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Review of the Year 2016: graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook

As 2016 comes to an end, we will be publishing exclusive interviews with just some of the creatives whose work has stood out and made an impact over the past 12 months. First up, we speak to graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook about his memorable year.

Jonathan Barnbrook needs little introduction. The graphic designer and typographer is one of the most “celebrated in the industry, and where he leads, others follow". This year Jonathan’s studio designed the identity for the blockbuster Stanley Kubrick exhibition at Somerset House and has been working on artwork for the new John Foxx And The Maths album that is heavily inspired by E M Forster’s short story The Machine Stops.

But the most significant, and poignant work was the final collaboration with David Bowie on the artwork for his final album ★, released in January. After Bowie died in early 2016, the album took on a new significance. It has, in the aftermath of the artist’s death, been decoded and celebrated numerous times – the fourth collaboration between Bowie and Barnbrook holds a special place in music history. “★ is a dark album about dark times. I hope in what I’ve done there’s something that resonated with the darkness of the music in some way,” Jonathan told It’s Nice That at the time of release. ★’s artwork was released under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, so Bowie fans could rework the symbols and images to create personal tributes. “That means you can make T-shirts for yourself, use them for tattoos, put them up in your house to remember David by, and adapt them too,” he said at the time.

In a year that has seen unprecedented turmoil socially, politically and economically around the world, we spoke to Jonathan, who in the past has worked with Adbusters and the Occupy movement, to reflect on his 2016.

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What was your creative highlight of 2016?

It is not a piece of design or an art exhibition, but Black Mirror; it is the only TV show that makes people stop and think about where technology is taking us and it raises questions that are pretty central to our future. Most of the media does not question these issues but pushes us forward to accept these things without question. 

What was your lowlight of 2016?

The passing of David Bowie of course, it was a big shock as a collaborator and admirer of his music. However it was a start to a year which seems to have got worse culminating in Brexit and Donald Trump with his lying, racist, sexist, paranoid speeches. I’ve never known a year in history like it.

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What do you think are the markers of a good year creatively?

I think it is very difficult to say, adversity brings some very interesting work. Look at Germany in the 30s (the comparison is not a coincidence – amazing art brought about by a desperate situation which people fought against.) I don’t look at design awards as I think these may show the work of the year but they don’t often show the best. This is something that needs the passage of time to understand the philosophies and creativity and what is understood to be new creativity. To clarify: a comfortable society often isn’t the best place for good art. 

Which piece of work from the last year has been your favourite to work on?

There are many, but mainly it is music related, so Bowie and John Foxx  - music is central to my existence so it has and will always be a pleasure to work with stuff I personally love. We also have done a number of books for the Wellcome Collection, in particular This Way Madness Lies published by Thames and Hudson. It’s about the history of asylums; really fascinating. I am always interested in the line between creativity and madness. 

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Which piece of work from the last year do you feel has been most significant to your portfolio/career?

It has to be ★, Bowie’s last album. I hope that it is seen as an appropriate design for his last album – in tone and fitting the music. 

How has your work evolved over the last 12 months? 

12 months is a really short time in the evolution of anybody’s creativity. I think I can see the difference between now and a few years ago: which is simplicity of form while still keeping meaning open. It has been the honing of that. 

What’s been the most important thing you’ve learnt in the last year?

That civilisation does not move forward in an upward curve as humanity evolves, but goes in cycles and we are regressing back to a new dark age now where politicians and the mainstream media are complicit in a reality show of sensationalism, negativity and endless consumption.

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Who has been the most influential creative for you in the last year?


Donald Trump. I wake up in the morning and think what egotistical, idiotic conspiracy theory has he told the world while I was asleep? It would be funny if it didn’t reflect on humanity so badly – that people believe such desperate, vile words. 

Describe 2016 in five words…

I will describe it in one: shitstorm.

What are your hopes for 2017?

The only positive thing I can take from 2016 and go forward with into 2017 with is that it is the start of a complete reassessment of how we run and organise this thing called ‘civilisation’. So I am hoping along with the unfortunate rise of the right, that we are also going to have an equally large movement of humanism which is more empathetic and more in tune with nature. We have a long way to go and probably things are going to get worse before they get better, but I am hopeful that re-examination of society can also bring a positive aspect to the world too.

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