Fuck Tibor

Essays by Dmitri Siegel
912 words5 min read
The name Tibor is usually intoned with the kind of awe that makes uttering his last name seem inappropriately formal—like saying Jesus Christ. If you ask those who speak HIS name with such hushed reverence they will most likely attribute the faraway look in their eyes to the inspirational nature of the man and his work. Tibor’s work is revered because it has come to symbolize the type of clever, conceptual, anti-aesthetic approach that many regard as the highest calling of a graphic designer; his persona is that of a benevolent maverick—an irreverent critic of the profession and the clients that made him a success. But as Rick Poynor recently pointed out, ‘by canonizing Tibor Kalman as “an inspirational figure” the design profession is largely missing his point.’ (Print LVI:II 2002) The philosophy he represents has its limits when it is adopted indiscriminately, especially by students like me. Canonization without critique is an exercise in romantic fantasy, so I say, Fuck Tibor.

Tibor possessed a savage wit. His humor ranged from self-parody (1986 AIGA Humor Show poster) to spectacle (a white Spike Lee!). In much of his work the idea is so funny that the ‘design’ becomes irrelevant. Fuck Tibor. My attempts to emulate his wit often result in work that is little more than bad conceptual art. The desire to be clever opens the door for poor craftsmanship and the emphasis on the big idea tends to leave the details unconsidered. Minus a great idea I am often left with something that manages to be both dumb and ugly.


Tibor was as an excellent photo editor. Colors is only the most well-known example of his facility with images. He understood the nuance of an image instinctively, and could put it at the service of irony, narrative, pathos, or humor. He is often lauded for being able to use even the most mundane stock photography in this way. Fuck Tibor. Using huge and/or numerous photographs regardless of their quality has become an acceptable way to make books thicker. All I can say is thank God he didn’t have access to a digital camera. The proliferation of crisp, saturated pictures of decrepit street corners and the banal detritus of a designer’s life in my work is on HIS head as far as I’m concerned. I use a dumb stock photo mostly when I am desperately out of ideas. It fills the space, but it can easily become a crutch in need of kicking.

Tibor was a New York designer. He had great parties, yelled at people, and lived in a loft. Downtown New York in the 80s can be pretty well summed up by a list of his clients: The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Restaurant Florent. Fuck Tibor. My friends are mostly a) uncool and b) broke, but the tenets of Tiborism state that doing work for them is more important than cultivating paying clients or even generating self-initiated projects. Students of design need to develop their own means of producing work that is interesting and generative. In my experience, going to New York and trying to meet bands is not a process.

Tibor was political. He made posters that read, ‘Fuck Bush Vote’ that are, sadly, still timely. Fuck Tibor. His polemical style, especially in the hands of those less skilled, has not proved nuanced enough to handle the more equivocal issues of this era. When students like me who entered the field during the prosperous and politically murky Clinton era trot out the trappings of revolution without the weight of conviction the results can erode the medium’s ability to shock and sway. Our current political time-warp has necessitated a revival of activist design. I hope that the tropes of the past do not prevent us from mounting an effective graphic resistance in the present.


Tibor was deeply critical of the role design plays in buttressing political and corporate power and spent much of the last part of his career trying to reform the profession. His struggle to do so was carried out largely in the public forum of the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA). Fuck Tibor. Because his ideas on what the role of design should be were never fully resolved, the lasting influence of his struggle has been a model for a kind of diffuse dissatisfaction and grumpiness. Stefan Sagmeister is currently reenacting Tibor’s contentious effort to reform design even down to closing his office. His presentation at the AIGA’s Voice conference last year may have contained just enough self-loathing for him to become an ‘inspirational figure’ in his own right. Unfortunately, he and many others who are thoughtful about design have not picked up where Tibor left off. Instead they have focussed on affecting his compellingly blunt style. This leads to a hollow critique of a profession that desperately needs vital critical voices.

There is, of course, much to learn from Tibor and his work—the title of this piece for example was inspired by his article ‘Fuck Committees (I Believe in Lunatics)’. But there has been plenty of ink spilled about this in the design press already. The wholesale embrace of all things Tibor runs counter to his own conflicted attitude towards design and can prevent students and professionals from moving the field, and their own work forward.

  • is currently pursuing his M.F.A. in Graphic Design at the Yale University School of Art. He publishes ante, a quarterly journal of art and design, and is a contributor to The Morning News. Recent design projects include The Yale Review (with Chip Kidd), and album covers for Brooklyn bands 3001 and the American Trampoline Company.