Graphic design is political: Jonathan Barnbrook on how we can build a better industry
Despite his immeasurable impact on the design industry, Jonathan Barnbrook has single-mindedly stuck to what he believes in.
Walking down Bavaria Road in North London, it’s relatively easy to guess which building might house the studio of designer Jonathan Barnbrook. Among a neat line of terraced houses is a building that is darker and taller than the rest. This is where you’ll find Jonathan, his small team of designers, and their friendly cat Lou.
As a studio the building feels like an apt symbol of Jonathan and his position in the design industry. Renowned and admired as one of the greatest British designers, he’s never capitalised on his Grammy award-winning and Design Museum-exhibiting success in the same sense that his peers have. If it were someone else of his stature you would expect floors of staff working away on identities, bold signifiers of accolades won dotted around the walls, and PR emails every so often flying out with the next piece of work. Instead, Jonathan often just emails those he dreams of working with, in the hope of receiving a reply. His own email to us about a new project, which led to this interview, still had “Bowie designer” written in brackets in the subject line, as if we wouldn’t remember who he was.
Born and raised in Luton, Jonathan jumped into the practice of graphic design at a rare young age. From school to college, Saint Martin’s and the Royal College of Art – a trajectory he says is down to free education – his dedication and skill in the medium was discussed across the industry before he even graduated from his masters. Post-education Jonathan set up his own studio immediately, a move he puts down to feeling “unemployable”.
From here, an array of projects began – from David Bowie to Damien Hirst, Penguin Books, AdBusters, the Occupy movement, several famed font releases – leading the designer down a path of thoughtful and often political or music-focused projects. Most recently, however, the latter has become more of a focus, as the designer and his wife Anil Aykan launched Fragile Self. An electronic duo who place as much focus on visuals as music, their album took several years to make and includes a 480-page tome visualising the poetic detail of each song.
It’s a career that most dream of, and that most envision before the temptation and competitiveness of the creative industry get in the way. In fact a graphic designer’s tendency to separate their interests from their practice has always slightly baffled Jonathan, who has always steadfastly marched in his own direction.
It's Nice That: I was reading how you took your first steps in graphic design by imitating band logos?
Jonathan Barnbrook: Yes, what’s interesting to me about band logos is that it’s kind of a corporate identity. You see the ideology, or philosophy, in just that one word. If it resonates with you, then there’s a whole language that comes along with it.
At that time, it was new wave and punk bands, then the electronic bands came in. There was this particular typeface John Foxx used, the same typeface I used on a project with him recently, that made me fall in love with this music. I didn’t know what “letterforms” were then obviously, but I just copied them, perfectly, because they were important to me.
INT: And it was one particular tutor who encouraged you?
JB:My art tutor. It’s a cliche but my school was quite tough. The only two things you have to escape from that are English literature and art. He encouraged me and when I had no idea what to do he told me what a graphic designer did. He basically told me that I was one.
INT:And so you went straight into graphic design at the age of 16?
JB:I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“I couldn’t see the world in any other way than the one I wanted to portray”Jonathan Barnbrook
INT: What kind of person were you then? Were you a hard worker?
JB: Where do I start. I mean, I was a workaholic from the age of 16 to 30. I’m still a workaholic, but you have to find some context and an area outside graphic design that allows you to have space. Even when I was at college I would work every day in the summer holidays; I still don’t even know why.
INT:That is a lot of dedication!
JB: I was obsessed with this thing that happens on record covers, or that happens in a piece of branding – sorry I don’t like the word “branding” – but where you create a new universe. When you put typography and image together, it’s like when a major artist releases a new album, there’s suddenly a universe of sounds and atmospheres there. That’s how I felt with every piece of work. I just wanted to keep creating that world really. I had very strong feelings about the things I was interested in, not because I had any kind of career plan, but more because I couldn’t see the world in any other way than the one I wanted to portray. I couldn’t understand other people doing other things.
INT: But you gained a lot of attention when you graduated?
JB:Yes. Of course part of you likes that, but part of you is very worried. I spent six months before I left the RCA petrified of what people would think, and then I thought, who cares really. It’s weird to be “famous” before you leave college and it was the start of the “popstar graphic designer” which is a sneering term. I didn’t really think about it. It helped in some ways, to be stronger, but I wanted to be a good designer in the classic Bauhaus design sense. You’re there to improve the world, you’re not there to fight, it’s a partnership with people. It sounds naive in these dystopian times, but that was always my criteria.
“Graphic design is at the heart of capitalism. It’s the heart of encouraging consumption – you are consenting to that as a graphic designer.”Jonathan Barnbrook
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Barnbrook: John Foxx and the Maths: Interplay (Copyright © Barnbrook, 2011)
INT: Is running a studio like this something you envisaged for yourself?
JB:No, because I’ve always, from a political point of view, felt that employing other people is exploitation. But I can’t justify it all myself and in the end, it was more practical. We don’t exploit the freelance culture though and all placements are paid – we treat people decently and help them enjoy their job.
INT: It does shift your perception though, from independent designer to having the responsibility to look after someone, especially if it means you might have to pick up a piece of work you might not want to do.
JB: It’s a practical thing about paying people’s wages, but I still think it shouldn’t be used as an excuse. You should have the courage to turn a project down if, morally, you completely disagree with it. We would do that. Even the aspects of morals are a really difficult thing. Where does the responsibility finally end in a mass industrialised age? This company owns this company…
INT:Do you have any rules around which projects you will or won’t take on?
JB: It’s usually instinctive, whether it feels right or not. We tend to go for cultural work, as there is the belief that it is actually doing something good. We wouldn’t work for cigarette manufacturers or arms manufacturers, but they’re black or white issues. If the designers here said they didn’t feel comfortable doing something, we just wouldn’t do it. That’s the bottom line. It’s not like you don’t have the power to turn it down.
“I didn’t give a fuck about whether I wouldn’t get a job because of it, because I felt that the issues were more important.”Jonathan Barnbrook
INT:I suppose it’s more about facilitating an environment where people feel they can say that?
JB:There are also lots of people who just don’t think of it as an issue in graphic design. They say: “Well, this is my job, I am a graphic designer, I do this for companies and politics has nothing to do with it.” But the absolute decision to be a graphic designer is a political decision. Graphic design is at the heart of capitalism. It’s at the heart of encouraging consumption – you are consenting to that as a graphic designer.
INT: It’s almost 20 years ago now that you and a group of other designers re-signed the First Things First manifesto. How do you feel about that now, or what difference do you feel it made?
JB:Well, like anything, you can’t say this changed or that changed. At the time, it caused quite a lot of outrage, especially with some bigger design groups. They felt threatened by it – even though they justified it by saying something else – they felt threatened by it. I still stand by signing it. I look at it the same way as I look at my work with the Occupy movement, maybe the world didn’t change totally, but we changed the field of discussion.
I think First Things First was one of those things that, at the time, made design much more political. When the computer was introduced, there was a lot of hope that it was going to go back to individuals working and cross-community work. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way and all those people doing amazing, individual work went and worked for all the corporates. Their subversive meaning was completely undermined. There had to be something said.
It’s also the reason why I worked with AdBusters – because they tell the truth. And not just the truth as to how I see it, I thought they told the universal truth about consumption being bad and design being complicit in that actual evil act. I didn’t give a fuck about whether I wouldn’t get a job because of it, because I felt that the issues were more important. And I don’t necessarily want to work with people who are upset by that.
Graphic design is very good at critique, too. AdBusters wasn’t this scrappy A4 leaflet, it was actually advertising being fought by itself. All of those seductive things that made people over-consume or made them feel inferior about themselves were being turned against advertising. It was extremely powerful at the time. It was a chance to tell the truth.
“Am I any good? Most people would say no, or at least they did when they saw The Next Day cover.”Jonathan Barnbrook
INT: Within the political situation currently, have you thought about utilising the studio to align with a certain point of view or party?
JB: We were involved with Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn a little while ago, but it didn’t go very well. Politics is tough. When you’re a graphic designer and you work for a politician, you’re there every second and every minute. I don’t know… the relationship just doesn’t work in the end. The music project I’ve been doing is a symptom of, not trying to retreat from the political world, but just trying to have something else to deal with.
INT You’ve just released a record with your partner. Have you had the experience of seeing it in a shop yet?
JB Not yet, but it was fascinating to see it advertised on Rough Trade and have it played on 6Music – thank god for 6Music. It was similar when I was working with Bowie and seeing a copy of The Next Day, Black Star or Heathen. You feel like you’re adding something to popular culture and that’s all I really wanted to do. They’re the best jobs in the world, but there is a questioning of your whole self. Am I any good? Most people would say no, or at least they did when they saw The Next Day cover.
INT I just love the idea of designers sheepishly buying records they’ve designed.
JB When I see people with a Black Star tattoo, I do wonder if I should go up and say “I made that”. Not that it’s about me!
INT How did your own musical project come about then?
JB Electronic music has been the basis of my interest and creatively, as with any artist, you’re interested in certain ways of making marks of certain atmospheres. Music has been a sort of side project for ten or 15 years but it wasn’t until I met my wife, who is a singer, that things started to happen.
The point is exploring that very strange relationship between music and visuals that nobody really understands. Nobody understands music in the first place, but no one understands how visuals relate to it. Part of the project is to explore that, in a really tight fashion.
“Designers are the most anal-retentive bunch – they’ll close off their private life from their professional life.”Jonathan Barnbrook
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Barnbrook: Fragile Self: Chapter Two, This is My Existence (Copyright © Barnbrook, 2019)
INT Has it brought you a new sense of gratification in comparison to your design work?
JB I would say yes, because although I’m responsible for the content generally, if you’re working with a creative artist, they’re the bigger picture. As a good as a designer that you try to be, and although it’s your point of view on them, what you’re trying to do is put them in the best possible frame as it were. So, to create the content yourself is really good actually.
There is also the fact that it’s much more personal, and there’s a bigger risk. It surprises me how people who have been into music or art all of their lives can expose that. Designers are the most anal-retentive bunch – they’ll close off their private life from their professional life. Not just in their personal lives either but in politics too, which is another area where I didn’t compartmentalise. So it was that defining of the emotional content.
INT It feels like there are too many projects to discuss with you. What are the ones you actually enjoy discussing?
JB I do like talking about David Bowie, and it is usually what people want to talk about. It was just such a unique experience, to be with somebody at the cultural centre of the 20th and 21st centuries, and it was a very pleasant experience working with him. Working with Damien Hirst, too, was entertaining. It was 1997 and Blair’s government had just got in, and Damien was at the centre of art really. To be around that person was a good time. Some good parties. It was a lot of fun.
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Barnbrook: Damien Hirst: I Want to Spend… (Copyright © Barnbrook, 1997)
INT How did you meet him?
JB Pragmatically through a publisher who asked me to design a book. I said no. I just knew it was going to be a fucking nightmare, and it was a fucking nightmare, but it was an interesting fucking nightmare. It taught me that difficult projects are the most interesting.
INT What talked you round then?
JB I liked his work. Every graphic designer loved Damien Hirst at the time; it was the start of the spot paintings, the big sculptures with the flies, the cow’s heads. Visually, it was very arresting work. And he was a nice person when I met him, he was a good laugh. Of course, it’s much more interesting to be involved in that, than not. To see him thrive, to make use of the fame, not necessarily in an exploitative way, but just to push himself, to make more work and to see how people were going crazy… it actually made me jealous. Not because of the attention he was receiving directly, but because of the attention graphic designers didn’t receive. We’re all seen as corporate servants and not people with artistic merit in our own right.
“I learned from Damien Hirst and David Bowie not to explain”Jonathan Barnbrook
INT Did he see it that way?
JB No, when we were working together he would always listen. That’s what was good about him – people always say he doesn’t make his own artworks, but he knew who was the right person to make the right thing. I also tried hard not to explain things too much. As a graphic designer, you’re taught logic all the time. Things have to be rational. You have to go to the client and explain why you did this and did that. But when you work with an artist it’s different…
For instance, for David Bowie’s V&A exhibition, I put in four roughs of The Next Day cover. He went to see the exhibition, secretly, and phoned and asked why I’d put them in there. I said “Oh shit, should I get them removed.” He said no, but he wanted me to know that by doing that I had changed the final object. And he’s right, if you over-explain, or explain too much, something loses its immaculateness. I learned from Damien Hirst and David Bowie not to explain. It’s also why I’ve not shown all the roughs of Black Star because it would diminish the final thing in his existence.
INT: It would also feel strange, or inappropriate, to do that now surely?
JB:Well, he wouldn’t mind. That’s what I learned, and it was a very generous way of telling me. He was always so generous – never dictatorial. He was another person who understood that everyone has their role. A musician. A designer. Someone once asked me if there was anything unexpected about David Bowie, and I found something looking through old emails the other day – he used to say LOL quite a lot.
INT:Do you ever listen to the Adam Buxton podcast?
JB: Of course!
INT:I re-listened to the episode after Bowie died recently, I never knew he used to log on to forums and talk to his fans. I just thought it was the nicest thing.
JB:That was his saving grace. He was actually really appreciative of where he was in life. He wasn’t a rockstar who demanded everything and felt entitled, he was genuinely amazed he was in this wonderful position and he appreciated the fans.
INT: Back to what he taught you about only showing the final editions of works, out of interest, how does that change your approach to pitching?
JB: Firstly, I hate pitching. I think there should be a selection process where you go through people’s portfolios and you have the confidence in the designer to do it, because you understand their philosophy. I think it’s unfair too because basically you have to do the project when you’re pitching and it ends up costing a lot of money and time. That’s not to say we don’t do them, because we want the projects but really, I believe it should involve rigorous curation and research, then picking a company, and going with them. Pitching is the devil’s work.
INT: Is there anything you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet? Over the course of our conversation you’ve named a series of amazing projects, but is there something else?
JB: It would be a really large project, like the Olympics or the World Cup. Something that is seen in all parts of life. Not because of my ego, but just because as well as all this niche stuff, there is satisfaction in communicating to wide audiences with graphic design – that’s one of the great things about it. Graphic design doesn’t have the rarified pretence of a gallery, people get a piece of graphic design and they just look at it. They don’t say what is it? I’ve always loved that.
I did write to the Olympics committee when [London] got the Olympics. I didn’t hear anything back from them of course. They went with a safe pair of hands, but it would have been a chance to show the variety of British design, not in just commissioning me, but in maybe making the decision to go with someone more boutique-y.
“There is satisfaction in communicating to wide audiences with graphic design – that’s one of the great things about it.”Jonathan Barnbrook
INT: Is it fear that stops larger brands doing that?
JB: It’s confidence. That’s maybe what stops us getting those larger jobs. We’re perceived as small and agency people think we can’t handle such things when actually, it’s a couple of people who worked on the initial concept and then it was systemised. It’s actually not that difficult.
But, it’s also an incredibly difficult thing to do. Often you see designers – whether they’re industrial designers, architects or graphic designers – and they’ll do concept: “This is the iPhone, this is how it should be.” But they haven’t had to deal with any of the shit that goes along with being a designer, which is dealing with clients of 50-100 people with different opinions, dealing with production processes, making something work in the real world. So I have sympathy for anyone who gets actually larger jobs that are decent.
INT: Do you think you want a project like this because it sounds more difficult?
JB:Well, they’re all difficult, you’ll make them difficult yourself! It’s more wanting to do something mainstream I suppose that’s the attraction. People often ask me, show us a piece of work that’s changed something, but the world just doesn’t work like that. Whatever you do, people aren’t going to say, “Oh, I’ve seen that poster, therefore my opinion has changed”. All you can hope to do is be part of a group of people who keep saying the same thing, and finally, it registers. Although that works for both the good and the bad, what it does is give you hope. It will give you hope that the truth, as you see it, will prevail in the end.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.