives from the historical situation in Britain. In the old art schools, if design was taught there, then any history or criticism was done by the art history people. Design was treated as just part of art, not seen separately. There was a kind of arrogance about this: design was just a part of the territory of art, and it wasn’t seen as art anyway. It was more or less like compost in a vegetable garden; something like that – just a load of rubbish. I know about this because I was quite involved with the design history people in this country, from the mid-1970s onwards. For a time they were fighting a mission to get design taken seriously. Now I’m not sure. I think the revolution went too far. Design became too big. Design, as it’s studied by the design historians, now seems to mean just everything – anything in the world. Some of them have lost sight of what designers – you or I or our friends – what we are doing. We’re just part of the whole visual landscape.
PCO: What do you have in mind? The vernacular?
RK: More seriously, I mean kitsch, McDonalds.
PCO: I would say that that is more art, not so much design. [Laughs.]
RK: [Laughs.] I think so, yes! You know, all the time there are all these contradictions. It depends who you’re talking to. Nowadays when I’m talking to a design historian, I want to say that there is something we can call ‘good design’, which is important, and is something different from the McDonalds culture and the Disney world.
[Here the tape was stopped.]
Petra Cerne Oven writes: Unlike these topical issues, Robin Kinross and his Hyphen Press stick to subjects that might be seen as dull history lessons on the one hand, or as milestones in the literature on typography on the other. Although Hyphen Press started as a ‘one-man-band’, it is now more than this, in Kinross’s belief. It has become a forum for discussion and co-operation for a group of authors, who have grown into friends and partners in a continuing conversation. He claims that his publishing house would not be what it is without the friends he has met through books. He considers Christopher Burke, Jost Hochuli, Karel Martens, Fred Smeijers, and others, a ‘managing board’, however stiff this may sound. However, knowing the private lives of his books, one can see that each of them is marked heavily by Kinross’s attitudes and thinking about the world.
Which brings us to where we started from. A two-way road, communication between people of different cultural backgrounds, dialogue, link, hyphen … One of the tiniest and most simple symbols on the keyboard occupies an important place in Kinross’s philosophy. How else would I have come to feel that his day-dream has grown from a one-man-band into a full-time and open-ended project?