Jonathan Barnbrook is a designer and activist who has worked with some of the most prominent artists, organisations and movements in the world. The studio that he founded in 1990 produces typefaces, books, and a host of client work that marries a powerful and memorable aesthetic with a sense of responsibility and awareness. Barnbrook’s work has been widely published and written about; in its own right and often in connection with a fruitful series of collaborations with David Bowie. Workgroup’s David Wall caught up with Jonathan ahead of his main stage talk at OFFSET 2016.
A lot of the discussion that I remember from college and my time as a graduate (2002) revolved around the co-option of underground style for nefarious purposes. It feels like the time between the creation of a new (or genuinely) challenging design style and its co-option into use for other purposes has been reduced to almost nothing. In that context, is it possible to create anything that has meaning?
That’s an easy question. If you start worrying about how quickly things are appropriated or who appropriates them, you need never do anything. I think the important thing is what you’re trying to say in the first place. [Any] new philosophies in your work are a response to the world today as it’s never been before, so I understand your question in a way, but also it’s just completely relative to the time. Appropriation always happens. So I can’t really worry about it to be honest.
Can design be an agent of change or does it only encourage or facilitate it?
It’s very difficult to know because societies are complex things. I think what design does is quite a small thing; helping those people who want to get that issue on the agenda, helping them to say it clearly and as loudly as possible. I’m often asked ‘have I done a piece of work that’s changed anything’ and I would say that I haven’t. It doesn’t work like that, it’s more about being part of a voice that hopes to change and works in the service of protest. It’s not the end in itself. It’s part of a way of living which is doing the work, protesting and following your own principles. And only graphic designers ask that question. When we have done work with people who protest, they know graphic design works because they’re asking us to work on it. I think the problem with graphic designers is they avoid the question of the political nature of graphic design in any form. In itself, consenting to do a commercial project is a political decision.
The left and/or more progressive politics seems to have an uneasy relationship with design. Why is that do you think?
I don’t think so. I think all the best design has been done by the left, hasn’t it? I mean…constructivism!
Maybe I’m biased from an Irish perspective. We recently had an election here in Ireland, where more radical ideas tend to be paired with reactionary aesthetics.
Graphic design is a particularly neutral thing. The same ideas that appear in the work for multinationals to sell products appear in work for subverting those things. So there’s a suspicion from the left. When you look at extreme politics, either left or right, there’s a certain amount of black and white there that’s very effective for conveying in official graphic form. Work from the communists or work from the Nazi regime is somehow so powerful and attractive to us all because there’s an element of certainty, of confirmation in it. I think it’s much more difficult to explain the nuances of a complex political problem in graphical form. It doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t try. It doesn’t tend to work in a one big headline. And you don’t always have to offer the solution in a piece of political work. What you can do is highlight the problem which I think is just as effective; you don’t have to say ‘this is the problem; this is how you solve it’. Life often isn’t that simple. And designers set themselves up as having the solution. It’s an ego trip. When I first became involved in political work, it was viewed as quite shocking that designers should have a political opinion or be heavily involved in political work which uses the tools of all the contemporary corporate work. Nowadays, most people are aware of the anti-globalisation movement. I think there’s an acknowledgement possibility that this isn’t the perfect system and that other solutions could be found. People who aren’t necessarily absolutely agreeable on certain political points share a common issue, that they want to come together over. Politics is much more network-based than party-based than it was before. So it’s quite encouraging to me what’s happening in design and what’s starting in politics at the moment, despite the world being a very dark shitty place.
Would you see that kind of approach or outlook translating into your own work; where it’s not necessarily about dictating a conclusion?
The slightly different issue is about wanting to add something positive to a media which as well as being right-wing biased is also extremely negatively biased. The digital work that we’ve been engaged in – I hope – shows some positive examples. I did a project about Northern Ireland a while back. I was sick of the negative things that were going on in the press and actually it’s a much more positive situation there than it was ten or fifteen years ago. So the work there was to offer a bit of hope and to make the conflict very much ‘history’ by acknowledging the aesthetics of it and not just talking about the terror all the time. There’s a piece of work called the Day of Forgetting which prompted the Northern Ireland work. I asked ‘what do you think someone who was killed… would want to say now if they had a say?’. The project was a specific proposal: rather than remember every single political aspect, every single political crime; to just simply forget, really forget. So that project was trying to sort of give a different view, but a hopeful view – an almost stupid view – but one that could actually help a situation.
Do clients ‘self-select’ your studio based on the profile and work, or do you have to explain or establish a stance from scratch?
You work in the area that you want to work in and then the work will find you. There’s no point in having a commercial portfolio of stuff you hate and then hoping that the work you really want to do will come along, because it doesn’t work like that. So we attract the work that’s appropriate for us. The bigger corporations obviously tend to keep away from us because most of them don’t like designers with opinions. They want to say how to sell a car, they don’t want to be able to ask why you’re selling the car in the first place. We attract a certain kind of work which we’re very happy to do. I hope the positive thing is for others to see that you can.
I understand your work as being quite integrated: through concept to execution and with the tools that you use. When you work with clients, do you find it an interesting opportunity or a challenge to work with their viewpoint, content and context?
Well it’s not a war, a client isn’t an opponent, when you design something you do it in an integrated form including the brief the client wants and what they have to add to the project. There’s never any conflict. What often happens though is that we are working on a personal project – whether it’s a typeface or some other ideological preoccupation – and the right project will come along at the same time. We’ll include it or somehow it will seem right, even if it’s not directly linked. I think one of the most important things you have to do as a graphic designer is be a nice human being. You have to leave the client with a pleasurable experience of working with you. And this is talking in non-political terms, it’s just on a basic communication with other human beings. If the experience is terrible, it doesn’t matter how good you are, it means you’re a bad designer because good designers work with other human beings.
All images courtesy of Barnbrook.
Portrait photo by Teri Varhol.