Dear Mr Barnbrook…

The cover of Jonathan Barnbrook’s monograph Barnbrook Bible: The Graphic Design of Jonathan Barnbrook. The book will be published on 19 June, coinciding with Friendly Fire, Barnbrook’s show at the Design Museum
Last month, we asked you to send in questions for designer, typographer and all-round tweaker of the nose of corporate irresponsibility, Jonathan Barnbrook. Here are his answers…

Barnbrook bible cover
The cover of Jonathan Barnbrook’s monograph Barnbrook Bible: The Graphic Design of Jonathan Barnbrook. The book will be published on 19 June, coinciding with Friendly Fire, Barnbrook’s show at the Design Museum

Last month, we asked you to send in questions for designer, typographer and all-round tweaker of the nose of corporate irresponsibility, Jonathan Barnbrook. Here are his answers…

From Stephen Coles, Typographica:
You’re on a short flight. The person in the seat next to you asks what you do. What do you tell them?
JB: It’s difficult because graphic design is completely invisible to most people, so when you say you are a graphic designer most people won’t know what you’re talking about. And when you explain further that you put images and text together, it never seems very significant. I always try to explain that I don’t just do commercial work, that it’s not just about packaging, it can be many different things and I often tell them that I work with Adbusters so that they can immediately see something completely contrary to what they expect, which is of graphic design being a purely commercial activity. When I give a project to my mum that I designed she’ll say “ooh that’s very nice, did you write the book?” And I’ll say, “no I didn’t”. “Did you take the pictures?” “No, no I didn’t take the pictures.” “Well, did you print the book?” “No I didn’t print the book, I put the text and the images together and gave it to the printer.” People are really unimpressed, so it’s always very difficult, But because it’s invisible I think it has more power, unlike an object in a gallery where you may come to it with certain prejudices, a piece of graphic design is just seen as something which conveys information, so I think it can have an amazing power to it.

From Andy Altmann, Why Not Associates:
Do you consider yourself a designer, an artist, a font designer or a typographer?
JB: I usually say designer because I think the foundation of everything is solving a problem, whether it’s a communication problem about politics or how to render a typeface in a way which looks like it’s got a particular tone of voice.

From Yoni Alter:
Do you reckon the world in which a graphic designer operates and responds-to today is substantially different to the one in which you’ve began your career ?
JB: It is very different. When I was a student there was no thought about the environment at all, no integration of the environment and global warming as a necessary factor to produce something, which there is now. There was no issue of globalisation on the agenda at all, so although the politicisation of design has always been there, it hadn’t been so consciously mainstream. When I was taught at college it was definitely about how to set text legibly, how to convey the message of the client: it wasn’t about whether you should choose what kinds of client to work for, whether you should have a view on issues like gloablisation, it just didn’t exist. There’s much more social and political design now: when I was 16 all I wanted to do was make the world a better place to for doing nice design but that’s not enough.

From Nick Bell:
What with the scandal over reasons for going to war with Iraq, cash for honors, yesterday’s obfuscation from British intelligence regarding previous knowledge of the 7/7 bombers… it seems as if those who run the country are becoming less and less trustworthy and more and more corrupt. Is this actually the case? Is it plain ineptitude? Do you think it has always been like this? If so, what role do you think the media plays in this if any?
JB: I think it’s always been like that but that people were better at covering it up in the past, it’s not so easy nowadays, things leak out and you have 24 hour news coverage so that anything that is a development of the story takes absolute prominence. And things are recorded nowadays.

From Nick Bell:
What is your opinion about the culture of celebrity we live in today? 
Did you agree with Gordon Brown when he said recently there will be a reaction against all this?
JB: I don’t believe it all, I think he was trying to appeal to common sense but there is no common sense to celebrity and people are still fascinated by it – you just have to see what happened when Kate Moss released her clothing line, people want a piece of celebrity.

From Luke Prowse:
You know of my respect for you, despite the short (personally unsuccessful) spell as intern several years back. The face of the book seems consciously self-aggrandising; I wonder to what degree you recognise the people who have worked with/for you over the years, on the fonts, exhibitions, records et al? The cover – and I am oblivious to the contents within – begs a retro-active return to the myth-making super-designer of yester-decade in which you first came to prominence. You seem to be as concerned with your legacy as a certain Blair, and I have suspicions it’s at the expense of the party. I hope I’m wrong, and look forward to the exhibition.
JB: He’s right, he hasn’t seen the book, so how can he judge? The cover with my name on it was a bit awkward. When we have done books in the past we have used Barnbrook Design but the American publisher wanted a person to hang the whole thing on, although I managed to get my title in the end. It’s not trying to say that I’m God’s gift or anything like that, but I do have to take some credit for it – I’ve been working for 15 years and seven of those were on my own. When there are projects that people have helped on I hope they’ve been credited, or when they have made a contribution over and above what’s expected in the studio they do get credit for that but I can see how it could be misconstrued with the title saying “me, me, me”. Bible is a reference to religious typography which I’m very interested in but it’s also about saying what you believe, and with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism I thought there was something contradictory about using the term. You always get people seeing you in the worst possible light – I’m glad I’m not a politician.

From Kalle Lasn, Adbusters:
How can we design the world out of the ecological, psychological and political mess that it has got itself into?
JB:Very easy question! It comes from something I often say in lectures which is that you don’t see yourself as a designer, you see yourself as a citizen, so use your tools as a designer to participate as a citizen. Whatever you do in your private life and in your work life are not separate, and you can’t really see design as only talking to other designers, it’s part of society. We’ve just got to do the best job we can under the circumstances to work towards those things that Kalle’s talking about. Designers do have to make a stand. Things are getting better, I do feel optimistic because there is a growing belief in sustainability, but in this designers are only as responsible as everybody else: graphic design sometimes gives you the illusion that you can affect the message of commercial work but it is very difficult, so it’s a matter of either doing your own work or making a stand so that you attract the right kind of work. People have to care more as human beings, not just as designers.

From Anna Gerber:
Ideally, what role do you think the graphic designer should or has the potential to fulfill in the future?
JB: That’s such an open-ended question: graphic design tends to change for the society it’s in and I’m sure it will continue to do that.

From rtgbanks:
I hate singers/producers/actors expressing their political opinions in awards/songs etc…I just want to hear their songs/films….why do you feel you have to do so much politically motivated work?
JB: I am slightly different in that this is what I do. I don’t release an album and then get all political, the work is political to start with. This theory that entertainment or popular culture isn’t political is rubbish: everything has a message, especially in Britain. It’s always been case that popular culture has influenced opinions in society: music is part of that, getting up and talking at Speakers’ Corner is part of that so I am just doing what is normal. This person sounds as if they are not very informed so “get a more interesting life” I would say.

From Andrew Howard:
It’s been seven years since you and I and another 31 of our colleagues signed the First Things First Manifesto 2000. What impact do you think the manifesto has had and what value, if any, does it have today? And in retrospect, would you have done things differently had you had the opportunity?
From David Crowley:
Has First-Things-First: 2000 left a legacy?
JB: It’s very difficult to quantify, but I do think it’s responsible for putting the question of meaningful design on the agenda when, at the time, it was painful how these kind of things weren’t openly discussed. A lot of people complained about it, other people thought it was something that really needed to be said at the time, so I think it was quite valuable. Ideally what would have happened is that the people within it worked more as a cohesive group afterwards, but that didn’t happen. It would have been better if we’d done more. I still get questions about it because it’s something that students pick up on. When they are at college they are assaulted by the commercial world and then suddenly they find this statement that does coincide with what a lot of them are thinking, so it has a resonance.

From Lakshmi Bhaskaran:
You have the opportunity to raise awareness about any social, environmental or political issue through design. What would you choose and how would you approach it?
JB: It changes from day to day: you just have to look at the work to see the subjects I’m concerned with. I have this idea that it’s like carbon offsetting – you don’t just spend your time doing commercial work, do something for your local community [as a way of offsetting what you do at work]. To sit there and complain about designers who try to do something and then not get off your arse and do something yourself is the worst.

From Erik Spiekermann:
Jonathan, there is a theory that typefaces look like their designers. Is that true?
JB: Well Spiekermann does look like Meta, and I suppose I look like Bastard… Typefaces do have personality, you want to have a tone of voice for the time, to express something that’s not necessarily expressable in other visual forms.

From Andy Altmann:
Who would you describe as the greatest font designer?
JB: Eric Gill, his typefaces are absolutely from his universe and I think he is the closest to me in the way he drew his fonts, although he got to do them all himself and I don’t. You can tell his point of view of the world, it’s absolutely against the Modernist idea of transparent communication but it gives humanity to them and it evokes that period of time in Britain. And they are beautiful as well.

From Andy Altmann:
Who is the greatest – Rod Stewart or Eric Gill?
JB: Eric Gill. Typography can’t consciously motivate like music, but that’s why I think that any form of popular culture is worthwhile but you have to approach things from an emotional level as well.

From Stephen Coles:
Like a veteran rock star still getting requests for his early hits over and over again, I wonder if you tire of seeing your ultra-popular typefaces Exocet and Mason? And how do you react to the countless Exocet copycats?
JB: I never get tired of seeing them because it means they are still relevant, it always makes me happy. I got really upset when I first saw the copycats at the thought that people could just rip off what I’d done but life’s too short so now I just let it all go – and it’s a form of flattery.

From Stephen Coles:
Have you ever seen your fonts used for a cause you disagree with?
JB: Aryan Nation, a right-wing organisation in America, used Exocet. When you release a font, you are not responsible for what people write in it, but you do feel responsible because you are creating a tone of voice. It’s interesting to see how they perverted the original intention of the font, which was related to Greek and Roman lettering. Obviously Greek has an Aryan basis, so they have correctly identified what’s in it, but they have taken it in a very negative way. It’s amazing how sometimes people see something that you never saw in a font.

From Andrew Losowsky:
Which has more impact: typography that matches the message or typography that wilfully contradicts it?
JB: It depends on what kind of problem you’re trying to solve: you can’t really be that particular. Typography is very much about fashion, so if you want novelty, a contradiction can work.

From Freda Sack, ISTD:
You are obviously someone who is passionate about letterforms and communication, and you also have a reputation for challenging the conventional. In the scheme of things, communication wise, is typography important? Do you feel that generally the perception of typography is that of a dull and dying craft? Can typography be taught in a relevant and inspiring way?
JB: Of course it’s important, I hope she’s not suggesting my work is illegible! There are lots of different kinds of communication: there the direct catching of someone’s attention, there’s misreading the message which can help some kinds of communication… if legibility is sacrificed you can appeal to a certain target audience better, so legibility isn’t always important. I don’t think typography seems dull and dying. When the computer came into typography it really enlivened it: I think that legacy is still going on. It was seen as completely separate from graphic design but now, as everybody works on a computer, it’s seen as absolutely central to it. When I was taught typography, it was always seen as a very technical process but it’s not, it’s much more about language and the wonderful contradictions you get in language. I know people will say they don’t have the time or that you have to be pragmatic, but I would like to see a much more poetic way of looking at typography to inspire people. It is quite difficult to teach, people have short attention spans, but you don’t have to be mean about it.

From Sallyanne Theodosiou, UCCA:
Can you reflect on the time when you were a student and the strategies you used to motivate yourself when you found a project hard or could not access that creative spark?
JB: I did go through a period when I was a student when I didn’t do any work for about two months because I suddenly thought “what’s the point?” But that was when the political work came in, because obviously there is a point. Every designer wants to make the world a better place. I’ve never had a problem being motivated, it’s impossible not to be, there’s always something to work on. Even if you go and work on another project, there’s always something to bring you back. What keeps it fresh is doing your own work and making sure there’s a crossover between that and the commercial work.

From Nick Bell:
Who are your favourite collaborators?
JB:The first book I did with Damien Hirst I thought was a good collaboration because he was one of the first artists I’d met who really respected what a graphic designer did. He made sure it was valued in the whole scheme of doing a book and he threw away the snobbery of art. And Tony Kaye as well, because he was so passionate. He’s got such a singular view of the world, and he can be irritating or bothersome but he cares and there’s so many people who don’t care. He’s another person who realised the important role of the designer, which is actually quite rare in advertising: graphic design doesn’t have that much respect outside of graphic design. He said that the typography has got to be as important as the live action in putting over the atmosphere in a film.

From Nick Bell:
How do you fund your self-initiated work? Has this presented you with any difficult decisions in the past?
JB: By not hoping to be extremely rich, and not just taking jobs on for the money. Personal work isn’t something you can stop doing because I’d feel really restricted if I just did commercial work all the time and I’m sure people would find what we do much less interesting. I try not to have a business plan, we just survive as best we can doing the work we want to do.

From Andy Altmann:
How do you manage to do all your personal work and make a living?
JB: It’s always difficult to survive: we’re not rolling in money. We do get given projects but we try and make an ethical decision whether to do them or not, When we research a client, usually you find out who owns the company: for instance, we had a leisure company that came to us wanting a corporate identity and we found out they were owed by an explosives company. It’s very difficult to say where the responsibility ends because money washes around, so in the end you do your research, but whether it’s OK to work with somebody or not is an emotional decision based on your gut instincts. We’ve been asked to work with Coca-Cola a few times and, although individually I’m sure the people are nice, what it represents isn’t. It does present a difficult problem: when I got offered the first Coca-Cola job, I phoned Kalle at Adbusters to ask him. It was a lot of money, but in the end you just can’t reconcile it: if students see the political work and then see that you’ve done some really cool campaign for Coca-Cola, it’s inconsistent. It makes people think they can buy your talent, which is not the case.

From Andy Altmann:
If you had the choice between Luton Town not being relegated and a one man show at the Design Museum, what would it be?
JB: Fortunately I don’t have to make that choice because Luton will be back, very soon, to win the Champions League.

From Nick Bell:
Do you feel an affiliation with Mike Newell (former Luton Town FC manager) who exposed the culture of corruption in the transfer market last year?
JB: Not really because he was a bit of a hypocrite, but a lot of what I’m saying is not exposing anything, it’s already been said by plenty of people. What I try and do is add my opinion to the weight of many opinions. You can’t quantify how a lot of change happens, but protest does make a difference: if you change the ideological landscape it does affect the mindset of politicians.

From Andy Altmann:
What do you prefer – a cherry brandy or a snowball?
JB: It’s true, I never used t be able too handle proper alcoholic drinks but nowadays I can.

From Andy Altmann:
How much weight have you lost for the publicity stills for your show (only jealous on this score!)?
JB: I lost two stones: I was 40 and I was turning into Fat Bastard, another of my typefaces.

From Andy Altmann:
What do Match of the Day and Japanese girls have in common?
JB: I can’t answer this as it refers to a very rude incident.

From Andrew Losowsky:
When you’re an old man looking back on life, what skills do you want to have then that you don’t have yet?
JB: To learn to speak Japanese (which has nothing to do with the previous question). My wife’s Japanese and I’d like to be able to speak to her parents. I also get a lot of work from Japan so I’d like a much more human contact with people. And I’d like to be able to sit down at a party and play the piano and have everybody stand around and sing.

From Teal Triggs, LCC:
If you had to do it all over again – what would you do differently?
JB: I’d worry much less about just doing what I wanted to do. When I was at college, I used to worry about having a commercial portfolio. I spent most of the 80s just doing stuff that wasn’t me. So I’d follow my passions a bit more at college. And I’d have wasted less time playing and watching football.

Jonathan Barnbrook – Friendly Fire is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, from 19 June to 10 October. See for details. Barnbrook Bible: The Graphic Design of Jonathan Barnbrook will be published on 19 June by Booth-Clibborn Editions £35, cover shown below. An edited version of this article appears in the June issue of Creative Review

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