Jonathan Barnbrook (1966–) is one of the UK’s most active graphic designers. Pioneering the notion of graphic design with a social conscience, Barnbrook makes strong statements about corporate culture, consumerism, war and international politics. Working in both commercial and non-commercial spheres, Barnbrook combines originality, wit, political savvy and bitter irony in equal measures.
Founding his studio in 1990 and Virus Foundry in 1997, Barnbrook is perhaps best known for his provocatively named fonts, such as Mason (originally released as Manson), Exocet, Bastard, Prozac, Nixon and Drone. The controversy surrounding this work stems from its subversive nature and strong social commentary. Barnbrook multi-layers meaning and style — working with language and letterforms in an ingenious way. He uses advertising to reveal anti-corporate messages and exhibitions to promote non-commercial work. With an international presence and local impact, Barnbrook’s work is definitely of the times.
Since graduating in graphic design from Saint Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, Barnbrook has developed a multifaceted practice which includes graphic design, typeface design and motion graphics. He has worked with clients as diverse as Damien Hirst and anti-corporate collective, Adbusters.
You can't bomb an idea screenprint, Jonathan Barnbrook 2004
David Bowie Heathen album cover, Jonathan Barnbrook 2002
Technology Is Nothing stonecarving, Jonathan Barnbrook 1989
Infidel font, Jonathan Barnbrook 2003
Tourette font, Jonathan Barnbrook 2005
What were your early design influences? What drew you to graphic design?
Record covers. I was really into music when I was young. It was a form of rebellion and also a way to relate to the world. Record covers enhance your enjoyment of music, the graphics make the whole experience more meaningful in some way. Also, when I was younger, I was always upset about American influence on the creative world. I wanted to look at my own culture, whether it be art, music or typography.
Do you feel that your education (design or otherwise) influenced the way you work now?
I went to art school but it was more the spirit of the time that influenced me. However, I am very much a designer that is a product of the London schools (St. Martins, RCA) that I went to. I don't think that is a bad thing. I think all design schools should have a strong philosophy even if the students choose to reject it in the end.
What were your earliest design commissions?
I’ve been designing since the age of thirteen, ever since I won a design competition for the cover of the school magazine. My art teacher really made me a graphic designer. It was an influential win. The prize was a 50p book token. I didn't really know what ‘design’ was but it was something I really enjoyed. It wasn't until I was about 20 I realised that the critical context of graphic design isn’t as simple as ‘get a commission, do the job for the client as best you can’. It's a whole lot more complex than that. It was actually difficult to survive after I left college. But it’s important not to get deflected from what you really want to achieve.
How do you think design has a social impact?
Design shapes the environment. It helps us interact with and perceive the world. In fact, graphic design has always been a method of social change. Throughout history, leaders have facilitated social change through the distribution of printed word. It really is that simple.
What are the benefits of polarising your practice, in terms of political and commercial work? How does your political work relate to the rest of your design output?
There is not necessarily a divide. Both feed off the other, both are creative areas that influence each other. However, it is important to spend time doing non-commercial work. It is good for the creativity of the company. And it works the other way round too. Commercial work can inform non-commercial projects. Our stance has affected the commercial work we take on. We can’t be hypocrites, shout about something and do the opposite.
What is the ideal relationship between designer and client?
To like them is quite important and feel happy to be working with them. The client should respect graphic design and not see it simply as a service. It has cultural validity too.
What was your relationship like with Damien Hirst, working on the pop-up book?
It was very good, I think he was one of the few artists I have worked with who respected the role of the designer in the process, so he allowed me to be creative, put my mark on the book. It enhanced the expression of the work. Most artists are control freaks who think they know best, which is good in some instances, but with many projects you need to get the best people to do what they are good at, and in this case I think he understood that.
You have worked with music clients, including David Bowie. Do music clients have demands that are very specific to their field?
In this age of big record companies the marketing department has too much say. They do research before commissioning a design which often completely defines the solution they want, so it has become a very predictable area. Often the designer doesn’t even work directly with the band. With David Bowie though, it was just him so we had a close relationship. To get a decent design I think you have to work with a band that is so small that they are prepared to take chances or so big that they can tell the record companies exactly what they want.
What is your favourite font and why?
The logical answer to that is that there’s no such thing as a favourite font; it depends on the usage. But to answer in a completely non-logical way, it’s Perpetua by Eric Gill, a British stonecarver and font designer. I like that it comes from absolutely his universe. It is of the time, true to its own surroundings and has his tone of voice. All of these things are very important to me when I design fonts.
Why did you decide to publish the Barnbrook Bible?
It arose out of a desire to explain my work properly. To give people a better understanding of what graphic design can do. We are assaulted with images every day and there is a greater need to understand why they are produced, not just accept them. I’ve been working on the book for five years now. The publication was timed to coincide with the opening of my exhibition at the Design Museum.
How has your studio evolved over time and what are your plans for the future?
I run a small studio on purpose. I don’t want to lose the personal contact between people. Everyone here can say what they feel. It is important to be informal and enjoy daily life. In the future I’d like to do more film work. Type and film is a relatively new area to explore. And mostly the projects are self-motivated. I like writing rather than interpreting other people’s words. Exhibitions and graphics for museums are also an area I’d like to be involved in. I’m interested in doing more work in Britain. I’ve done lots of projects abroad, but here they’re a bit reluctant — I’m not sure why. Some British institutions are scared of individual design. The Virus font foundry was set up so that we could make typefaces. It is good for publicity but we don’t worry about the commercial side of things. It has cultural value. It is a bonus if people buy the fonts. And sometimes it is surprising to see how they’re used. It is nice to see the effect of visual language on society.
What was the significance of your exhibition at the Design Museum, Friendly Fire?
Hopefully it motivated other designers and students to do non-commercial work and to show they can survive not sacrificing their principles. I want to convey that graphic design has something to say and is culturally a valid form of expression.
Graphic Design for the 21st Century,' Charlotte and Peter Fiell (Taschen, London, 2003)
'No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism,' Rick Poynor (Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London, 2003)
'Graphic Agitation 2,' Liz McQuiston (Phaidon, London, 2004) Barnbrook Bible The graphic design of Jonathan Barnbrook (Booth-Clibborn, Editions, 2007)
Tomorrow’s Truth: The Graphic Agitation of Jonathan Barnbrook, Jonathan Barnbrook and Kim Ran-Young, (Hangaram Design Museum, Seoul, 2004)
‘Jonathan Barnbrook on Experimentation’ in Design Dialogues, Steven Heller and Elinor Pettit (Allworth Press, New York, 1998)