Summer 1994

Clarity and contradiction

Irma Boom’s work is lucid yet challenging. It upsets her colleagues, while pleasing her clients.

Dutch designer Irma Boom is articulate and motivated, not a frantic self-promoter or an empire-builder. But her work has won her a degree of notoriety within the graphic design community and her approach and attitudes have become a focus for perennial debates about legibility, functionality, and objectivity. In an interview with Emigre, the 33-year-old designer answered a string of accusatory questions about her Dutch colleagues, who pinned every variety of label to her work, from aesthetic to feminine, classical to radical. Her replies, prefaced by 45 point ‘BOOM’s, were confident, if understandably defensive. In a review in Eye (no. 6 vol. 2) of a Dutch design exhibition, her typography was dismissed without further comment as ‘nearly senseless and virtually illegible’.

Gerard Hadders of Hard Werken, a supporter of Boom who sometimes recommends her to prospective clients, believes she has become the target of jealousy from fellow designers who resent her ability to persuade clients to accept her radical solutions. ‘When she talks to a group of designers, even if people start off with mixed feelings about her work, they end up respecting it,’ he notes. ‘She works with what the clients bring to her, and they seem to like what she does and accept her reasons.’

Perhaps Boom’s detractors are missing the point. She herself discusses her design in terms of its clarity, appropriateness and ability to communicate, and denies that it is overly expensive, frivolous or unfunctional. She refuses to apply the same style to everything, with the result that her work as a whole is full of contradictions – something her supporters appreciate. She is best known for her book designs, though her output ranges across the spectrum of printed material from commemorative stamps to art college posters. Her reputation is fed by previous successes: ‘Because I work in my own way, the clients come to me.’ She exploits the freedom afforded by a new client’s enthusiasm to redefine a graphic genre, whether an annual report or a business card.

Boom deliberately and unselfconsciously puts something of herself into every project. She begins by establishing a dialogue with the client, and by discovering what they want. ‘Because I want to avoid being just an illustrator of the client’s ideas, I try to provide my own input,’ she says. She researches and challenges received truths about the physical structure of the object in question and comes up with a solution intended to create a degree of difficulty that will cause the reader, user or viewer to work a bit harder in order to understand. This deeper engagement leads to a discovery of meaning that is often surprising and ultimately more satisfying. ‘I realised only a few weeks ago that the things I make aren’t finished, they’re open, you can add something. They are not clean and complete like an advertisement, but are open for someone to think something different from me. Though of course I haven’t always thought everything out – some things just happen.’ In effect she is working like an artist in any of the fine-art media. And if the chemistry with the client is right, they will realise that what’s good for Boom is good for them too.

This approach to design developed from her education and work experiences. Boom spent five years at art college in Enschede in eastern Holland. Initially she wanted to be a painter, but switched to design because she preferred to work within the constraints of a problem which had to be solved. Nevertheless, students were afforded the opportunity to experiment endlessly: ‘It was a school where you could do anything you liked.’ Her first job, with the state printing and publishing organisation SDU Ontwerpgroep in The Hague, proved the antithesis of the freedom she had enjoyed at college. The organisation, which produces all the printed matter for Dutch government ministries, employed a staff of 1,200 including 20 designers, all older than Boom, who was appointed as the result of a recruitment drive to attract young designers. For five and a half years she was given her own projects to work on, among them some of the most prestigious commissions in the Dutch public sector. But she felt straight-jacketed by the bureaucracy and emphasis on typographic rules. Back at home in Amsterdam in the evenings, she took out her frustrations ‘jumping around to loud music’.

Boom’s liberal education had left her with a lack of technical know-how, but she turned this to her advantage. ‘Because I didn’t know all the technical things, if I had a solution in my head, I would want it done like that. If they said it wasn’t technically possible, I would just keep insisting. They said it wouldn’t be possible to produce books that now exist – you see, they always found a way in the end.’ Boom gave typographic doctrine a wide berth. ‘I only recently read about Jan Tschichold’s rules for legible typography. They made me laugh, because everything I do is forbidden. Maybe if I’d learned how to use typography at art school my work would be completely different.’

Treating a book or report as a three-dimensional object and the text as part of that form may reduce the importance of type as a conveyor of information. But it does not eradicate function – rather, it foregrounds functions other than reading. ‘Boom is the only one in Holland who can work at the limits of the book as object,’ says Hadders, noting the contrast with his own treatment of books as components of ‘the media’. Boom herself believes that developments in other media mean that the purpose and form of the book must be redefined. ‘The book can be different now because we have television. A book is a material object and it is intimate – you hold it in your hand, you read it alone. It’s not my purpose to make special books, what I want to do is to create a more complete definition of the medium. Why do you make a book, for what purpose?’

One of her first jobs at the SDU was an arts council annual report which she designed with fold-out pages that had line lengths of over 700 characters. This, she claims, was because the primary function of an annual report is not to be read, but to serve as a legal document, a presentation brochure and a public relations exercise. Boom wanted to inject added physicality into the process of browsing through the report, to do away altogether with the possibility of flicking through the page, and to encourage the reader to look properly. Those who do are rewarded with snippets of text from Dutch writers who have received arts council support, whose words are used as illustrations of funding initiatives, much as paintings might have been. Boom’s design combines bible paper with Japanese hand-binding and printed strips of gold which give the impression of gold-brushed edges once the document is french-folded – but at a fraction of the cost. Boom’s intention was to reflect the content of the publication, which is essentially a list of the vast sums of money spent on projects of artistic merit.

Boom’s last project at the SDU was a series of posters for the Holland Festival, designed amid a high-profile controversy over the awarding of the commission. A stipulation of the SDU’s 1990 sponsorship of the country’s largest annual arts festival was that the organisation would produce all the graphic material. Studio Dumbar had been commissioned for the two previous festivals and had already started work on this one. The festival committee made it clear that they were unhappy with the new arrangement, and as a result were totally uncooperative. Boom was presented with a brief that simply demanded: ‘Make it readable.’ The political in-fighting that surrounded the project was one of the reasons for Boom’s restrained design. ‘Dumbar’s posters were very cheerful, a real festival. Mine deliberately focused on the drama side of the event. I’m usually very optimistic about a new project, but this time I was really depressed.’ Her posters created ‘brand recognition’ through the consistent visual cue of two rhyming photographic images of a swan and a woman’s back, with the layered type kept separate. The public thought the posters were sombre, but after the scandal died down they were praised for their legibility. For Boom it was a turning point: she disapproved of the SDU’s tactics for gaining the commission, felt manipulated and resigned. ‘That’ll never happen to me again. If there isn’t a good feeling between the client and the designer, it’s better to quit. If there’s no dialogue, then the process won’t produce anything good.’

Boom has travelled widely and draws inspiration from ‘everything you can find in a city’, whether east or west, high-tech, ethnic or kitsch. In India she picked up books which were printed with pink edges, bound in brightly coloured cloths, folded in two and held closed with string. In New York she visited the hardware stores on Canal Street and found prismatic plastics whose combinations of square and circle informed the cover for the PTT’s 1993 employees’ desk diary. She aspires to re-create the quality of hand-made eastern artefacts using western print and binding technology – in effect to produce a craft item through industrial means.

Projects always start with ‘a lot of thinking before I do anything’. Then, if she is working on a book, she makes a mock-up. Clients can be puzzled by these: her first proposal for the 1989 Best Boek (Best Book) exhibition catalogue was rejected because the funding body CPNB, which promotes books in the Netherlands, thought the A3 landscape format folded in half to produce an A4 book was not recognisably bookish enough. Boom wanted to combine a re-creation of the experience of the exhibition with the more intimate activity of handling a book by supplying two separate narratives, an inner and an outer one. Her final format was more inventive still. Using stock coated on one side only, she printed the covers that appeared in the exhibition to scale on the coated side, while the uncoated side held spreads from the books and all the publishing details. By having alternate pages trimmed slightly short, she was able to create an effect whereby whichever direction you look through it, you will see only one sort of paper and one aspect of the content. ‘It’s a book within a book. People think it’s luxurious because of the suede cover, but though it’s sophisticated, it’s not expensive.’ The catalogue sold out.

By the time she began her solo career, Boom had worked for three of the most important clients in the Netherlands: the PTT, the Rand voor de Kunst (arts council), and the Holland Festival. She emerged from the SDU as the likes of Studio Dumbar and Hard Werken, who had proved their worth on the kind of projects she was about to tackle, went mainstream. In the Netherlands every subsidised arts event has a budget for graphic design, and commercial organisations which have long recognised the value of good design retain established professionals as consultants. Younger designers are recommended through the network to cultural and commercial clients, for whom they can produce high-profile, well-paid work. In this way Hadders introduced Boom to AKZO, an international paints and coatings manufacturer for whom she designed a 1992 calendar with a print-run of 30,000.

The AKZO calendar was Boom’s first major commercial commission. Her way of dealing with the endless steering committees and considerable volume of material a weekly calendar requires was to establish a system for the form and content, and stick to it. She wanted everyone, whether an executive or a mechanic, to be able to relate to the images, so she chose ‘real life’ as the theme. The square-format spiral-bound calendar opens out to hang on the wall. A stock photograph bleeds over one page and a colour lifted from the image provides the background to the text page. ‘I wanted to show images from everyday life, so the photography is not very special or technically very good. But if you crop everyday life, there are always nice colours.’ She specified all the type to be in silver, but the client was worried about legibility and changed it without consulting her. ‘I could have cried, but instead I wanted to sue them,’ she says. AKZO placated her with another commission.

Collaborating on a catalogue with the environmental artist Vito Acconci demanded a different set of skills. ‘I learned relativity. Making books for artists is not the most open-ended commission, but working with artists is very important for my own development. It’s an on-going process. If a commission doesn’t work out I know I can take it further with the next work.’

Development doesn’t necessarily mean greater complexity, however. The structure of Boom’s second arts council annual report, printed in three colours, was based on a simple mathematical formula. She wrote a list of specifications, and the text was scaled up or down depending on its length. The job was completed without her ever having to produce a layout. A former SDU colleague Hans Meiboom comments: ‘Irma made a strong move against the traditions of legibility that are very important in Holland. She dares to manipulate the main text, whereas Dumbar’s experiments took place around the text.’ To judge by some of her more recent exhibition catalogues, Meiboom’s prediction that ‘now maybe she’s moving towards less is more’ looks accurate. With stitching on show and spiral binding, they have a new bluntness that Boom sees as reflecting the Zeitgeist of the 1990s. Boom is adamant about their functionality: ‘I don’t know how to make decorative things. They’re boring.’

Boom’s work is visually seductive, but also a vehicle for meaning. Take away the context and the content, and you can enjoy only a small proportion of the fun and the message. She may be happy to explain her work, but its real function is to make the reader or viewer discover meaning for themselves. Her projects do not function as graphic design ‘products’ for the delectation of the professional community. Assessments made on looks alone by a second generation of viewers at odds with the audience for whom the design was tailored will never yield an understanding of her approach.

Boom’s attitude to printed media redefines not only genres, but the role of the designer. By provoking a collaboration between the designer, who acts as artist and inventor, and the client, she is helping to create new possibilities for printed material in the age of digital communication. Functions perceived as secondary to the goal of information-dissemination have been ignored. Reinvention can only come about by taking into account a far wider set of criteria than legibility, and by foregrounding uses that have been denied. These may become the only functions that remain unique to the book, and could save it from extinction.

That Irma Boom will continue to reinvent the role of the book and the designer is clear. She enjoys the freedoms her clients allow her and refuses to pander to the received wisdom of her peers: ‘I don’t have to make compromises for anybody because I work on my own.’ It is an explosive mix in a profession of (mainly) male egos.

First published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4, 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.