Exclusive insight from designer Fernando Gutierrez on a benchmark photography project – the wordless Colors Issue 13. edited by the late, great, Tibor Kalman
In the first of a two part feature, for the first time we get the inside story from renowned graphic designer Fernando Gutierrez on the wordless issue of Benetton’s Colors magazine, with Tibor Kalman as Editor In Chief. Gutierrez was one of many talented young designers called in by Kalman over the four years of his tenure, who would go on to make a name for themselves including: Mark Porter former Creative Editor at The Guardian; Emily Oberman, now partner at Pentagram; and Scott Stowell, Creative Director at Open in New York. Gutierrez’s clients include El Pais, Matador, El Bulli, Tate Modern, Foster + Partners and artists including Thomas Struth and Ai Wei Wei.
Issue 13 was the zenith of Kalman’s work at Colors and also his last. Design critic Rick Poynor wrote in The Independent that Kalman’s “13th and final issue dispensed with words almost entirely to offer a spell-binding and sometimes searing God’s-eye view of the wonder and chaos of human life that moved from the charred Amazonian rain forest to the hospitals of Sarajevo.” Kalman had cancer and wanted to return to New York.
Fernando Gutierrez gives us a remarkable insight into one of the most conceptual, innovative and emotionally powerful uses of imagery, in a magazine issue whose lack of text delivers an extraordinary intimacy and insight into what it means to be human (disclosure: I was Editor of Colors for 2 issues in the late 90s).
In 1991 graphic designer Tibor Kalman closed the offices of his company M&Co in New York, and left for Rome to work with Oliviero Toscani and founded Colors magazine. Over 13 issues, Kalman and Toscani made Colors magazine more than a magazine for a company selling jumpers. For those bothering to pay attention a benchmark magazine about Communication that pushed design and photography to its limits – ‘the first magazine for the Global Village’, said Kalman, and the shared international language would be visual.
There were issues on: Race, where Kalman swapped the skin colour of the Queen, and film-maker Spike Lee; War; AIDS; Heaven.
And this was for an international audience of teens – but Colors also found an audience in design studios, ad agencies, anyone who was interested in visual communications. Before the internet became mainstream, Colors was like Life magazine, or the BBC World Service for the MTV generation.
Colors spreads played with images and typography, inspired by Kalman who wasn’t interested in ‘tasteful’ or beautiful design. What excited him was vernacular, local design (often considered ‘ugly’ by mainstream design) such as the Diner which at the time hadn’t become a designer theme park. He was interested in ‘communication’, and what it could do. The text in Colors magazine was always in two languages for learning purposes and had 9 different language versions.
This wordless issue 13 was a benchmark, hammering home in evermore conceptual, emotional and humorous ways the idea that we now live in a visual culture. In his Editorial (yes someone has to have the last words) he wrote, “In an era of increasingly visual communication those people who never learn to read images – to analyze, question, even resist them – are at a disadvantage. They’re illiterate.”
Photography was central to Colors as a whole?
Fernando Gutierrez: Tibor was very passionate about the power of photography, and that’s something that fed through the whole Benetton project. And when he did Colors he really showed them how you can do something amazing with photography. He made people look at how photography was used, he made you see things.
You were putting this issue together in Rome. It must have been early on in your career, how old were you at the time?
Fernando Gutierrez: I was 32/33. Tibor was the Editor.
How many people were in the studio, the office?
Fernando Gutierrez: We had a big team because it was pretty much analogue , it was starting to get digital but it was pretty basic, we were starting to layout in digital. We still worked with transparencies. It was 1995. The nice thing about it, issues often had different sizes. As a commercial tool it was very difficult to position in the kiosk. It went against the grain. The first issue’s cover featured a baby being born, like the magazine being born, a new concept.
That same image was used as a Benetton campaign on billboards – super-powerful as well. So it was a Benetton campaign that at the same time was selling Colors, and Colors selling Benetton. It was the idea of moving communication onto another level, taking corporate communication onto a meaningful level.
So the cover of the magazine becomes a billboard ad that floats free of the magazine, and then becomes a print ad, but then the image also resonates with the original magazine source. That multiplies the power of the original concept?
Fernando Gutierrez: It has a concept, a much stronger concept. Toscani was very clever, he is also a powerful communicator and he understood that language, he really used it too. It was groundbreaking in an advertising sense too. Toscani had a lot to do with it but I think Tibor did too. What really pushed it forward was that amazing image of the baby being born. And then that other image of the bird stuck in oil.
Benetton used that as an image. Toscani was a great fashion photographer so he used that code. It was a good experiment, it gave people a lot to think about.
The magazine was translated into many different languages, but the imagery, the storytelling, the visual language spoke across cultures. The audience spectrum was wide, on the one hand very young and international from Dublin to Dubrovnik, and on the other hand designers and Art Directors because it was this daring communication piece.
Fernando Gutierrez: It was weird. It was explaining important global issues to young people and explaining it in very simple ways. And Tibor was into using advertising techniques to express those editorial ideas in a much more direct way. But it was also a language-learning tool. People had their own language say Italian, but alongside that they had English, and vice versa. It was a tool for language-learning edited in 9 languages. That was another layer in this idea of the magazine being about ‘communication’. There were a lot of good things about it. On the subject matter he did an issue about Heaven, he did an issue on Ecology when Ecology wasn’t really in the mainstream media. He did an issue on Aids.
With the gloved fist?
Fernando Gutierrez: Yes. They were all amazing issues, from 1 to 13. That was Tibor’s world, that was what fascinated Tibor.
By the time it got to issue 13, he knew it was going to be his last issue?
Fernando Gutierrez: He knew it was his last issue. The reason he got in touch with me is because I designed a supplement in Spain that he liked. It was an entertainment supplement for a newspaper aimed at young people. He really liked the graphics. He always liked the idea of getting someone new, an art director (I don’t consider myself an art director I’m just a graphic designer). But he’d get someone in to change the graphics and just keep it on its toes. He really valued the craft of graphics, which I think he was good at. He was into driving the Big Idea more than getting tied down in graphics though he loved graphics. He was very much a big idea guy, making sure we got the content, he was more into making sure we got the tools to do the job.
You had a decent photography budget?
Fernando Gutierrez: Yes we had. But for issue 13 there was no commissioned photography. It was all researched, we had picture researchers, within the Colors team there were four people doing picture research. And that was a weird one. The writers [in this wordless issue] had very little to write! They were helping to find images.
How did that idea of the visual journey come about, from outer space to the atom?
Fernando Gutierrez: There’s two things there. He always referenced a great exhibition he saw in the late 1950s, The Family of Man, black and white photography. That was a very important moment for him. It showed how Man lives on this planet. It was an exhibition that shows you how Man lives in all these diverse cultures – an anthropological thing. That was a big influence on him, that he wanted to take into Colors. Then things like the Eames’ film, The Powers of Ten, the way it came into the planet.
Ours was also the concept of coming from outer space, but ours was a broader look at the world. It wasn’t just about scale or a couple in America, we went right across the planet, so as we are coming close, we are looking at the desert, the jungle, the sea, looking at big contrasts, it’s about gyrating around the world as you are getting closer and closer, seeing diversity. We tried to keep away from Man as much as we could. Man appears about half way into the magazine, than when you do show man you show all the different colour skins. When you go in you get closer and closer, you end up going into the body of man the exterior you end up with an atom. Back to stardust.
Next: Gutierrez explores the thinkng behind the magazine and some of the myths about the all-powerful Benetton organisation: “I remember Michael Bierut goes to me, ‘Did you really have a control room like that?'”