We regularly receive requests from students or for interviews about the work of Barnbrook, Jonathan Barnbrook and VirusFonts. Since we are a small and busy studio we are unfortunately unable to respond to them all. Below are a series of Q&As with Jonathan Barnbrook which answer most of the questions that many, especially students ask.
Q — Why did you start designing?
A — People do things for the most tenuous of reasons. I think my art teacher said I should…so I did! Which may sound a bit of silly, however I recently I found all my old school books and I was intrigued by all the graffiti I had drawn on them. It was the time of Punk and New Wave and I written the names of the bands I liked as any teenager would, only I had copied all the typefaces perfectly. It seemed that it was really important for me to get this right. Looking back I saw it was because the typestyle of the band’s name expressed the ideology and the atmosphere of the band’s music so I was already very sensitive to that kind of thing. My art teacher (Hello Mr. Lewis) was completely right to point me in that direction.
Q — Where did you study?
A — When somebody comes to see me I never ask what college they have been to or their grade, I believe these are irrelevant, the only people who care about such things are parents or the student themselves. I am more interested in what sort of work they have done and what they are like as a person. This is one of the things I like most about graphic design –it is absolutely not about qualifications – If you are talented you always have a chance.
Having said all that I should let people know for purposes of projects etc: I spent 8 years at college. I started studying from the age of 16. Two years doing a BTEC diploma in Graphic Design at Luton’s Barnfield College (1982–84), one year at Croydon College doing a Higher Diploma in Graphic Design (1984–85), three years on a BA in Graphic Design at Central/St. Martins (1985–88) and finally two years doing an MA in Graphic Communication at the Royal College of Art (1988–90), London. I have also received honorary doctorates from Staffordshire University and University of Arts London.
Q — Why did you set up your company straight from college?
A — When I was educated the designers that the tutors tried to push us towards were really ‘commercial’. This was utterly boring to me, it had nothing to do with my life experience or why I was into graphic design. Design was then seen by them as a commodity just like anything else – there were no discussions about cultural value originality or the possibility for social change through it – so I felt I had to go on my own because I just couldn’t work that way. It meant that first I spent as long a time as possible at college (education was free then) as I thought it far better that I should spend time experimenting and then compromise once I left. Then I thought as long as I ‘survive’ doing what I want to do, then I would be OK. I know this is the difference between me and many designers, as they tend to compromise and then it is very difficult to get back to where they want to go.
Thankfully I managed to survive just doing a certain kind of work I was interested in. From that i learnt that I learnt the very important lesson that clients tend to only commission the kind of work that they can see in your folio and it is better to find the area you like to work in so people know where you are coming from rather than have a portfolio that tries to do everything.
So in summary, I did it because I felt unemployable somehow and it turned out OK.
Q — What is the make up of your studio now?
A — Currently there are three permanent members of design staff along with myself—Anil Aykan Barnbrook (my wife) Jonathan Abbott, Marwan Kaabour, plus Elle Kawano the business manager. We also have someone on a paid internship. I think it is important to point out that they are paid because there are too many companies getting away with not paying and it is illegal. Companies can afford it if they want to so I would ask anybody applying for an internship to ask about getting paid. You give them your labour, even if you are getting something back.
People are often surprised that there are so few of us – they imagine a huge bank of designers all working away – I hope it shows it is possible to have influence without a heavy structure. Influence comes from the difference of intellectual input and doing a job well, not the amount of people you have working on a job. Although I do think that this smallness of the company has been a limit in some cases. Often clients want ‘a safe pair of hands’ for a big project and that means they will go with a bigger company as they are perceived as having that.
Q — What do you think of state of art education at the moment?
A — It has changed beyond recognition since I was at college. I never had to pay a penny towards my education. Coming from a poor single parent family, I know the fees and living costs now would have scared my mother off of thinking it was possible for me to go to college. It is very sad and I can’t help feeling society has really taken a step backwards. It has also affected the environment and level of students. I was genuinely scared at certain points of art college that if I wasn’t good enough or didn’t work hard I would get chucked out. The situation is the opposite now where the tutors are put under pressure because students have to pay for their education, this along with a huge increase in class sizes because of the increased funding more students bring in has meant a very difficult situation.
Q — Why is typography important?
A — It is one of the basic building blocks of design. You can’t be a good graphic designer without a thorough knowledge of typography. So those students reading this who say they find typography boring should look at changing their career. I am quite surprised at the lack of seriousness sometimes by students when learning graphic design. I don’t know any other profession when you would get away with not being serious and not learn everything about the fundamentals of you job, yet I see it all the time in the folios we receive. It is firstly about a connection with language and communication if you are a visual communicator then you need to know how to use typography.
Q — What makes a good typographer?
A — It is about attention to detail first, that is what separates good typographers and designers from the average ones. It’s how you can aid proper comprehension of information, not just how pretty you can make something look. Its very easy to see if someone is a good typographer because when they send you their portfolio they will have cared about how they have set their contact details and crafted the captions. They will understand how a well set business card will make your clients message and image stronger and more clear. You will be surprised about the amount of students who don’t even know how to use basic punctuation in design which is essential if you are a typographer.
Q — Do you hate Helvetica?
A — When I was younger I had a problem with it, but then I thought I was fighting some kind of battle with Modernism. That battle is kind of over now though which is both good and bad. because it is actually very difficult today to be certain about any design ideology and least there was some kind of certainty when the Modernists where around. My problem with Helvetica comes specifically from my background. I came from a town of high unemployment and bad architecture. Helvetica was the signage used on the local dole office, the closed down factory or the broken public transport system. It wasn’t the sleek airport graphics that many middle class designers seemed to croon over. It was also the language of capitalism. The big multinationals trying to sell their stuff to you that you didn’t want did it all in helvetica.
I also hated a phrase that a few of my design teachers used to say which was ‘when in doubt use Helvetica’ it is such a lifeless way of looking at typography and it imposition I felt was a completely false assumption of what was legible. Of course I appreciate its role in design history and the drawing that went into the actual letterforms, but there is so much energy, culture and excitement in other fonts.
Q — What is the future of typography?
A — Well it is difficult to know where to stop when I think of the future when people ask me this question because it is so open ended. Do people mean ten years? A thousand years?, A million?
There is a conflict now between asserting national identity and communicating clearly internationally. As it becomes easier to create typefaces electronically, will cultures that have lost their written language now rediscover them? Will English still be the ‘international language’ or do we need a complete new language? In the longer term, will we evolve into a new way of writing that can be sent quickly electronically? seems like it is already happening with the use of emoji and 140 character limits for tweets. Technology has always affected the expression of language from ancient wax tablets to the computer screens. Will choosing a typeface become almost superfluous because the same information has to be displayed on so many different technologies? Will another alphabet have the same number of characters in a thousand years time? Will people still use typefaces if they don’t use reading as a primary form of communication? I know that I am not really answering the question but what I am trying to say is that typography is so directly linked with the way people express and communicate themselves it is impossible predict.
Just to namedrop, I once asked William Burroughs to write a piece of text for a project I was doing at college. It was for a font called Prototype, which was part of a system of expressing simultaneous though. He unsurprisingly never wrote the text but he was kind enough to invite me to meet him at a private view of his artworks and we had an interesting discussion about the future of typography. I asked him about his feelings on typography and he said that he wasn’t interested in it because all words and representations of concepts would be replaced by a system similar to Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that would be understood worldwide. Something which would naturally develop from the system of airport pictograms or people’s experiencing and interacting international spaces. It was an interesting radical idea which gave me a lot to think about.
Q — How does a student learn to be a good typographer?
A — As with all these things, it is a case of first being interested in the subject and wanting to find out about it. The principles of good typography have not changed since the beginning of printing and are generally universal across languages. They are to do with aiding readability and comprehension of text, involving pragmatic things such as correct word count, line length and understanding hierarchy of information. Its not difficult to find the information as there are plenty of good books around. Then, only by actually doing it you will you learn what is good and bad. So I would say learn the rules of good basic text setting, then start with the experimental work after you have done this. It sounds silly I know – yes you must have passion and a desire to change design – but you also must have knowledge of the rules to rebel against. So it is detail, detail, detail first with typography, only then the big creative gesture.
03. TYPEFACE DESIGN
Q — What is the process of producing a typeface?
A — I usually sketch things roughly in my notebook. These drawings are not very exact; the sketches come from either an idea or concept I have had, or some interesting lettering I have seen. I then sit at the computer and refer to the drawing, it is very important that the typeface is ‘out of focus’ at that stage, to get just the essence right, the computer does the refining. This means the first time I output something it looks terrible, the twentieth or hundredth time it might look OK and then it builds from there. Drawing a typeface is a very painful process, not just in the endless refining but also just the sheer amount of time it takes, you are talking many months for a text font, so it can be pretty daunting. My advice, just start with a few useful letters that you will use for a project and don’t get caught up in drawing a whole font unless its really, really necessary as it is not the best use of your time. If you do draw a whole font though, the pure pleasure of being able to set any text from the history of mankind is one of the most exciting. I still get that the first time i words made from a new font.
Of course there is also an ‘contextual’ process going on. One of the most important is how to subvert the history of typography within the drawing or concept. That may sound pretentious, but there are issues about making a letter look badly drawn, to give it a subversive edge or to reference a moment of typography history. If you don’t have these thoughts – about what exactly the critical position is of your work – then you are going to be fishing around much more trying to come up with something. I am not that interested in historical accuracy which might surprise some people, my fonts are about an emotional feeling you get from a time period or ideology. A synthesis of many different things defined by the time you are working in. This strong emotional feeling from fonts was the main reason I started drawing them. I wanted to create that.
Additionally to all that there is the social and cultural role of typefaces, the time, the connection with language and the time they are drawn in. It is very difficult to articulate this complex facet of typefaces. You are aware of the age you are working in, your role in the history of typography, the conceptual ideas floating around in all areas of design, the evolution of language over the years. The need to acknowledge or subvert all that.
Q — You seem to put a lot of emphasis on the name of a typeface, why is this?
A — It is very important, in the past a typeface would take years so it was almost a life’s work. Therefore people would often use their surname. There was also the ‘Letraset’ school of naming which was to name after a visual pun to do with the typeface. Technology has changed the time taken and access for producing typefaces so it can be done be individuals on a much quicker timescale. I suppose I see it as a cross between naming a pop song and a painting. The name can be throwaway; last for a moment, but it can also have many different layers. Often fonts will go through four of five different name changes before we settle on the right one. The name ‘Bastard’ for instance I thought about a lot, originally it was ‘Thatcher’ after Margaret Thatcher and it changed a few times after that. The typeface is a blackletter (or gothic) font. It has strong associations with Fascism. It would have been silly to ignore this, even though blackletter has a large place in the history of typography, most people would associate it with the Nazis so it was a chance to almost ‘laugh’ at that. But if you bother to look further into the name, you will know that there is a 14–15th Century form of blackletter called ‘Bastarda’ or that putting the ‘wrong font’ in a piece of letterpress setting is called ‘bastard type’. All I am trying to say is that naming a font is incredibly important. There is a tension there, which can be played with.
Q — How would you recommend that people learn about typography?
A — Pressurise their tutors to teach it or go to the library and learn about it yourself, I do get quite annoyed with students who expect this kind of thing to be given to them, passive people are not good designers. The best designers will naturally learn everything about a subject because they are interested in it. Your library may have useful books and there is a lot of stuff online – the important thing is to stick at it – as your work will benefit because of it.
Q — Tell us about VirusFonts
A — It is my own font company and only releases our fonts and has been going since 1997. It was set up because we had a lot of other typeface to be released and I wanted to do it on my terms. To not just control the font but the whole context of the way it was released. The very early websites were styled like a strange religious cult, to show that this wasn’t a mainstream font company. It still is very important to use to be able to explain the whole context of the typeface properly when it comes out and our website enables us to do that. It is a place where we are able to make our work as extreme as we are our own client in this case.
Q — What is your most well-known typeface?
A — It has to be, released by Emigre. I was very surprised when it became popular as I designed it entirely for my own use. I have seen it used everywhere in the world. That makes me both sad and happy. Happy that I am part of the visual landscape but sad because sometimes I just want to go somewhere that is foreign, beyond the reach of what I do. Most bizarre thing is when I go to a palace or major tourist attraction on a holiday and I find them using Mason all through the signage. It does take a little bit away from the uniqueness of the experience. For me it was a font which was very much about beauty of typography, it was a combination of all of the historic serif letters I had seen that I found interesting or intriguing. This is why the font looks so decorative. However I meant for the more unusual characters to be used sparingly. I am still amazed though that the different uses that people find for it.
Q — Will I get rich by designing fonts?
A — If you are lucky and design a font for a big corporation you will make some money, but if you are interested in doing experimental work it is unlikely. Generally, I wouldn’t advise anybody to work in graphics just for the money.
04. THE POLITICAL ROLE OF DESIGN
Q — Do you think graphic design has a political role to play in society?
A — Politics does seem to have been almost completely taken out of the equation when people talk about graphic design. I would like to say this very simply: graphic design is not just about marketing, it is not just an industry, it is a powerful tool of mass-communication, giving you the potential to communicate what you believe in to an huge amount of people. Unfortunately there are plenty of designers who say that everything has to be framed within the market economy, that things are ‘indulgent’ if they do anything else. This is utter, utter rubbish – design does not just serve the market economy – this is an imposed political ideal based on abstract idea called ‘profit’, not human need.
Q — Has anything changed as a result of your political work?
A – Well it doesn’t really work like that, people don’t look at a particular piece of work and then suddenly change their opinion. I think what I am part of is those in society that knows we need pressurise politicians to understand they have a duty to make the world a better place.
If you look through the history of social change, it is usually when an idea has gained enough currency to become mainstream and be taken up by politicians and this is done by a number of means, information, getting your idea out there and protest and graphic design is an essential part of these. The people who are doing though, don‘t get hung up like designers on trying to prove this, they are just getting on with it using leaflets, placards, posters & websites to say what they need to say.
Q — There are plenty of designers who claim that they are ‘politically correct’ they rant about corporations yet they seem very happy to take the money from them and not modify the way they live outside their design work. Are you one of these people? For instance do you do charity work? Do you have a large car? Do you turn down work from companies that you don’t agree with?
A — I have said many times that I don’t believe your work is separate from your life, it’s part of it, so I regard what I do in design as an extension of my philosophy in the way I live my life rather than the other way around. So in short, although I am not perfect I do try to practice what I preach. We don’t work with companies we don’t agree with, which has cost us a lot of money. I live in a modest flat and get to work by bicycle or subway, I don’t have a car because I don’t want to make the world a worse place with it. We do charity work, but not as often as we would like. I also try and consume responsibly, which is a pain for the people around me when I can’t just go to Starbucks or drink Coca-Cola when it is offered, but I think its worth the effort as it does make a difference. I probably travel on airplanes more than I should. However, what we say is not a pose to get more publicity or anything like that, if anything it creates a lot of problems because many clients do not like designers with opinions. 90% of clients want designers to show them ‘how’ not to ask ‘why’ they want to do that in the first place.
Regarding the political correctness, there are occasions when it has gone to far, for the most part though people who dismiss it are too lazy to modify or think about others they may offend or harm with what they say. We should be careful and not lump positive attempts to redress imbalance in society in with a term that has become shorthand for dismissing anything that takes a bit of effort to deal with.
Q — Tell us about about Adbusters
A — Adbusters is a bi-monthly magazine edited by Kalle Lasn based in Canada, they are an anti-advertising publication and website that seeks to expose the harm that advertising and large corporations do to us. Well actually it’s more than that, the best thing is for people to check the website at www.adbusters.org to see what they do. Adbusters for me is about a return to humanity. They really were one of the first organisations to talk about the issues around corporations and globalisation. They were also one of the main instigators of the occupy movement.
Q — How often do you work with them?
A — I wish I had more time to work with them as It is one the few things I do which I truly think is worthwhile. I am happy to say though they have a great art director. His name is Pedro Inoue, I know he is great because he used to work in this studio and we had a really good partnership together for doing political works.
Q — What was the point of signing the First things First Manifesto?
A — Adbusters reissued the First things First manifesto in 1999, originally written by Ken Garland in 1963, it asked designers to question the value of the work they do and who they work for. Of all the things I have done it’s generates the most questions, usually prompted by absolute cynicism about why it was released. I think the most important thing to realise is that a manifesto is a starting point, a statement of intention. Nobody was expecting to immediately change the world with it, what we did want to do though was get people to discuss where graphic design was heading, and to do it in the mainstream design press. I think that it achieved this very successfully, particularly in the USA where this discussion had been completely marginalised when designers became all starry-eyed about working for the new ‘cool’ multinationals.
One aspect that did disappoint me was that the people who signed it didn’t take it any further as a group after. I do think we could have got a lot of momentum going. What we could have achieved I don’t know but it was certainly more than just writing a manifesto.
06. DAMIEN HIRST
Q — Tell us about the experience of working with the artist Damien Hirst
A — It was a very interesting experience. The first project we worked together on was the book ‘I want to spend…’ I thought, both ‘This is great, because I love his work’ and also ‘God, it’s going to be a nightmare’. It was both, he was fun to work with and it was at the peak of ‘Brit art’. It felt really great to be working with the person who was at the centre of that. We went to some fantastic parties and I met some really interesting people. But it was a nightmare because of the schedule, the fact it never finished, work was constantly being added and there were endless technical as well as ‘political’ problems with the galleries involved.
Q — What was your working relationship?
A — I think his working process as an artist is very similar to the way a graphic designer works – he doesn’t make the work himself, but comes up with the concepts and commissions the best people to do the work for him – a lot of people get hung up on the romantic idea of craft, because people pay a lot of money for a piece of art then they feel that hard physical work should go into it by the artist. But, because he comes from popular culture like myself he doesn’t have this problem. So we both approached the book in a similar way; to communicate through a piece of mass media exactly what we wanted to say. He was very happy to let me have my role as the designer of the book and he didn’t interfere other than when he thought I didn’t represent his work correctly.
Q — What did you try and do with the design of the book
A — This was a chance to try and reinvent the art book. It always surprised me how conservative artists’ monographs were – you are dealing with an artist’s representation of culture, of uniqueness – so why frame it in conventional design? There is an argument for saying that clean straight layout helps the work. I believe there is a possibility to tell the people more about the work by graphic manipulation because pretending a book is neutral is actually dishonest. It’s a 2-d representation of the artists works and as such is a filter and shows only one aspect.
One major thing I was worried about was that most people do not read the text in art books despite what many writers would like to believe, so why not break it up so that people can digest it in small doses? Of course this is not appropriate for every art publication, but in the case of ones which are meant for the general public I think this solution is more valid.
A lot of people have said they don’t like the pop-ups, these were Damien’s idea, and in the beginning I wasn’t sure about them but I remembered that Picasso had said that he spent most of his life trying to paint like a child, and although it is not directly connected. I think the pop-ups give the book a childlike playfulness, they say that art is not just an academic subject, but is also about simple fun. Incidentally these are what caused the technical nightmare, we ended up having to go the printers in Hong Kong for several weeks to sort out all the technical problems. Normally you either do a pop-up book or a paper book, you don’t usually mix the two.
One of my favourite aspects of the book is social context that the artist is put in. There are examples of cartoons that have referred to Damien Hirst’s work or even where he was a clue in a crossword puzzle. It gives the feeling that an artist reacts to society and society reacts to the artist in a very immediate way.
Q — Is there anything you would change about the book?
A — You do some work at a certain point in time and you go with what happens at the time without regret, it is an ‘event’ as much as anything else. So I don’t think so much about things like that too much but I wish we had made more of an attempt to explain the work directly on the page. I am not sure how much Damien would have liked this though, his work has many layers and part of my desire to be a designer comes from a need to communicate why something was done.
Q — You have been very positive about Damien Hirst so far, be honest and tell us something you don’t like.
A — I suppose the whole ‘commercial’ thing makes me uncomfortable, that may sound strange coming from a graphic designer. Actually it is not just Damien, but a lot of young artists, you see them in adverts endorsing products and it is something I always turn down, so there seems to a complete turnabout of what people normally expect. You could say that it is a good thing that artists are more visible but for me it is another example of how corporations are infiltrating into absolutely every area of life. They hope there association with ‘culture’ gives what they do some added kudos. It seems to be all part of the fact that there is nowhere left to look anymore without seeing an advert or a piece of sponsorship. You are not sure anymore where the independent view begins and where the advertising message begins. Please don’t think I have a romantic idea about art being completely separate from commerce, it has been involved with art through the ages. It is just now at these circumstances that we live in, it is part of that bigger infiltration.
07. DAVID BOWIE
Q — How did you meet the late, great David Bowie?
A — It was through Damien Hirst, David Bowie phoned me up out of the blue and asked to pop around to our studio, he knew Hirst and liked the work I was doing for him, he was seeing a number of studios for a book about his wife Iman and I was lucky enough to be chosen out of them. So I had various conversations with him already before the point I stared working for him on his covers, although it was something i had been hoping for because I loved his music. The relationship continued for 15 years where I was lucky enough to do the album covers Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, ★ as well as work extensively on the David Bowie Is exhibition. I actually was quite surprised that he kept so loyal to me, because he was known for changing his music so much and he could have his pick of the world’s graphic designers, but then I could see he would always stick with a core of people he trusted, that were on his wavelength. So it was an honour to be thought of as part of them.
Q – What does it feel like now he has gone?
A — It is hard to put into words. I am not his family so I don’t have the same sense of loss as them and I wouldn’t pretend to feel like that. Just he has always been in my life since the age of about 10, he was played by my parents, he was influencing the music I liked, he was in the background being the person who was pointing me to other sources of inspiration and then he was very directly in my life from when I worked with him until now. So to have that suddenly removed from you. It is really strange and quite painful. I do plan to write more myself about working on the last album when there has been a bit of space, for now it is a bit too painful.
Q – Did you know he was ill?
A — No I didn’t. I met him in June 2015 to listen to the album and he was in great form. However as soon as i heard the last album ★ it was so directly about his mortality I felt that he was saying goodbye. I didn’t ask him directly because it is information that he should be in control of and it is just bad manners to ask such a thing. So we kept the conversation framed in ‘universal themes’, and he talked a lot about the ‘honesty’ of the album without directly stating what he was honest about. Looking back it was a way of me dealing and taking about the heaviness of the subjects without directly referring to him, and for David, it was a way of being honest in his comments about the design without burdening me with the heaviness of what I was doing.
Q – How did he feel about the people who liked his music?
They will be pleased to know that he always had absolute respect for them, as people on a simple level who paid for his and his family’s lifestyle and also he believed had a duty to push them somewhere new in thinking in with what he released. Always there was an understanding of what they expected from him. I think this was part of the reason for his absence from music for 10 years. He felt there was no point to produce music for the sake of record sales. Only when there was something new to say to people did he release music.
Q — What was it like working with him?
A — Well, on a personal level it felt like I had won an oscar or something, you have to feel like your work is OK if Bowie wants to work with you right? I feel so bloody lucky that I was able to be part of the life of someone who was one of the greatest creative figures of the past 100 years, but then when I was working with him I had to get over that sort of thing because it interferes with the creative process. So really I just tried to do my absolute best, because I knew he demanded it and because the music was worthy of it. That doesn’t mean it was really tense experience. You need to have an enjoyable journey along the way otherwise it is not worth doing, so there were a lot of stupid jokes and back and forth about other things. It was a lot of fun as well as hard work.
There was always the insecurity (and pressure) of course that I wouldn’t come up something good, I think though that is a basic artistic insecurity and pretty essential to doing good work. You would imagine with that much adulation in your life it could make him a difficult person to deal with but quite the contrary. It was an absolute joy. Having said that, I would practically kill myself getting to the design solution of course. Several months before the artwork was due I would be contacted by David and from then I would think about tried my absolute best to do something worthy of the music. It would fill almost every waking moment.
The fascinating part was to see how much he did was analysed and as part of that how the graphics was too. It was something I was very aware of as I designed. People would make all of these interesting connections and meanings. To me it is wonderful because this is one of the best things about the human mind. It is infinitely creative and constructs meaning and make stories wherever it finds it.
Q — Anything more to say about Bowie?
A — I feel we have hardly scratched the surface here. I need to sit down and write more about the process of working with him, but in the right way, I need to have a bit of distance from his passing and also I need to be careful and keep what meaning people themselves have found in the designs, he warned me sometimes that I over-explained my work which made it lose the mystery sometimes, which was good advice.
08. COMMERCIAL WORK
Q — Do you have commercial clients as well as doing political works?
A — Of course! Otherwise there would be no way to survive, however we do tend to work with certain clients and not others, and if a client comes to us and acts in a way we don’t like then we won’t work with them. This has meant turning down some very lucrative jobs from Coca-Cola, McDonalds and various sports manufacturers.
Q — Who are your commercial clients?
A — We do a lot of work for museum and cultural institutions because we still believe that these place make life better because of their existence. We also design a lot of books, and most of the graphic design for Art Basel, who hold the three biggest art fairs in the world.
Q — Do you feel more restricted doing work for commercial clients?
A — Not at all, we are aware of the parameters of the brief before we start a project and therefore know what to expect. The restrictions of a job mean that something demands a creative solution, and that is the most exciting part of being a designer. So there is nothing unexpected or difficult in that sense. In fact sometimes it is more difficult when you have absolute freedom to do what you like.
Q — How did you come to do the Roppongi Hills logo?
A — For people who don’t know, Roppongi Hills is the largest post-war development in Tokyo and Barnbrook did the corporate identity for it after winning a competition of 5 well known design groups. Corporate identity was not something that really interested me up until that point; I had always thought it was quite a dull area. However we decided if we were going to do a job on this scale it would be on our terms and do a logo that was relatively new in the world of corporate design. Our solution which won the competition was not one but a series of logos, all based on the same structure, but all looking different. We were making a comment about identity – it doesn’t have to be a rigid reinforcement all the time of the same thing – you can say things quietly but they will still be heard. It was also looking at the idea of a corporation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We didn’t want it to appear like a huge monolithic organisation, it should represent the idea ‘fragmentation’ that has affected all areas of society. I do think it was a relatively new idea when it first came out.
It was actually the largest job I had worked on at that point and a real learning experience, at one point I was becoming involved in the naming of the streets, it was a completely different kind of permanence to typography.
Also working in Japan was an amazing experience. The culture is so complex, interesting and the people we worked with were so gracious and kind. We have had a long relationship with clients there. It seems as though there is great interest in British design there. I think partly because they have so many subcultures, a lot of the designers that they are interested in have a very unique style which is closely associated with bands or a particular kind of music.
Q — Tell us about working with the curator David Elliott
A — David is one of the most interesting curators around today and we have worked with him on a number of cultural projects. We first met him in Japan as he was the director of Mori Art Museum that is located in Roppongi Hills. We worked then on the identity of that with him and then on Biennale of Sydney, Mystetskyi Arsenal, Balagan, Art from Elsewhere. They are wonderful projects to have and we are grateful for him to use our studio. On a personal level his interest in Central an East European art is one I also share especially Russian and Soviet art. I do find him a kindred spirit in life. When i first talked him, I found out he had been responsible for introducing me to much of the avant-garde work that I had seen when I was younger through the exhibitions he had organised in the UK.
I think he is one of the new breed of curators who understand the importance of a great visual graphic language to get the general public interested in an arts project. So you will see that wherever he has worked he has employed the best designers and he has been incredibly successful always in taking art to a wider audience without compromising his curatorial themes or the quality of the work. Additionally he doesn’t have the snobbishness that many gallery people have in treating design as an inferior cousin of art, maybe that comes from his love of Constructivism where all people were treated equally and worked across such boundaries. I do found it a really refreshing and motivating attitude.
Q — What are your major influences?
A — My major influences are not from design or other designers, that I think would make my work tedious. My main influence is politics and philosophy and literature, through reading or just being engaged in what is going on in the world. I think its incredibly important to read, so I constantly have a number of books that I am reading. A few favourite authors would be Hermann Hesse, JG Ballard and Samuel Beckett. I am also a big fan of comedy, the way a serious situation can be commented on with humour can be better than any long political critique. I hope that people can see some humour in my work also.
If you mean what other designers do I admire? Well, I don’t follow design that much, I don’t know if that seems a bad thing to do, but I spend my life trying to avoid it. I either understand the though process or often find design for the sake of it quite irritating. Sometimes design can happen without the intervention of a designer, through a natural process of function and circumstance, that is a fair way to create design too.There are people I hugely respect, but even then do I rarely collect their work. I feel like I spend my life trying to rid myself of possessions rather than gain them.
I think the type designer I most rate is Eric Gill. He worked in several disciplines and produced unique work in each area. I don’t think I am in any way as good as him but I hope that when you look at one of my typefaces it looks like my ‘handwriting’, that it could only be done by me. I think the same about Eric Gill, his lettering is a product of his mind with a singular vision which is simply beautiful.
Q — Where do you get your inspiration?
A — My inspiration comes from lots of different sources. The type designer Bradbury Thompson said that to be a good typographer you must be interested in all aspects of life. I agree with this completely, typography is about cultural exchange between people, the transference of meaning between two beings and to do this you must be interested in culture, in life and be positive about it. Most good designers do not have trouble finding inspiration. As for specific areas of interests, 20th-21st Century history and contemporary politics are a source of endless inspiration. This just comes from learning that history that we are taught at school and hear about from news etc. is in fact a very opinionated view. These interpretations and understanding of them have made me very sceptical about the idea of the truth or what is right no matter what source they come from – from politicians to advertising agencies – I think this is one of the reasons I became a typographer, it was a chance to tell the truth through printed words or at least to interject between them and the viewer. When you are graphic designer you are at the centre of putting out propaganda for somebody and it seems impossible not to question this.