Total Design, total teamwork

For the staff of Total Design, an open plan office, team lunches and flat hierarchy created a special atmosphere, as its first employee recalls…

The history of seminal Dutch studio, Total Design is told in Unit Editions’ new book, TD 63-73. In this extract, Total’s first employee Ben Bos recalls the “team-based studio structure” that the group adopted and how a visit by the partners to observe the working practices of a certain London-based collective was to prove inspirational.

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Exploratory contacts with British designers Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Bob Gill immediately made important contributions to the practical running of [our] Amsterdam office, writes Ben Bos who joined Total, founded by Wim Crouwel, Benno Wissing, Friso Kramar and the Schwarz Brothers, in 1963.

The ‘team-based’ approach adopted by Fletcher/Forbes/Gill enabled them – the senior designers – to optimise their contribution to the work. The initial phases of project analysis and creation, together with the progression as well as the final checking and presentations, were their responsibility. Working out the details could be delegated to team members.

1971 posters for ’employment services provider’ Randstad by the TD team led by Ben Bos. ‘Appels voor de dorst’ (‘apples for the thirst’) references a Dutch saying and the fact that apples were often given to visitors to Randstad offices

The London teams varied in composition. That had to do with the type of work and also with the ‘span of control’ that the team leader exercised. Most of the assistants were recent graduates, happy to have been selected and therefore extremely eager and dedicated. The partners did not get under each other’s feet. At their weekly conference, the ‘cake’ was divided according to the teams’ strengths. Total Design adopted this way of working in its entirety.

In the first years of TD, the interchange of team members and part-time secondment to other teams did occur. Gradually, however, the teams became more like closed entities that were solely responsible for their own projects – little individual shops on the same street. If anyone was ‘loaned out’ from one team to another, it was to make use of obvious specialist skills that the home team did not possess. Combined work by teams on a single project became less frequent.

Work designed for the De Doelen concert hall in Rotterdam was headed up by Benno Wissing. The  logo was inspired by the electronic imagery generated bysound waves. 

The realisation that there was a lack of interaction at the time of Wim Crouwel’s project for the Netherlands Pavilion at the World Exhibition in Osaka 1970 prompted Benno Wissing to write a memo in which he regretted that “team boundaries are too rigid – even on such an extensive and multifaceted project”. Despite this, in general, the choice of this structure at TD was never a matter of debate. Another advantage is that it provided a clear view of the performance of the individual teams.

The creative role of the team leaders in TD’s first period was one of dominance. In most commissions, they took the lead in matters of concept and form. The senior designers of that period worked on the basis of their own perception, preferably in the assumed role of the consumer, the client’s client. After all, it was for them that they had to set out the message in a visual translation. Designing meant solving a problem and that was a task the team leaders preferred to take on themselves.

At this time, it was still customary to have direct contact with management on the client’s side. This meant that the formulation of a strategic plan was mostly a question of a good ‘intake’: the detachment of the designer, and his or her view as an outsider of situations of which the studio was sometimes unaware could be valuable.

The founders’ contracts were based on strict equality between the designers/partners and the business managers, the Schwarz brothers [Dick and Paul]. That led to the operation of a single estimate and an equality of remuneration that was independent of the turnover or profitability of an individual team or person. All expenses came out of the same pot. After a short initial phase, the teams were accommodated in open-plan spaces. The luxury of a private workroom for senior designers was soon abandoned.

Another practice copied from Fletcher/Forbes/Gill was taking lunch together every day. This was the moment when the management team mingled with all the staff without formality. After a few years, table tennis became a favourite activity at midday, an opportunity for the assistants to beat, overturn and make things awkward for the bosses.

At first there were scarcely any full meetings of the entire staff, although educational trips were organised regularly. The first event was a midday race at the Doorn kart track – not quite educational, but good for morale. All the more valuable was the trip to the Icograda congress in Zurich and the impressive Landesausstellung (Swiss National Exhibition) in Lausanne in 1964.

It goes without saying that the senior designers/team leaders were characters – ‘macho men’, in some cases. Each one had his own way of behaving within his team. This gave rise to varied interpersonal relations.

Benno Wissing, the theoretician, acquired the honorary title of ‘father’ Benno. With his passion for strong team-building and his quest for high quality, he was very willing to share his knowledge and give others a chance. He was a teacher by nature. I have fond memories of projects where I was able to work under Benno’s wing. His inspiring guidance was for me a valuable supplement to the insufficient theoretical and practical baggage I had acquired at the academy.

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Wim van der Weerd, who joined Total Design in the late 1960s, remembers our rather frequent plenary meetings, where proposals – brought in by the partners as well as by the team members – were discussed at length. These democratic sessions were typical for the era, he wrote recently. “The atmosphere was friendly and amicable – far from ‘military’ – as the outside world often suspected it to be.” In his opinion, one couldn’t really speak of a strict hierarchical structure at TD. It was, as Wim recalls, a fabulous time.

Lunchtime in the Total Design offices at 567 Herengracht, Amsterdam. Looking to the Fletcher/Forbes/Gill model, TD believed in, among other things, the importance of taking lunch together.
Lunchtime in the Total Design offices at 567 Herengracht, Amsterdam. Looking to the Fletcher/Forbes/Gill model, TD believed in, among other things, the importance of taking lunch together.

This extract is taken from TD 63-73: Total Design and its pioneering role in graphic design, an insider’s view by Ben Bos (edited by Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook), published by Unit Editions and is reproduced by permission. The book sold out in 2011 and has since been republished in an expanded edition (£65) – available from uniteditions.com

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