Tibor Kalman: The moral compass of design

Before breaking up for Christmas holidays we were given a holiday project to prepare for the first week of uni in January. The brief was to research an influential designer and design a mini-monograph about them in the format of an exhibition guide for an imaginary exhibition. I was given a graphic designer called Tibor Kalman to research. I had never heard of him before but when I started my research I found him and his work quite fascinating.

I started off by reading some articles about him online. I also found a book about him in the uni library called Tibor Kalman: Design and Undesign which was more than perfect source of information for the project! After that I googled Colors magazine and found great visual material on their website. Our teacher Alistar also lend me an original copy of the first issue of Colors magazine.

I really enjoyed finding information about Tibor Kalman. He was a really interesting subject not only because of his design style but because of his strong moral and social views and how he used graphic design as a medium to discuss those issues. He didn’t do design just for design’s sake. Like he said, “Colors was about its subject, not its design”.

Below you can see a short summary of what I found about him, his work and his views.

the book I used in my research. (Liz Farrelly, 1998)
Tibor Kalman

Ugliness is more interesting than beauty…that stuff which is human, interesting, fucked up, passionate rather than logical, reasonable and, of course, beautiful.”

Tibor Kalman, born in 1949 in Budapest, was an influential and controversial American graphic designer, well-known for his work as editor-in-chief of Colors magazine. Before his career in Colors, and while running his own design firm M&Co, he also worked as the art director for Artforum and as the creative director for Interview.

Tibor saw himself as a social activist for whom graphic design was a means of achieving two ends: good design and social responsibility. Good design, which he defined as “unexpected and untried,” added more interest, and was thus a benefit, to everyday life. And, since graphic design is mass communication, Tibor believed it should be used to increase public awareness of a variety of social issues. Being a master of good design meant nothing unless it supported a message that led to action. Everything had to have meaning and resonance.

I’ve always tried to do good by being bad. It might be a contrarian attitude, but it’s what I believe works.”

In 1979 Kalman started his own design firm M&Co. which became a platform for his social mission. When Tibor sold a design his goal was to simultaneously advance client and to promote political or social messages. M&Co’s seasonal self-promotional gifts he designed to advocate support for the homeless.

In the early 1990’s Tibor helped produce a series of controversial advertisements focusing on AIDS, racism, refugees, violence, and warfare for Benetton. The ads led to the creation of Benetton’s own magazine, Colors, for which Tibor became editor-in-chief. Colors quickly became the primary outlet for Tibor’s most progressive ideas.

In 1997, Kalman re-opened M&Co and continued to work until his death in 1999 in Puerto Rico.

collage consisting of spreads and covers from Colors magazine. (From top left to right: 1. cover of the first issue of Colors, 2. cover of issue 7 of Colors, 3. a page from the issue 4 of Colors presenting Quees Elizabeth with black skin, 4. a spread from the firs issue of Colors.)
collage showing Kalman’s work. (From top left to right: 1. Album cover for a rock band called Talking Heads, 2. a Benetton billboard advertisement, 3. exhibition design in New York, 4. M&Co watch.)


Find out how the exhibition guide for an imaginary Tibor Kalman exhibition turned out! Click here: Mini-monograph/Exhibition Guide






Tibor Kalman: Design and Undesign by Liz Farrelly, (1998, Thames and Hudson Ltd.)

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