Designing Exhibitions and Printed Matter for a Museum

Designing Exhibitions and Printed Matter for a Museum

In 1978, I wrote an article in a publication entitled About Art, on designing for a museum. That was during the 1964 to 1985 period, when I was designing posters and catalogues for Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Now, thirty years on, it is tempting to see whether the views that were then sacred to me still hold strong. Or are they long past their sell-by date?

The original text, slightly abridged, follows, after which

I will discuss the way I feel about the issue now.


Crouwel exhibition, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1979. Design Wim Crouwel, photo Jan Versnel.


Design and the Museum

The activity pattern as a whole entails the task of clarifying the context in which each individual activity and each specific choice has evolved; that context expresses a policy. These two concepts imply a standpoint in respect of plastic art. Plastic art should speak for itself; it cannot be explained but can be introduced and the design used for exhibiting that art cannot and should not add anything. An expressive view, emphasizing the form, is out of place. That does not mean, however, that that design should be anonymous and colourless; restraint can be achieved with a little imagination.

Exhibition layouts

For exhibition layouts, a model diametrically opposed to an emotional/expressive point of departure should be chosen. Only minimal resources should be used for exhibiting plastic art; any resource that does more than optimize a specific space is excessive and makes an unnecessary addition to what is being exhibited. Making a space more suitable for exhibiting work and arranging and hanging works of plastic art in a particular way are always expressive interventions, which need not be executed anonymously or without colour. If, as a museum, you want to offer the public the opportunity to form independent opinions on plastic art, then you should let that art speak for itself and refrain from acting, with all good intentions, as a jamming station. When plastic art becomes the victim of radical communication theory, then you are communicating with no more than white noise.


The Forbidden City, exhibition, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 1990. Design Wim Crouwel, photo Jannes Linders.


Printed matter

Printed matter as a medium is as susceptible to assuming significance as architecture and exhibition layouts. The designer has to take great pains not to project his own story or his own image over the art it concerns.

That entails a typographical principle that offers little opportunity for rich variation, but plenty of room for careful subtlety. The artist and his work speak a clear language to those who wish to understand it; a catalogue can, for example, provide an introduction to that language, but it is not a textbook.


a: The typography for the museum is visually organized to promote legibility.

b: Words and images play an equally important role.

c: The text element is set so that the individual parts are experienced as such and, along with letter size and spacing, the line lengths result in an optimal legible whole.

d: The image element is arranged in accordance with chronological, alphabetical or other relevant order and not according to visual aesthetics.

e: The image material is organized on the basis of a representation of reality and not an imitation of reality. The principle is that reality should be visible in any event; its reproduction is not an autonomous fact here.

f: The composition is determined on functional, aesthetic grounds, whereby, although aestheticism may not be objective, an attempt is made to avoid subjective intervention as far as possible.

The wishes of the artist and the person putting together the exhibition are respected and incorporated, but must never be allowed to play such a role that they overrule the basic principles.


Design can nestle somewhere between two extremes. The one extreme is the extremely subjective use of the elements to be exhibited to arrive at a highly personal form of information, which is very recognizable and therefore becomes the message in itself. The other extreme is as objective use as possible of the elements to be exhibited to arrive at unobtrusive, and therefore optimally servient information with its own, restrained, expressive capacity.

A look back

It is clear to see which view of designing for museums I was more at home with in the 1960s and 1970s. I endeavoured to restrain myself as far as possible, to be clear and still create typographical tension. I have always seen the catalogues for the museum as episodes in a series that, in addition to providing information on the artist or an exhibition, should also portray the museum as a unity of activities. They were therefore all designed in the same format and to the same typographical patterns, using only one font, Univers. Sometimes, however, the system prevailed above the aesthetics and, at others, I was unable to resist the aesthetics. For the posters, I permitted myself slightly more freedom. The same typographical templates were used and the secondary text was set in Univers. The name of the event, however, was generally drawn separately, a visual translation of the content, as it were. Here, too, the urge was irrepressible and my tendency towards the abstract was occasionally visible.

I have sometimes thought that this was the way to achieve a certain timelessness. This, however, turned out to be far from the truth; the work for Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam can be dated quite accurately. I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to produce timeless work; we are always children of our time. Has this made my views on designing for museums less cut and dried over the years? Certainly, when I later became the director of a museum myself, I allowed the catalogue and poster designers far more freedom than the tight straitjacket I had measured up for myself. Perhaps one becomes less strict as the years go by. Only format and face were still sacred to me; it was essential for the museum itself to remain visible. The choice of whether to apply fixed patterns and views on typography I left to the inventiveness of the designers. I have had no cause to regret my decision.

The current drive to introduce a different, target-group-oriented design for each new event risks rendering the museum itself and what it is trying to express invisible.

I am therefore still of the opinion that agreements need to be made concerning the fundamental points of departure regarding the museum as a whole – let us say the house style – in advance; after that, it is up to the designer to provide the content.

Just as long as the essence is art!

Wim Crouwel, Amsterdam, 2006


Essay taken from 'AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950' by Ben & Elly Bos