Ad-busting, Bowie and controversial typefaces: a look at Jonathan Barnbrook's graphic design activism

20 April 2016

Jonathan Barnbrook needs little in the way of introduction. Since startlingly early in his career he’s been one of the most well-known and revered graphic designers and typographers of the past three decades. One of his most recent design works, and undoubtedly most poignant, was creating the visual identity for David Bowie’s 2016 album ★ (pronounced Blackstar).

This was just one of many projects Barnbrook worked on with Bowie, sitting in his portfolio alongside a wealth of commissions for clients including Damien Hirst, gallery Blain|Southern, publisher Thames & Hudson and the Saatchi Gallery. Barnbrook and his titular studio have made a name for themselves for brave, innovative design work, and this unapologetic ideology is born of an approach that merges the political with the aesthetic.

At his talk at this year’s Offset Festival in Dublin, with the help of a few exquisitely placed swear words and a superb series of images, Barnbrook outlined projects where politics and activism were brought to the fore.

“I think designers [today] acknowledge the politics of design more than any generation before,” says Barnbrook. “We have had the Occupy movement, the financial crash, the rise of inequality, the rise of social media and its political usage. By and large though they choose to generally ignore it, hoping that the issues will go away if they don’t talk about them or at least don’t take responsibility. They’re choosing to keep their head down and just do the work.”

He continues: “On a practical level it is much easier to live that kind of life than to accept what you are doing has implications for the world. A lot of clients would be rather incensed at this kind of discussion. However I have always had this ‘problem’ of not separating design in any way from the real world. You cant just put work out there and let that be the end of it. If you are interested and you want your job to have some worth to society, you need to have a bit of courage and question these things.”


Jonathan Barnbrook: Adbusters


Jonathan Barnbrook: Adbusters

One significant commission for Barnbrook was designing and art directing two issues of Adbusters, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit publication that rails against what it terms “the hostile takeover of our psychological, physical and cultural environments by commercial forces.”

The mag provided the perfect platform for Barnbrook’s sideways look at the ad industry, one extremely close to the graphic design field he’s so passionate about. Never one to play things straight, Barnbrook’s political leanings have revealed themselves in the names he’s given to his typefaces, which include Bastard, Moron, Newspeak and Sarcastic. At Offset, he delved into a particularly controversial face, 1992’s Mason, licensed to type foundry Emigre. Its controversy was in his initial moniker, Manson, which sparked outrage in California, which had been the site of serial killer Charles Manson’s spree in the 1960s.

The face is based on characters drawn from objects and observations, including a crucifix, and Barnbrook says his typography takes influence from areas as diverse as Jungian psychology, gothic architecture and Malevich’s Black Square. “You should include the whole world in a typeface when you’re designing one,” says Barnbrook. To him, a typeface series should “improve society” as part of a wider utopian aim, such as those set out by Bauhaus designers like Herbert Bayer, who designed the Proposal for a Universal Type in the late 1920s.

How has this work impacted Barnbrook’s client relationships? “Let’s say my corporate clients are few and far between, but then I am very happy with the kind of work that I do attract, which is generally cultural plus some involvement in some amazing activist works which I do care deeply about,” he says. “I may not be the richest designer in the world but I feel very lucky to be doing projects I love to do, as that is not a choice that every designer has. It is simply because I was clear what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. This is a fundamental thing every designer needs to state. I think I was also prepared to risk not having any work much more than others to carry on with what I believed in. Really you only have one life, so you have to take these chances or you are going to end up feeling miserable.”

This notion of making a difference through design reached its apotheosis in a very unusual commission: designing the identity for the Occupy movement in London. As befits its very physical, activist goals, the identity had to be one that was clear and easily replicated across hand-made banners and placards, as well as standing on its own two feet on the group’s website and other touchpoints.

Barnbrook designed a black and red typographic mark that subtly references direct action using a target-like character for the “o”. The emblem encompasses this with an arrow, creating an instantly recognisable and easily replicated graphic. "It needed to be simple, cheap to reproduce, work in different media – scrawled on a wall or on a large banner. it also needed to be a strong call to action without resorting to traditional left wing imagery. I really felt that Occupy was a much more modern movement that consisted of many people who came from a humanist point of view rather than an especially left wing one.

Creating work like this, simultaneously packed with meaning but democratic in its accessibility, Barnbrook is a designer after more than the next commission or column inches. Each piece is the result of something he believes in, whether in personal work or commissions.


Jonathan Barnbrook: Manson


Jonathan Barnbrook and Mike Simons: Adbusters

Share Article

About the Author

Emily Gosling

Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.