People turn away and design vases.
Neville Brody is one of the best-known and most acclaimed graphic designers of his generation, his fame and influence stretching back over a period of more than a quarter of a century. He was first interviewed for this magazine back in 1989. As of September, Brody is to take on the one-year presidency at D&AD, an occasion Michael Weinzettl took as an opportunity to revisit the graphic design legend.
L.A.: When Hermann Vaske interviewed you for this magazine back in 1989, you were seen by many as graphic design’s “punk and revolutionary.” You were the face be-hind The Face, a hugely influential style magazine, were at the time working as the art director of another famous magazine, Arena, had just published “The Graphic Language of Neville Brody,” which would become one of the world’s best-selling design books of all time, and there had been an accompanying exhibition of your work at the V&A Museum. Twenty-three years on, how do you remember this phase in your life? How would you describe it in terms of what was going on in graphic design at the time?
Neville Brody: As far as being graphic design’s punk and revolutionary, there were many others, but I just happened to have the opportunity of some great vehicles like Arena and The Face. At that time, design was going through a transformation from a really exciting cultural space to a post-Thatcherite commercial service. A lot of the promise of the 70s and early 80s was lost – the experimental bedroom studios of that time had spawned designers such as Vaughan Oliver, Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, and The Designers Republic. But all that was changing. People took less risks as a result of that transformation. At the same time, however, the explosion of digital was exciting.
L.A.: What, would you say, have been some of the major changes in graphic design and advertising since then? Has this particular world undergone a complete change? Is there anything that has remained the same?
Neville Brody: The answer to that question is a book in itself. We have had 25 years of success culture where the only remit for producing something was based on quantitative value. Up until the recent failure of the banking system, the focus was purely on bums on seats. Design became generic – digital became utilitarian, not a creative space, in which to experiment. The experimentation just went – it didn’t even go underground or have anywhere to go. What replaced the visual experimenter, the John Maeda? It became very factory-like with these huge digital agencies that sprang up. As a result, many students have turned their back on the digital space and gone back to print, back to craft, and they are missing big opportunities by doing that. The time is now again – how can we turn digital into that space for experimentation? The Anti-Design festival is a response and a remedy to the past two-and-a-half decades. It is an anti-success response. One that promotes the value of failure and risk. One that does not disregard the idea of building for one person rather than the masses. It is a response to the overwhelming focus on the artifact. We should not be focusing on the artifact itself, we should be focusing on the artifact as a tool for the mind. Last year, we had 20,000 people through the door of the festival and, hopefully, it was a gateway for people. We were taken aback by the success of it.
L.A.: In 2011, you did the redesign for the BBC and, prior to that, The Times in 2006, for which you created a new font. Can you tell us about these major projects and what it is like to work for such high-profile clients (not that you’re not used to it, having already provided both The Guardian and The Observer with a radical new look in the late 80s)?
Neville Brody: The ability to work on such projects is a reflection of the change within the high-profile clients rather than us. They are now peopled by my contemporaries, they have the same influences. People obsessed too much with the stylistic side of things, with the work we did here, but it was absolutely not about that for me. It was always about the process of questioning. Everything was underpinned by a very classical approach. The Times was a very rigorous design brief. They needed to adapt to a more digitally minded readership – how do you break it up, make it something you can enter at different levels? A readership quite used to looking at magazines, so we had to work out how to change the approach to art direction and layout. The brief was basically, “Change everything and make sure people don’t notice.” We built everything from the ground up. In order to do that, we also had to change the internal culture as well. The BBC as a client is not actually so different to something like City Limits, it’s just a different scale – but it’s still about developing a toolbox, a set of tools, and a structure and feel that people can use on a day-to-day basis. We developed a solid system that still had a great degree of flexibility.
L.A.: How did your involvement with the D&AD come about?
Neville Brody: Sanky (Simon Sankkyara) approached me in his vice-presidential year at D&AD. I’d already designed the D&AD annual a couple of years before when Simon Waterfall was president, and now Sanky asked me if l would consider joining the Exec. I was clear with him that I was not interested in D&AD as an awards body. What I was interested in was education. We talked and I joined. I am passionate about D&AD’s education remit and I could see there was work to be done there.
L.A.: What will be the main points for you to concentrate on during your one-year presidency at D&AD?
Neville Brody: Education, obviously. As chair of the Education Sub-Committee last year, I very much pushed the idea of a “foundation,” a way of making sure that D&AD was able to transparently put money into the support of students and new creatives, and to communicate its charitable and educational status more clearly. We are working on the launch of the foundation this year and that will be a big focus for me. The cen-tral message of the foundation will clarify D&AD’s statement of intent for education. We will look at a “circle of learning,” where the best talent in the industry feeds back to the new generations of creatives coming through, supporting and nurturing them. With the Pencil comes responsibility. One thing that the foundation may do is give grants and bursaries to talented students who are unable to pay for their own education. It is still a work-in-progress at the moment, but it is tremendously exciting for me at this stage. A real opportunity to create change that has coincided with my appointment at the RCA.
L.A.: What are some of the areas within the D&AD in need of “optimization”?
Neville Brody: We need to clarify our central message about education – see above. We also need to reconnect with designers in the awards and with advertising creatives in terms of the cultural activity we do.
L.A.: Twenty-three years ago, you were working with a small group of four or five people, and now you have your own design practice, Research Studios, in London, Paris, Berlin and Barcelona, plus a rep in Japan, working for a wide range of clients. Can you tell us about some of the projects this design group has done that you are most proud of?
Neville Brody: There are so many! Kenzo packaging is always a favorite and continues to be. Obviously, the Times and the BBC. If there was one single thing I was most proud of, it’s Fuse. The Fuse 1-20 book is out now and the work still looks so contemporary.
L.A.: Since 2004, you and your teams have also worked on the branding and repositioning of champagne brand Dom Pérignon. Can you tell us a bit about that? What were the challenges the brand was facing when they first approached you? And what were you able to achieve for them? Did you work on Dom Pérignon across all media?
Neville Brody: They were losing market share because their market was literally dying! They wanted a contemporary brand. We simplified and refined. We made it more elegant and sophisticated. We radically modernized the box so it was also a self-display unit, and we gave them a clear uniform visual language.
L.A.: How, would you say, has the advent of digital affected the field of typography as a whole?
Neville Brody: That in itself is also another book! Briefly, it has democratized typography, has allowed designers access to the tools to create their own typefaces – like the record industry, where the digital revolution has enabled people to make music in their bedroom record industry. Secondly, it has enabled everyone to make professional-looking documentation – in the same way that the camera has allowed people to make likenesses of themselves and the world around them without having to hire a painter or an engraver. It has demystified the whole industry and allowed for really formalistic experimentation with language, which is what Fuse represents.
L.A.: In your Archive interview in 1989, you bemoaned the fact that, unlike in the 1930s, creatives had become specialists and that it was advertising agencies which had created these specialists. “Either you were a copywriter or a typographer, or a photographer, or an art director. You couldn’t cross. You had to become a specialist,” you said, before concluding: “Now it’s going the other way again.” That was 23 years ago. We are, as you just said, now able to branch out into all kinds of fields formerly limited to the specialists. Is this more of a blessing or a curse?
Neville Brody: Now we are at a juncture where disciplines will no longer be important, especially in digital. If you are working in digital, for example, you need to understand everything: sound, interactive design, image, typography, graphic design, and how all those connect out to packaging, to print or physical spaces. In a way, although the term digital architect isn’t right, we play a similar role to architects, in the sense that you design a building with multiple functions – there is an element of “town planning,” of understanding lifestyle and workstyle. MIT call it anti-discipline. I think it’s more like post-discipline. You need specialist skills but you have to operate across all disciplines. That particular shift has all been enabled by digital. Of course there is a reaction to that. People willfully turn away from digital, especially because the way it has manifested itself over the last few decades has become utilitarian and about function and services. People turn away and design vases. This turns visual culture into nothing more than craft.
L.A.: In a lecture entitled “Where’s the Beef?” delivered at TypoBerlin in 1996, you said that the design industry has lost sight of what communication is supposed to be doing, that design had become a kind of self-fuelling and self-fulfilling industry. That the main audience for design had become other designers. How do you view this today, a generation later?
Neville Brody: Sixteen years later, it’s even more extreme – the design industry for designers is massive! I’m sure some people don’t have clients – they just make stuff for
other designers (said jokingly and with a smile). Nostalgically, people are turning design back into a craft; they are rejecting digital because of its current utilitarianism – but that is missing the big opportunities. If design does become all about the craft, people become precious again; it kills experimentation, it removes the dynamic where you go from the mind to experience to the object. And that is anti everything I am about.
L.A.: In the great Blank Sheet Project, which is a web series of interviews with creatives produced by D&AD in partnership with Arjo Wiggins, you mentioned that William Burroughs was one of your heroes of creative thinking when you were a student. What others have there been over the course of your life since then? Who are some of the names in design you admire today?
Neville Brody: William Burroughs would probably hate to be called that! He was certainly a great catalyst rather than a hero of creative thinking. My “catalysts” haven’t really changed – a lot of constructivists and a lot of musicians. Madlib are a good example. Experimental producers … I’m influenced by all areas, especially post-screen digital designers like Berg, Bread, Troika, Yugo Nakamura, and John Maeda.
L.A.: You were, of course, also very well known for the influential record covers you designed from the early to late 80s, among them for bands like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Depeche Mode. I suppose you were very much into that type of music back then. How do you feel about music today? Are you still a music fan and doing cover design for some of the acts you like?
Neville Brody: My passion for music hasn’t changed. Still interested in experimentation mixed with emotional content, courageous music, dubstep, people like Flying Lotus or Gas Lamp Killer, Gilles Peterson, DJ on Radio 6, and Alice Coltrane are still great influences.
L.A.: As of January 2011, you have become Dean of the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art. What does this new position entail and what do you enjoy most about it?
Neville Brody: It entails leading one of the six schools at the college, leading it to the future, hauling it from the 19th to the 21st century. Some of the changes being made at the RCA include a focus on digital design, but also this new way of thinking about it that I’ve described before, an RCA lab, a greater focus on practice-led research, experimentation and multidisciplinary practice. There is a certain amount of resistance from within, so part of the role is about change management. As dean, my leadership is not just intellectual, it is everything: the business, the curriculum, capital-build projects even. I do enjoy the potential and the vision – but, most of all, the students. This is the first generation of students that knows more than the teaching faculty do. That is only going to increase. In that environment, the role of a teacher is to provide support and guidance. It is a nurturing process. The RCA wants to produce people that will change the industry, skilled dangerous minds. It’s not about pretty pictures; it’s about the artifact being a tool for mind development.
L.A.: And – apart from them knowing more than their teachers – how is this new generation of design students different from what you were in your time at the London College of Printing back in the 70s?
Neville Brody: Bit difficult to say. There should be a big difference between undergraduate and postgraduate students. Undergraduate study should be about real industry skills, postgraduate should be all about developing the thinkers. Many BAs act as pre-MAs and this means that, at RCA, they end up having to teach skills the BA should have covered in an MA setting. Students will go and work with an architect.
L.A.: What piece of advice are you most likely to give your students?
Neville Brody: Trust yourself. Learn as many skills as possible. Question everything.