Among the many theories advanced by Neville Brody at his D&AD President’s Lecture last night was that 80s popsters Haircut 100 are responsible for the decline of popular culture in Britain today…
Brody placed the exact point at which he became disillusioned with popular culture at the moment when Haircut 100, all tucked-in Aran jumpers and perfectly coiffed, entered the charts. “After that,” he said, ” it all became about how you were styled, what clothes you wore and not what you had to say.” And from then on he never designed another record sleeve. Looking at the above picture, you’ve got to admit he had a point…
In a wide-ranging, if at times slightly dislocated, discussion with Adrian Shaughnessy, Brody touched on education, politics, culture and even graphic design. If at times it felt a bit like a Ben Elton gig circa 1986, with Brody blaming Thatcher and Reagan (alongside Nick Heyward’s mob) for society’s ills, it was a welcome change from the usual conference fare of “and here’s a project we did for x”. Brody is that rare combination of a designer with something to say about the world and the ability to articulate those thoughts.
On his landmark V&A exhibition in 1988, which propelled him to a certain level of ‘fame’ (famous, at least, in graphic design terms), Brody claimed that “it was absolutely not about a desire for celebrity” but “about trying to bring people to the ideas [behind the work]”. The exhibition was a commercial disaster for Brody’s studio in that it scared off potential clients. “People reacted to the profile and didn’t look beyond that to the work itself,” he claimed.
He was particularly forthright about design education, claiming that the whole system needed to be torn up, there is too much focus on training for a career (something that many would dispute given the constant complaints about graduates’ work-readiness) and that students are denied time with tutors and the freedom to experiment (a less contentious view).
Shaughnessy did a good job in trying to work in the questions Tweeted (‘Twat’?) in by CR readers and others which were displayed on a screen next to the two of them, but one of the more memorable came from an audience member who challenged Brody on the apparent “disconnect” between the views that he had been espousing on politics, the need to be ‘dangerous’ and his apparent oppositional stance and the work for the likes of News International, Kenzo and Dom Perignon that was playing on the screen behind him. Brody, who had earlier admitted that his “hypocrisy was plain to see” argued that “design is fundamentally a compromise”. That he needed to take on paying clients in order to fund work such as his Freedom Space installation for the Design Museum (poster shown below). Shaughnessy queried whether, back when he was designing record covers for Throbbing Gristle, Brody ever imagined himself working for Rupert Murdoch (his studio redesigned The Times), to which Brody replied “we’ll all be working for Rupert Murdoch eventually” and that, somewhat unconvincingly, it’s “all in the same space” of conveying and explaining information.
Brody was on firmer ground when discussing the role of the designer. He compared it to that of an artist in that ” you start with the end result and then manufacture the process to get there”. In other words, an artist may start with an idea about the world or a particular sensation that they wish to convey and then figure out what physical form could deliver or express that. Same with design. “The difference between art and design is that art is based on a commodity – what you end up with has a value in itself,” he said. “Design is a service industry.”
The designer, he later said, sits between information and understanding, being the vital conduit between the two. Thus, he said, designers had a vital role to play in the world, even if they sometimes failed to realise it.
He also touched on what he termed ‘design hooliganism’ – the ad hominem abuse that he and others have been subjected to online on blogs such as this one. Brody admitted that he found it hard to take at times, when people who had never met him made personal remarks that, had they made them to his face may have resulted in some physical confrontation. He traced it to the kind of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that is a facet of public life whereby anyone with any degree of public profile is considered fair game.
It’s also something that we dicsuss in the new issue of CR, aptly summed up in this venn diagram
And what of the vote? The audience had been issued with A4 cards (above) with ‘genius’ on one side and ‘wanker’ on the other and were asked to vote on which they thought Brody was at the end of the evening – something of a ludicrous choice, of course but I think Brody’s point was that public discourse encourages such extremes. You are either one or the other. Hero or villain. Lauded or derided. He has known both.
I didn’t personally witness the vote having had to make an early exit, but, for the record, I believe that ‘genius’ won out.
And talking of genius…