For Ben Bos’s 80th birthday in 2010, his wife Elly Bos asked Adrian Shaughnessy to write a short text about Ben for inclusion in the book she produced as a birthday celebration. This is a slightly edited version of that text.
When Elly Bos asked me to write an introduction to a book celebrating Ben’s 80th birthday, I did something I hadn’t done before, I read Ben’s biography Design of a Lifetime. I knew the book well, but I only knew it as a compendium of Ben’s striking graphic design. I hadn’t read the text. This was remiss of me: the text is extraordinary.
Ben’s place in graphic design history is secure. At its best, his design is characterised by a humane geometry. Or to put it another way, it is never without emotion. It always has a strong sense of having been made by that most magical of software packages: hand, eye and brain.
But what makes Design of a Lifetime such a remarkable book, is the sometimes painful, but always impressive candour with with which Ben expresses himself. His willingness to tell the truth makes it a unique document in the literature of graphic design. Perhaps a better word than candour is truthfulness. The eagerness with which Ben allows the unpolished truth of his life to be revealed – the rancour, the feuds, the disappointments, as well as the triumphs and professional accolades – is not in the least depressing or discouraging. Quite the opposite. The effect is to make the reader grateful for such openness, and yearn for more of this in the literature of graphic design.
Alongside the truthfulness and undoubted skill as a designer, Ben displays a third attribute: his enthusiasm. It would not be surprising if his appetite for work – or even life itself – had waned. At 80, it is permissible to rest and withdraw from the fray. But this is not what Ben Bos has done. If anything, his enthusiasm for his craft – and life – seems to have grown with age. And in this he is an example to the profession of graphic design – which in common with so many other strands of modern life appear to worship at the shrine of youth.
Youth is a wonderful thing. And we are right to value it. But only so long as we don’t stop valuing the vigour and energy of the elderly. It’s easy to be enthusiastic and energetic when you are young. To have these qualities when you are 80, is verging in the heroic.