Provisional RGD reflects on three days with Jan Van Toorn
Provisional RGD Joel Derksen shares his experience learning from designer Jan Van Toorn at the OpenSet Workshop in the Netherlands this August. 

What's the difference between showing and telling? And where can you let people fill in the gaps? To be fancy, what we're talking about is the difference between connotation and denotation: the difference between figuring it out yourself and being told what you feel.


It's in this realm that Jan Van Toorn – as designer of a seasoned 60 years in the business – thrives. His work as a Dutch designer, and his critical approach to image making, set this workshop apart from the average conference or tutorial.


A few weeks before the workshop, I make my way through Van Toorn's book, Design's Delight. It is dense and theoretical, layering theories of image and meaning with critiques of capitalism and mass culture. But in it, I can already see where the workshop is heading: to a realm of theatre, where the orchestrated mix of images and meanings walk the line of design and art.


I arrive in Rotterdam near midnight on a Wednesday, having just managed to coerce vacation out of my office and hopping the last flight from Germany to Amsterdam, with an hour train ride to Rotterdam immediately after.



The city has a mix of architecture and styles, but everything is a bit angular, a bit quirked. You can see it in the posters that advertise festivals and galleries – there's just a bit of a tweak on the nose, a wink. The Dutch learned from the Swiss but never took them too seriously – it is just design, after all.


I find Witt der With street easily enough. Tree-and-patio lined, this is easily the heart of Rotterdam. Packed into the few blocks are a cacophony of restaurants – Chinese, Indonesian (a nod to the colonies), hostels, art galleries big and small, shoe stores, a popup bar ... and rows of bicycles. For the next few days, this street is home base, ground zero, for the OpenSet Workshop.


The workshop is held at the Witt der With Gallery for Contemporary Art. The hostel where the majority of participants are staying is down the street, decorated with a huge King Kong poster. Needless to say, the whole area is pretty cool. Equipped with coffee, groups of designers settle into the room and eventually take a seat. We begin to learn the first lesson from Jan van Toorn and his colleague, who walks us through a retrospective of his work.



A design is an argument

Often we are obsessed with the idea of the designer as a conduit, and impartial creator. We take the idea of a crystal goblet one step further: we, as designers, become crystal goblets that move meaning from place to place. We shift from design brief to the public and back again. Without commenting it on directly, we often see this as being impartial. We are just problem solvers and craftsmen, guided by inspiration and strategy. But this is a false, Van Toorn argues.


We are participants in the editing process, and we wield tremendous power in our ability to frame the image and weave a message into it. But we hide behind the idea that we are simply solving a problem or filling a brief. Sometimes, we fall in love with the formal aspects of design: with type, image, and colour.


However, we are image-makers and receivers. We create and shape context by the way we make things. Our audience has great skill in inferring and making meaning from our images. So beyond the brand book, beyond the brief: have a perspective. It could be personal, or moral, or anything really. But, "A critical approach is always possible," says Van Toorn.


With the slides done and the lights turned on, I realize I have a lot of interesting things to think about – about the use of images, and about taking a perspective where usually I might not. As anticipated, this workshop will be a little different than the usual.



Trying to look good limits your tool set

By the second day, we're sorted into groups with a subject matter we want to tackle.  We begin sorting through issues, and framing our perspective – what should we say, how do we want to say it? And we begin combing the Internet for inspiration, hoping for virtuous and unexpected discoveries and ways to combine our images into arguments.


It’s easy to be seduced by form and composition as the be-all, end-all. Composition is a safe place for us to be. Composition can help us make something that looks ambiguous, or to look like it is revealing a deeper message behind great artistry. However, many of these pieces become homages to composition and style. Letting go of perfection and of style – of trying to look good – gives you far more narrative possibilities. Sometimes idea you are trying to express needs to be clumsy, or oddly composed, or well, it needs to look ugly. When we step away from formal composition, we can transform images from a statement, to creating a narrative association through those images.


"It is a skill we do not use as designers," Van Toorn reminds the class. "But we are also the people who read images, and we are smarter than we realize." He references film and theatre, where every detail is used to create a metaphor, create foreshadowing, or impact the way we interpret the scene.



Get away from the computer and experiment
"Go outside, and photograph real people," Jan encourages us.
After presentations and collecting images, printing, remixing, doodling and cutting, he stops by our table on the third day. "You need real people to make this believable, to deliver this message."


Just like we can hide in formal aspects forever, things become much more raw and real when we engage with the world. It’s easy to sit behind a computer and not observe what is going on, or to hide in social media and Photoshop. However to have a perspective on the world and how you want to impact it, you have to engage in it fully, and that means experimentation beyond the computer – in street photography, collage, making things and watching people, or, even talking to strangers.


When you get your hands dirty, you have more changes to stumble into something, to create something accidentally or to learn something. To affect the world through images, you have to live in it fully.



About Joel Derksen Prov RGD

As a communication designer with IDEO’s Munich studio, Joel helps create compelling narratives that offer brands a glimpse into untapped opportunities, both in terms of developing new offerings and strategies for growth, and redefining existing products. Well-versed in the art of storytelling, he leads companies through the innovation process, always seeking to encourage action and an enthusiasm for change. Prior to IDEO, Joel was a designer with several Toronto advertising and design agencies, primarily on projects involving the fast-moving consumer goods, liquor and automotive industries.