Neville Brody is a journalist’s dream. He has a well-honed knack for wryly provocative, headline-ready takes on the design industry that others would take hours to delineate. As one of the best-known graphic designer since the 1980s, he’s adept at this sort of thing. Even those who haven’t heard his name in the UK have definitely seen his work: the typeface designed for Channel Four, websites for the BBC and The Guardian, not to mention his work with institutions like the RCA, Barbican, ICA and V&A. In 2014, he designed the typeface for the England World Cup football kit. You can’t really get more visible than that.
But despite all this, the majority of Brody Associates’ clients hail from overseas. Part of that about the British habit of willfully dismissing the successful in favor of blind devotion to the underdog (more on that later); and part of that comes down to what Brody sees as a UK culture that views designers as simply “providers of a service.”
His studio, instead, doesn’t “just knock out pretty solutions,” he says. “We grapple with strategy. We ask questions, and we go deep. English brand culture is quite different to that, isn’t it? [A client] will often bring in brand consultants for extortionate amounts of money, then commission agencies to produce the more visual stuff—it’s like just buying assets.” He firmly believes that those two aspects are inseparable.
Though Brody hasn’t always worked with huge global brands, he’s certainly always been devoted to design that’s rigorously underpinned with systems, strategies, and conceptual thinking with foundations in various art and design histories. That’s true of his visceral, timeless sleeve designs for Fetish Records; his Constructivist-learning, typographically experimental work for The Face; 1991’s Fuseproject, a disk-based magazine of new typefaces; or the Anti Design Festival in 2010. We spoke to Brody—who’s currently a professor of Communication at the Royal College of Art, as well as heading up studio Brody Associates—earlier this year, and found the designer to be optimistic and excited about his work, while also proclaiming that “graphic design is dead.”
When you look back on things like your early record sleeve designs, and The Face, how has that “punk” mindset carried through in the way you’ve approached design throughout your career?
I linked [punk] to Dadaism. It was all about dangerous ideas and dangerous thinking: the need to constantly have a vigilant, questioning approach to everything. It’s not based on a whim.
There’s a line of heritage that started off with a kind of “big bang”: When photography arrived in the mid to late 19th century, it liberated art from having to replicate reality. Portraiture suddenly became purely an elite extravagance. What comes out of that [in art] is a quest for raison d’etre. There was no need for art to uphold the status quo any more. Then out of that big bang comes Impressionism, Expressionism, Dadaism. They were saying that art should always be the conscious inquisitor: it should be reflecting the underbelly of society, not the vanity of society. That was a huge shift.
“The punk thing, for me, was an extension of Dadaism’s line of cultural questioning—we don’t have to accept traditional structures and traditional society.”
Dadaism branches out in futurism—unfortunately, that became fascism—then you have Constructivism coming out of that. Aligned with the Bauhaus, it looked to a hopeful future that belongs to scientists, architects, designers, artists, and visionaries.
I’m not interested in those eras for nostalgic reasons—it’s because I still think there’s ideas in there that are so inspirational. The attitude is the most important thing. So the punk thing, for me, was just simply another extension of that line of cultural questioning—we don’t have to accept traditional structures and traditional society.
Did you have a conscious plan for your career? The sort of brands you work with now are obviously different to, say, designing Cabaret Voltaire sleeves.
There’s a couple of dilemmas at the heart of a graphic designer: How do you do socially conscious and challenging work, and eat, without getting a job as a barista? And secondly, how do you make an impact by standing on the fringe? The answer to the second question is you can’t stand on the fringe and have impact. You either have to move society to where you are at the center, or you have to move to the center of society. If you’re on the outside, you will never change anything. I always knew that somehow I had to have my work seen. In a way, the record cover work was more challenging than the work on The Face.
In what way?
It was experimenting with imagery, with typography at a much earlier stage. The Face turned out to be a platform that allowed me to move to the center of what was happening and be more visible, and influence the thinking of more people as a result. It was a conscious vehicle in a way. For the first two or three years The Face work was really seen as quite challenging. After that, it was seen as quite trendy. That was nothing I’d ever wanted, which is why I stepped out. Society absorbs enough of the DNA of the challenge into itself to render it impotent and harmless. Things get neutralized very quickly. Quite ironically, going and doing Arena [he joined as designer for the magazine in 1986] was all about system building and creating fluidity with systems, and that’s a cycle my studio is in again.
“You can’t stand on the fringe and have impact. If you’re on the outside, you will never change anything.”
Did you envisage the path your career took when you first started out?
We could never have imagined the computer and what that would bring; or the periods of recession; or the near-bankruptcy in the past. When I had the [retrospective] exhibition at the V&A [in 1988], within six months, we were nearly bankrupt because none of our British clients would continue working with us and we couldn’t get any new ones. On the other hand, we were being contacted by organizations in Japan and Germany who actually saw beyond that and started commissioning us and since then, it’s been almost solely international work. In Britain, I think people tend to have strong feelings against people that have their names known.
It’s a very obtuse way of championing underdogs, isn’t it?
I think there’s something very British about hating people that raise their heads above the wall. The point of the exhibition really was to expose people to different thinking or different ideas—it wasn’t about vanity.
You can’t really have a vanity project at the V&A…
Exactly. And the first book [The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, by Jon Wozencroft, published to coincide with the 1988 exhibition] was all about driving people to the ideas and the text—the visuals were gateways to the thinking behind them. When artists and designers in the early 20th century had shows, like the Dadaists, they weren’t taken as vanity, they were taken as outreach.
The most important and fun thing that came out of all of that was Fuse project, which was, again, getting back to the common lineage of challenging culture, finding a conscious alternative. How do we create and think about new forms of language that really challenge and reveal our thinking? I still think there’s a huge amount of untapped potential with Fuse. We did want to extend it into other areas like music, product design, architecture…but we ran out of money and energy. To do things like that, and the Anti Design Festival, take so much work. It’s in the same lineage for me as The Face, as punk, as Richard Hamilton. Now, it’s probably manifested more in the teaching I do at the RCA.
Can you tell me a bit more about that teaching approach?
We’re not aware to the extent of how much our responses are conditioned. In our design practice, we tend to have go-tos built in. Life is hard, and work is often challenging, so we do tend to go to the lowest hanging fruit. We create a system where the students are being constantly shifted into unfamiliar spaces. They’re not given briefs as such, but they’re given prompts.
What might a prompt be?
It changes depending on who’s given the prompt, and the context of the problems. Adrian Shaughnessy did one of the sessions for us, and his prompt was singularity. The students would have to define what their intention was, what the brief meant to them. Then, in a short time, they have to build something.
We leave [design] as a very fragile, groundless space where the things that the students are familiar with collapse, because they’re not really relevant anymore. They have to develop new ways of thinking and new responses. We call the teaching at the RCA “post-discipline.” You’re simply a practitioner in communication. You might make a poster, or a sound piece; you might design a physical space, or write a novel. We’re trying to teach in such a way that your response is appropriate to the message you’re trying to communicate.
“Graphic design is only really seen on Pinterest and Instagram.”
It goes back to that “big bang” in art you were talking about—not adapting the message to the way you know how to deliver it, but shifting yourself to align with what you’re trying to communicate.
I think we’re in a weird period: The headline would be “graphic design is dead.” But it sort of is in some ways, isn’t it? Graphic design is only really seen on Pinterest and Instagram.
When you say graphic design, what do you mean exactly?
That’s exactly the right question. Companies tend to increasingly need user experience designers, coders, programmers, and social media marketing experts. It’s not so much about the logo, or the brand, or a poster or leaflet—things in the physical world. People don’t do direct mail anymore, except pizza delivery places. You don’t get magazines, because they’re all online. And they’re not really designed anymore.
Oh, that’s provocative.
Well, it’s true, isn’t it? I mean, you’ll set up a template and that’s it. It’s formulaic: you’re not designing each article independently. It’s all about the backend engineering and the frontend marketing. Graphic design then tends to find itself more in books and publishing. It becomes an industry in itself: graphic design for graphic designers.
“You don’t get magazines now, because they’re all online. And they’re not really designed anymore. It becomes an industry in itself: graphic design for graphic designers.”
So it’s graphic design’s application on things that people interact with everyday that’s dead?
Yeah, exactly. It’s much more about building the template for the platform, and building the toolbox for the visual language. It’s not about art directing a beautiful spread in a magazine anymore, because those magazines just aren’t there, and it’s not feasible to do that on the fly in a digital environment, especially a digital environment that’s scalable across platforms.
When you’re teaching your students, what sort of things are you preparing them to go into when they graduate?
Number one, be aware of the context in which you work. Understanding a client’s perspective; the social context; the political issues out there that you’re having to deal with—identity, empowerment, biases—all of those necessarily have to become a part of your conscious practice. It’s not someone going to university or art school, learning graphic design and figuring out how to get a job at the end of it. It’s more about what skills you need to navigate this world where you need to be simply responding rather than controlling.
Some of the students will end up graduating in sound design, who joined as graphic designers; or who came in as animators and graduated as type designers. Those old fashioned skill titles aren’t identities anymore. It’s not so much that graphic design is dead; the graphic designer isn’t dead. But the nature of what we do has shifted so dramatically. It’s much more about empowering other people with visual tools than anything. I’m hopeful. I think the first 100 years of graphic design, which probably started with Dada, finished with Covid.