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Ben Bos (1930–2017): An appreciation by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy

Tony Brook: 

I was introduced to Ben Bos through Wim Crouwel. I had seen Ben’s fabulous book ‘Design of a lifetime’ published by BIS in the Spin studio and was blown away by his work. On a visit to Amsterdam with Warren Beeby, I asked Wim if it might be possible to meet Ben, he pulled out his mobile phone (a surprise in itself, though I’m not sure why) and 30 seconds later I had an appointment.

I confess, I was daunted, however the welcome from Ben and his wife Elly was so incredibly warm and effusive that any nerves soon evaporated. They asked to see Spin’s work, their response was unadulterated enthusiasm accompanied by (frankly embarrassing) praise, if he approved of you and your work, he could be the most generous and warm hearted of men.

Ben was not always the easiest of people, he could be seen as awkward on occasion, I think this was down to his innate sensitivity, he was someone who felt very deeply, and was compelled to tell the truth as he saw it. It might be seen as a fault by some, but I think it made him invigorating company. He was an intensely passionate and engaged man who lived his life fully in the moment. Not a second seemed wasted for him.

A gifted writer, Ben possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of graphic design history and made good use of it. He was that rare individual, a talented practitioner and a natural communicator. I would like to think that the Total Design book is a worthy testament to his talent. We were all privileged to have worked with him and shall miss him. 

Finally, the picture I have etched in my minds eye when I think of Ben, is of him laughing, his joy was infectious. For someone who could be so serious and earnest, he had a surprisingly mischievous sense of fun which was a complete delight to behold. His shoulders hunched and shaking uncontrollably, he would explode in rapturous delight. Sparky and sparkling, he was one of those special people that, once met, is never forgotten.

© Andrew G Hobbs

Adrian Shaughnessy:

When we first started to think about Unit Editions, and the sorts of books we’d like to publish, a book on Total Design was high on our wish list. As he explains above, Tony Brook already knew Ben Bos, so it was an easy question to ask – would Ben like to write a book for us on Total Design? The answer was yes.

TD 63—73: Total Design and its Pioneering Role in Graphic Design. An insider’s View by Ben Bos, to give it its full title, became our third publication. It sold remarkably well, selling out within year. But more importantly, it enabled us to discover that there was an audience for books on 20th century design history. Without the success of TD 63—73, Unit Editions might not be here today. And for this, we will always be grateful to Ben.

The book is a rarity in the literature of design. It is written by a practitioner, and yet has the critical and historical underpinning that only a few designers are capable of. In fact, Ben started life as a writer and editor, but under the spell of his hero and early mentor, Wim Crouwel, he underwent a conversion, and became a designer.

Working with him on TD 63—73 was demanding. But he was as demanding of himself as he was of others – and he was never willing to take the easy route. He and his wife Elly came to London, from their home in Amsterdam, and worked with us on the complex task of editing and designing a 320pp book. Facts were checked, pictures were captioned and text was rewritten. Ben never flagged.

He was capable of great charm and personal generosity, but he could also be prickly, and he could be stubborn over details that the rest of us thought unimportant. Sometimes, as his editor, I had to stop him restaging ancient feuds, the memory and scars of which he had carried around for 50 years. But it was never petty stuff. His disputes and disagreements with people were always about matters of principle.

He was ethical, cultured and politically engaged – a man of the left. But most of all, he was the keeper of the soul of Total Design, the company to which he had devoted the best years of his life. In TD 63—73, and in the expanded edition that we published in 2015, he brought an insider’s eye to the golden era of TD.

He was also a great designer, disciplined and rational in the neo-Modernist manner. Many of his logos – most notably the Randstad logo – have long since passed into the European design canon. He was a witty speaker at conferences. And in his various books, most notably the two books he did for us, his monograph Design of a Lifetime, and his magnificent history of AGI (AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950, written with Elly) he has added to design scholarship in a unique and idiosyncratic way.