Professor Neville Brody: the title takes some getting used to. Not because it is undeserved, but because, ten years ago, it would have seemed so unlikely. And yet here he is, the dean of the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art, welcoming me into his airy new office. One of graphic design’s great outsiders – rebels even – is now very much inside one of its great institutions: two if you count D&AD for whom Brody is this year’s president.
We are meeting on a very auspicious day for the College as its spectacular 175th anniversary exhibition is to be opened by Prince Philip that evening. It’s also an important time for Brody’s department as this marks its first term in the newly refurbished Stevens Building.
Brody proudly shows me round his new home, a space which embodies his vision of what an education at the RCA should involve. In the basement, there are practical spaces – a letterpress studio, book-binding, editing suites, sound studios and so on. On the upper floors, a mix of light, bright studios and mixed spaces for collaboration and teaching plus areas set aside for research. Crucially, and Brody sets great store by this, each student has their own desk – increasingly a rarity in UK art colleges and universities.
A design problem
Back in his office, Brody explains that he has “created five lines or layers” for students in the school, which encompasses animation, visual communication and, new for this year, information experience design. As with everything, he says, he has approached the school’s programme as a design problem. His solution is a conceptual framework for learning which encompasses technical knowledge, consideration of the needs of industry, research (“so that students know how to make work that is rigorous rather than gestural”), outside influences from visiting lecturers, self-generated projects and collaboration with students in other areas of the RCA. “So you end up with a grid, structured as a framework [for learning].”
Brody has a clear vision for what he wants the College to provide for its students. In this he is fired by his own, famously unsatisfactory experience at what was then the London College of Printing. “It was awful,” he says of his time there from 1976 to 79. “I worked really hard but was completely unsupported – apart from Malcolm Kennard, who was brilliant, no-one else got it.” Rather than turning him off academia for life, this experience gnawed away at Brody as he pursued his professional career. “Ever since I went to art school I thought, at some point in my life, I’m going to open my own art college,” he says, “I don’t want to be pitching for some logo when I’m 80. I’d rather not have that as the sum total of my life. I always thought I wanted to get involved in education.”
In 2010, he got his chance. Brody met RCA rector Dr Paul Thompson at the Prince Philip Designers Prize evening. “We had lunch and he said ‘Dan’s leaving, do you want to go for the job?’ [Dan Fern was previously head of the department of communication art and design]. I said ‘no’. He said ‘put an application form in and we’ll talk’.” The deadline was the next day, so Brody hurriedly put something together, got shortlisted and was eventually appointed in March 2010.
His arrival coincided with a period of great upheaval at the College which is still ongoing. During Brody’s first term, Thompson introduced a restructuring of the College from 20 departments into six schools. Each of these schools was to be headed by a dean. Fearing someone would come in over his head and not share his views, Brody decided he had better apply for that position as well. “So before I’d even learned the head of department position, I was running the whole school,” he says.
Brody describes his time at the College as “the steepest learning curve in my life. The whole of last year was so difficult.” There has been some cultural adjustment needed. “I’m coming from an entrepreneurial space where, if you want something to happen, you just make it happen,” Brody says. “Academia doesn’t work like that, as I’m discovering. My attitude is that you have to be dynamic, agile, test things, do a rapid prototype to see if it works, learn from that and move on. But in academia, to rapid prototype something you need to go through stages and committees.”
Brody admits that not all his plans have been met with unconditional approval by staff, which is as might be expected, but, he says, “Things are changing so fast that we can’t afford to stand still… Paul brought me in to help move the College into the 21st century.” While he is doing this, Brody must also juggle the demands of his D&AD role and those of running his practice, Research Studios.
He’s certainly got a lot on his plate. On top of learning the ropes, overseeing the redesign of the Stevens Building, creating a new brand identity system for the College and the internal restructuring of the departments, Brody has had to cope with the impact of Government cuts to arts education. Former rector Sir Christopher Frayling recently warned in a BBC interview that the RCA was in danger of becoming a “Chinese finishing school” as design disappears from the UK’s core curriculum at school, Britain fails to invest in its creative future and the College perhaps turns increasingly to high-paying overseas students. Brody, wearing both his D&AD and RCA hats, has spoken up passionately against what he has termed the “insanity” of current Government policy concerning arts education.
His more immediate concern lies with the RCA’s decision to double in size over the next five years, going from 800 to 1,600 students, a figure which Brody says “will give just about enough of a stable income to keep [the College] running”. Won’t this inevitably undermine the quality of the intake? “We can’t race toward huge numbers,” he warns. “You have to make sure that, as you’re increasing in size, applications go up in proportion to ensure the best quality, because if the quality isn’t maintained, the brand is over. So far we’ve done it – the students who’ve come in this year are brilliant. They’re also changing; they are much more engaged in critical thinking. For the last 20 years designers have just wanted to do their practice but because the economy has changed, students aren’t graduating thinking ‘I wonder what job I’m going to take?’ They are coming out thinking ‘I’m probably not going to get a job’. Then your focus changes and you start to get involved with social areas, with really thinking abut what you’re doing.”
Brody’s vision for the school is, he says, based on three objectives. The first is “to create a truly multidisciplinary space”. This, he says, is in response to what is happening in the professional world. “If you work as a creative today you can’t say ‘I just do logos’, you need to be at least aware of how to work in moving image, sound, writing, interaction, spatial design, as well as graphic design, typography and layout and 3D thinking. If you’re not aware of those spaces you can be in real trouble. It doesn’t mean, though, you can’t develop skill sets or your specialism. The model that I’m trying to build here is rooted in specialist training but operating across disciplines. It’s a modernist idea; we’ve lost that in the last couple of decades because we’ve become really ‘specialistic’.”
The second objective outlined in his original application for the job was to build a greater research culture at the College. “The RCA can become the leading research centre for arts and humanities,” Brody says. “If we’re not, there’s something wrong.” New partnerships with other academic institutions and outside organisations such as the BBC are putting the RCA at the centre of the development of knowledge exchange programmes, he adds.
Thirdly, and finally, Brody says, “I’m not interested in developing artefacts. I’m not interested in a course that just creates precious objects. What I’m interested in is to create skilled, dangerous minds. I know that sounds a bit high-faluting but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I want graduates who are capable of leaving here and changing the industries they go into, or at least questioning them. People who will come up with new solutions and ways of thinking. I don’t think we should be doing anything except that really.”
He cites Troika and Thomas Heatherwick as examples of graduates who have done that: what about the field of graphic design? Brody says that current students tend not to define themselves so narrowly, that they mostly see themselves as cross-disciplinary and that, even those who do identify themselves as specialists may well, over the two years of the RCA course, change direction.
“As a graphic designer, the minimum you’re going to get from the College is the ability to really question and understand what graphic design can be,” he says. “We’re not going to set logo projects, that will not happen. But you might get involved in branding as part of other activities you’re doing here. There is so much available on the internet now that people can self-train to a certain extent.
I support that. People should self-train, expose themselves to as much as possible, then come to somewhere like the Royal College to develop their critical thinking, their ability to be lateral, and get back to this idea that Britain produces brilliant eccentrics and innovators.”
It’s a noble ideal but, is there a risk that RCA graduates will be condemned to the margins – operating their own small studios and working on cultural projects without using their talent to affect and improve wider society? “Almost without fail people from industry say we are looking for people to come in and take us to another level,” Brody argues. Some colleges, he says, will equip graduates to make an immediate contribution to their chosen field, but not necessarily to change that field and drive innovation. “Some graduates will leave here and get big projects and end up in large places, but some will end up in unidentifiable spaces, and be potentially undefinable. That isn’t a great professional model,” he admits “but I’d rather be turning out those people, people that you can’t pin down, that are a bit prickly and difficult but are always interesting. The Royal College, being the size it is, has to embrace that. We’re not a big factory churning out people for industry.”