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Rick Poynor

Neville Brody Revisited


Complaints about the lack of depth in writing about graphic design occur with thudding regularity, but these critics rarely acknowledge what seems to be a basic fact about design. Once you have stated the fundamentals, which have been repeated many times, there is often not that much left to say. If you approach graphic design – and, in particular, the individual graphic designer – looking for complex ideas about design and culture that might require book-length elucidation, then few designers have much to report about their practice that is significantly different from what their colleagues say, and that moves beyond the sphere of necessary but still, at root, limited professional talk. I have interviewed hundreds of designers and transcribed miles of tape over the years, but the number who have had strikingly unusual (as opposed to just interesting) observations to make about either design or the world is not large.

Here, the “service” nature of design and the education that supports it really do seem to impose some fundamental limitations. Certainly, the designer can apply the hard-won rudiments of craft to the task of expressing the client’s message, and they might be able to talk about that message, as supplied content, in an intelligent way. But what I am getting at here is the ability to step back from the day-to-day task of designing and place visual communication and your own activity in a broader context, because you bring a purpose to the task that is uniquely your own. Could this be the reason why, despite all the calls for more penetrating forms of criticism, there is so little close critical reading of particular projects and individual bodies of work? Might it be that there are very few designers whose ideas warrant, or can sustain, this kind of attention?

These thoughts have been constantly in my mind of late as I work on an exhibition and book about the last 40 years of British graphic design. Inevitably, any such task involves a great deal of comparison. One way of getting the measure of any designer is to contrast them with their contemporaries. For me, looking back over this period, the designer who really stands out is not perhaps someone I might have expected when I began the project. Neville Brody burnt so brightly and was praised so lavishly in the 1980s that a backlash was bound to follow – and it did. Enough time has passed for it to be possible to revisit his 1980s work without worrying about passing questions of fashion. I believe that when future assessments are made Brody will emerge clearly as one of the most considerable designers of the period, working anywhere.

Brody’s first book, The Graphic Language of Neville Brody (1988), will be central to this reappraisal. He was one of several designers who made an impact on the stuffy world of British graphic design in the early 1980s, but he brought a degree of self-awareness to his activities that no other young designer seems to have matched (it’s always possible that new evidence will emerge). From the outset, Brody was concerned with ideas and he was precociously forward in explaining the elements of critique in his work. It’s easy to take this for granted now, but it was virtually unheard of, in either Britain or America, for a young designer to dwell on his own motivations, agenda and putative “graphic language” in this way. In the last year, Peter Saville, Brody’s contemporary, has received a great deal of attention, with a book and an exhibition at the Design Museum, London. He has proved to be a brilliant raconteur able to reflect revealingly on his work of 20 years ago, but these are retrospective observations sharpened up in the telling. Much of their interest comes from the world-weary eye he now brings to design activities that he perhaps viewed at the time in a rather more straightforward way.

Brody, on the other hand, was much more overtly shaped by the rebellious energy and inclinations of the punk period. He was inspired by Dada, the Constructivists and William Burroughs, and he was outspokenly humanist in his sympathies and openly political in a way that none of his contemporaries were. A Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher was then in power and he made a point of working for left-wing causes. As the “design decade” progressed, Brody often attacked the excessiveness of the design industry, which did nothing to endear him to the design establishment (to this day he remains an outsider). This attempt to use his position to encourage debate culminated in an attack on the “set up” of design published in 1988 on the front page of The Guardian’s review section, which even allowed him to change its grid. It has to be said that Brody and his collaborator Jon Wozencroft didn’t quite pull this off, but it was a remarkable intervention, which brought pressing design issues to a broader public, and there has been nothing remotely like it since then in the British press. Brody was already struggling, though, to escape from being typecast as someone who was hung up on style (he wasn’t) and this perception has dogged him ever since.

There isn’t space here to make a detailed case for Brody’s importance. The point I want to emphasise is that his large body of work, from his early sleeve designs for Fetish Records (an exceptional project in its own right), to The Face, to the woefully under-examined, long-term Fuse project of the 1990s – has a level of ambition that makes most graphic design oeuvres look very thin and repetitious indeed. He was a design auteur before we started calling it that, with an artist’s self-confidence, and with Brody one can actually talk in terms of phases or periods. The texts in his two books have served him much better as documents of his ideas and convictions than some have suggested – too many buyers of these volumes appear not to have read them – but Brody will surely be a candidate for more detached critical appraisals in due course. It’s a sign of design’s lack of intellectual and cultural aspiration that a figure of his significance has been sidelined for so long for such shallow reasons.




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Comments [72]
I'd have to totally agree about the importance of Brody's books as signposts for both students and practicioners of Graphic design. There have been many subsequent design firm publications by the likes of Tomato, Why Not Associates, vaughan oliver etc., that didn't quite hit the mark for me. Not in the sense of the design work (as a lot of brody's work didn't massively appeal to me in in book 2) but in the way he validates what he does and demonstrates with each project a distinct approach to solving a problem. This is probaly the Brian Eno approach of opening up about what is going on in your head and your influences and just carrying a conversation with a reader. Sagmeisters book did this quite well too I thought.

In many way's I don't blame the designers but perhaps the editor's and publishers. If the designers' are wary of text then they should be teemed up with a writer to draw out their ideas, although many would probaly prefer to just show the work and leave it at that. having potential clients read your intermost thoughts being a drawback.

The problem is a conditioning one I think. Many working designers lose totally the free thinking, fun, open minded approach to design they had in college pretty quickly once indoctrined into your standard design firm structure. Especially one led by marketeers, rather than designers. They just become conditioned to leave their brain at home and design becomes just another "job". The idea of keeping notebooks or personal projects on the go falls by the wayside and they begin to look at design magazines more for what they can rip off in the next job, than reading about the ideas or issues raised.

Some time ago I attended a talk by Jonathan Barnbrook who was very entertaining and inciteful about his work and the machinations of design, but I don't think anyone has yet got "his brain on paper" so to speak. Many there were also probaly questioning how they saw this relate to what they did every day, which was just so removed from the average graphic design brief. They would probaly prefer a 2 hr lecture on photoshop skills. Seeing ambition and unbounded creativity up close can be a real wake up call, and one not everyone welcomes, but I think it is the purest essense of the potential of Graphic design, especially in print. Neither arty to the point of obscurity or commercial to the point of inanity, design if written and demonstrated well can appeal to far more than just a design student buying public and can have a huge long term importance.









david
02.12.04
05:40

A design writer defends himself against allegations that his writing lacks depth.

Designers are the ones who lack depth, he says, and consequently he finds himself with little to say. The designers who do exhibit some depth and who would be interesting to write about, such as Neville Brody, are of little interest to the general design community, the primary market for design writing.

Design writing depends on autonomous practice for interesting subject matter. Unless design practice has some form of autonomy, writers will have to simply explain design phenomena based on market conditions. Autonomous practice (and Neville Brody shows some strands of autonomy in his work) is what allows for depth of thought. But unless design criticism also has some degree of autonomy (meaning that it is not swayed by what the market wants), there will never be a way for the strands of autonomous practice to productively interweave with strands of autonomous criticism.

The development of graphic design thinking is going to take some collaborative effort, and the exploration of extra-professional design work will be impossible to do by way of a professionally-oriented design criticism. Autonomous progress will always be the effort of market-"outcasts", or rather, noble savages who happily explore the soul of Graphic Design, not the agendas of the market. We need dropouts in both practice and writing.

Let's face it, the market for design writing isn't very big. No one makes a ton of money from doing this, so why pretend that the market is a limiting factor for what we write about?
Tom Gleason
02.12.04
04:20

Tom, I'm not "pretending" anything and you have misrepresented my position. I was talking generally about the comments routinely made about design writing, not about myself, before offering an example of a designer who in my view would repay reappraisal. As it happens, I have long supported autonomous design practice, I agree about the need for criticism to pursue its own autonomous directions, and it goes without saying that a critical response doesn't have to be, indeed shouldn't be, limited by designers' own points of view. But you can't build on sand.

Have you tried writing about design anywhere, by the way (other than blogs)? Design writing needs some passionate new voices. That will be the test of your seemingly firmly held views.
Rick Poynor
02.12.04
05:24

Where's the portfolio?
Su
02.12.04
05:43

I'm sorry for misrepresenting your position (I'm new to the etiquette of all this); it wasn't meant as an attack, although I did have a point to make about design writers in general. The majority of books out there cater to the market, and the ones that try not to (the ones calling for more criticism) often can't sustain that approach for long. I am interested to see how long Émigré can keep this great chap-book thing going.

I know that you largely escape the criticism being leveled at design writers. You're the only writer to avoid Fitzgerald's wrath in the article "Quietude". You also of course are responsible for the better part of one of the most critically-insightful magazines in the history of design. So I know that you weren't trying to make any excuses. Let's clear this up by saying that I used parts of your argument in a hypothetical sketch of a different kind of design writer (which is why I spoke of the "design writer" as anonymous). I should have made that clear.

I'm glad that you agree with me on the major points, and I am happy to "be against" in a time when such an approach is uncool. But I'm not against everything.

The idea of autonomous criticism as an important supplement to autonomous practice is new to me; it seems right, and I'm glad that others have noticed the same thing. Still, after Blauvelt's article, I would have hoped for more discussion (on blogs or in magazines) of the idea of autonomy, because the idea has (to my knowledge) only recently been formally introduced into the discourse, and the point is very easily missed.

A serious look into the nature of autonomy is in order, because "we can't build on sand". For aspiring writers like me, such a discussion plays a crucial role in helping us find our own place in a very elusive and often uninviting discourse. (Personally, I have have already faced many obstacles, discouragements, disincentives, and have gone against all common sense and better judgement just to do the insignificant writing that I've done. It is no wonder there is a lack of thinking in design. I'd quit thinking today if I hadn't already given up on a normal life.)

Also, to repeat in a different way, a serious look into the nature of autonomy is in order, BUT we can't build on sand. I can't explore these things in a vacuum; that isn't what autonomy is about. So I have to talk, even when it's somewhat inappropriate.

Of course, on the other hand, we can talk about autonomy all day and never do anything about it. I don't yet have much to offer in a discussion about Neville Brody. I can say that his books influenced me a lot, but I haven't really thought about him, nor have I met him.

I'm finding my voice. I probably have a lot to learn about design before I can contribute anything substantial, but I intend to. Discussions like these help me figure out what is needed, so if I go to grad school I can do something significant, not a "science-fair" project.
Tom Gleason
02.12.04
08:55

I hope Tom doesn't take my comments as "wrath" here; I just want to clear up any confusion. There are a number of design writers whose work I admire, from the other authors of DO to Robin Kinross. I singled Rick out for his unique position and for articulating ideas such as those expressed here. I observed—as others have—that some voices had grown (understandably) quiet but I had no harsh words for anyone. My point was that if the design field meant what it said about wanting to be regarded as substantive, it needed to accept and promote independent critical study.

As I write as an aspect of my creative activity, it ultimately doesn't matter to me whether this happens or not. I suppose that makes me autonomous. That and being in the bastion of insular/insulated thought, academia. But anyone who thinks writing about design is a plus in academia doesn't know the situation. In very real ways, it's less accepted here than it is in the professional design field. Making me, I guess, a two-time loser for doing it.

Tom, I'll add to what Rick says: stop fussing about acceptance, substance, and expertise—write something and submit it. The quality of my criticism is debatable but, at least, it shows what can get published.
Kenneth FitzGerald
02.13.04
01:12

Fummeled again by the press! There were so many hot designers and coffee-table books that finding something neat was hit and miss. I totally discounted Brody as all style and never looked up his book or paid much attention to FUSE; the FUSE98 conference only caught my fancy because the website had the most sophisticated Javascript I'd ever seen. And almost 5 years later, I didn't even read this post until today.

So here you have an example of what can happen when you conclude instead of worry that there are only a few designers, projects, and bodies of work that can sustain close critical readings. You close yourself off and lose your autonomy by depending on formulaic signifiers of what's worth looking at or thinking about. I guess the moral of the story is to be a little bit frivolous, or something along those lines.
aizan
02.13.04
02:46

Ugh, I can't even get the moral of my own story right. On further thought, no the point isn't to be a little frivolous, it's to utilize your critical skills to look past, through, and at your restrictive expectations so you will be more critical of your choices whether to read something, or give it a chance to speak. Tangent, sorry. *hurries off*
aizan
02.13.04
03:19

When it comes to design writing I think the focus has to be on the kind of writers and the writing itself. What we are talking about essentially is encouraging more adventuroius contemporary essay and interview styles. John D'Agata edited an interesting "New American Essay" collection last year, demonstrating work by many of those pushing the boat out with the essay form. Maybe design writing needs a similar kick into the 21st century or at least up to modernism ;)

It is the format that holds design writing that has perhaps become stilted. Many new design books are still in the same mould as those produced in the 60's. And maybe designers+writers+publishers have become too comfortable with this.

There are lots of questions to ask;
For one it seems to me that design magazines are far more appealing. After all there just aren't that many designers left who can filll a whole book with interesting work+ideas, and for whom a book is a worthy long term legacy. And magazines are always where the dynamism is I think, and where more adventurous approaches should be tried out.

Perhaps the magazines should be dealing with with dynamic fast paced stuff and books the more contemplative look over the past successes and milestones?

I love EYE (although can't afford to buy it anymore - thank god for libraries!) as it has a great mix of contemporary and older or lost classics.
Isn't it time that some these classics were republished in book format Rick?

I'd like to see design writing letting in more speculative writing not tied to a designers work but about the workings of graphic design itself - in our environment, as a kind of Iain Sinclair/Ben Katchor ideas led speculation. On the shapes, places, people, design affects. On the cultural/geographical diversity of design. On the language in a kind of comparitive Edward Tufte way. On the people themselves
in a more "get inside the brain" approach. In a travelogue, historical way. In a fictional, futuristic way.

Although I am not a huge fan of all the writing I do like the approach of mcSweeney's to reprint lost classics or full books while maintaining a quarterly and website. The new writing can get out there, and the established benefit too. For things to change design magazines have to be more open to accepting new writing/writers or at least encouraging a platform for it to grow first.



























david
02.13.04
06:38

Rick (or anybody), I agree with your take on Brody but I'm wondering if you can provide any insight into what I see as the great paradox of his career. He clearly saw his work—at least his late '80s work—as a political and/or philosophical statement. He seemed to be frustrated by his imitators not because they were ripping off his trademark style but because he didn't regard it as a style; he seemed to see the adoption of his form by others as emptying it of meaning. As much as I admire his work he seems to me to be very much a formalist and there's little in the form that reveal any social, philosophical, or political statement. Much of his work seemed to serve to sell trendy clothing. From 5000 miles away it said "young" and "hip" but little else.

Was his seeming-surprise at being regarded as a style monger honest? Am I missing something or was he delusional?
Gunnar Swanson
02.13.04
10:54

Gunnar, this is a good question. My assessment is that he was being entirely honest. He was an idealistic young man in his 20s with a great deal of self-belief who found himself successful in Britain and then overseas to a degree that he can scarcely have believed possible when he started. The price of this early acclaim was to find that people not only copied his stylistic inventions - always painful for any creative person - but applied them to exactly the kind of commercial work he rejected. (At this point, unlike later in the 1990s, no self-respecting, would-be radical designer would sell out by working for advertising.) Brody's much-noted gear change and switch to self-abnegating Helvetica in 1986 for the design of Arena magazine was a measure of the disgust and perhaps uncertainty he must have felt.

The relationship between extravagant visual form and would-be critical content is just the kind of subject that could do with a great deal more analysis in relation to recent design practice. I deal with some of these matters, touching on Brody, in the final "Opposition" chapter of my book No More Rules, examining this in terms of the critic Linda Hutcheon's notion of postmodernism's "complicitous critique". To really get inside these issues requires an examination of 1980s "style culture" - in which The Face played a central, hugely influential role in Britain. It literally transformed the way in which the media addressed popular culture.

Brody's assumptions and practice as a designer from 1980 to 1986 developed in parallel with a thriving, confident, post-punk youth culture in which personal style was seen, rightly or wrongly, as an empowering form of resistance to the market manipulation and dull conformity of conservative mass culture. (This youth culture also gave opportunities to a lot of people on the make, paving the way for the decade's later money and glamour worship.) Of course, the international take-up of Brody's design gestures as pure style stripped them of their local meanings. Incidentally, you may recall that by the late 1980s Brody had hooked up with Stuart Ewen, author of All Consuming Images (1988), which dealt with the politics of style in contemporary culture. A fiery AIGA conference presentation by the pair of them was published in Print.
Rick Poynor
02.13.04
01:28

I often get the impression when reading about design that it is not admirable to be merely stylish. And yet an evocative and striking style seems a very good way to make a career. Maybe this is because style can be very powerful but relies upon context. Outside of its context it always looks weak. And it is nearly always removed enough from its context to render it harmless and, therefore, a little ridiculous. Our culture seems amazingly adept at devouring what might harm or upset it. So one always has to come up with something new. It sounds like, for Neville Brody, that something new grew out of a culture in which he was immersed. So it was not an applied style, but a style that was developed as an expression, an organic style. It's too bad we don't have the right words to mark this distinction. Rick Poyner seems to be getting close. But in the mean time it might be useful to simply say "style." Some, like Neville Brody, develop a style which is rich and engaging while others apply a style which appears hollow and ungrounded. Perhaps this second variety is not style at all, but affectation.
trent williams
02.13.04
04:35

Rick, is there a transcript of that AIGA presentation you mentioned? Now that would be something worth reading/seeing!

As a young(er) graphic designer I've always appreciated Brody's work but I never really made the connection between it and his social commitment. It is amazing how quickly appropriation can distort meaning. I think the discussion of "complicitous critique" deserves a thorough investigation and dialogue.
Kevin Lo
02.14.04
10:10

Su - his portfolio in part:

www.researchstudios.com

and the RCA's Jon Wozencroft has explored his work in 2 neat volumes from Thames & Hudson.

Andrew Breitenberg
02.15.04
12:25

Sorry to go off the topic of Brody and back to critical design writing, but I crap my pants at the thought of trying something passionate and new in design writing.

I'm definitely not concerned with market appeal, but I just feel that, in front of some writers that I really look up to *cough* Rick Poynor *cough*, I'm afraid to speak up (write anything at the moment). It's not an easy starting point.
Jarrett
02.15.04
05:18

Kevin, the article by Brody and Stuart Ewen is called "Design Insurgency". It's in Print XLIV:I, January/February 1990. It was based on a presentation they gave in 1989 (I didn't see it) at the AIGA's "Dangerous Ideas" conference in San Antonio, Texas. "Design no longer envisions," they write, "it advertises. Design no longer informs or educates, it blindly promotes the accumulation of wealth and power." They advocate design as a tool of democratic expression.

Jarrett, as I've said before on Design Observer and elsewhere, if someone wants to write about design he or she should just get on and try it - find out what's possible. You run your own site, so you have the perfect place to try things out.
Rick Poynor
02.16.04
05:01

> I'm afraid to speak up (write anything at the moment). It's not an easy starting point

Jarrett I couldn't relate with that feeling more. There is always that sensation of why would anybody listen to me, but if you are passionate enough about what you are wiriting your contribution will always be worthwhile. I also second Rick's comment: Just try it. There is no other way to know whether you have something to say. And don't be too concerned about what others will think... everybody has an opinion on everything. I should know.

And you can always practice speaking up at you know where (wink, wink).
Armin
02.16.04
09:31

Thanks for the encouragement/advice, it's always appreciated and hopefully will stick one of these days ;)

I guess my fears are echoed in what you wrote above: "Once you have stated the fundamentals, which have been repeated many times, there is often not that much left to say." Unfortunately, it's all too easy to write about the fundamentals and surface level issues with design. Trying to get to important social or political issues is not always easy — especially with interviews.
Jarrett
02.16.04
04:22

I would just like to add a note on Brody and Saville (sorry for the lumping) who were both recently in NYC and gave AIGA small talks that were heavily attended (not by me).

Maybe those two guys are hilarious British pioneers, but they certainly made no positive (or lasting) impression here in the States.

Vaughan Oliver ... now there's some talent.
felix
02.17.04
06:15

I've posted the text of Brody and Ewen's article "Design Insurgency" at http://backspace.com/notes/2004/02/21/x.html.
John
02.21.04
04:59

Thanks for this, John.
Rick Poynor
02.22.04
08:40

Funny how a designer's work can make an impact on your own activty, being design work or design writing - or both.
I remember having my 3rd year college professor showing us Brody's identity for ÖRF, and getting really inspired by it. Afterwards I never thought much about him or his work, I found my inspiration somewhere or in someone else, I think.
Lately I saw Brody's "Tearing up the plans" talk in Japan at the Visualogue congress, and was blown away by a few different reasons: its utterly humble, even fatalistic nature was probably my strongest memory of it, and also a few soundbytes that I collected in the surprisingly not full auditorium (the vast majority of hundreds of japanese students attending the congress were somewhere else), like "I am feeling like Chicago airport", or "everything is generic, anything different is not distributed" - which fits greatly in the magazine covers thread next door - or "revolution has been replaced by comfort and prestige".
It brought tears to a friend of mine's eyes; for me it was a sort of responsability warning, not of the Adbusters type, where everything you do will eventually end up serving some imperialistic machine, but perhaps by asking you to renounce style in favour of honesty. And not only I second his opinion, I recognise these are guidelines that Brody has followed in the past.
Another anecdote on "recognition" or "impression" made by designers on others: on the congress closing party you could witness a pretty unusual scene: tens of japanese students queueing up to get a Shigeo Fukuda autograph, while Brody and Jonathan Barnbrook stood chatting only 2 metres away, undisturbed, sipping their beers.
Isn't it great to be a design star?
Fred
02.23.04
02:47

Thanks for posting the transcript John. Turns out I had read it before, but its great to see it again.
Kevin Lo
02.23.04
09:25

Was this text also revisited at some pont by Tibor Kalman? I seem to remember reading something quite similar to this that I thought was written by him during my undergrad. It was a photocopy handout that became very precious to me, which ended with an emphatic and roiling we're here to be bad! Or is it just me?
Kevin Lo
02.23.04
09:39

The "We're here to be bad" text is by Tibor Kalman and Karrie Jacobs. It was originally presented at the same AIGA conference as the Brody/Ewen text and was published in the same issue of Print, January/February 1990.

The actual pages are reprinted in Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist (1998) edited by Peter Hall and our very own Michael Bierut.

The texts make quite a pairing.
Rick Poynor
02.24.04
08:27

Thanks Rick, I thought I was going crazy for a while.

Those TWO texts really influenced my direction during my design education and I haven't looked back (well, maybe once or twice) since.
Kevin Lo
02.24.04
12:33

In response to Rick's piece on Neville - I absolutely agree with the need for a re-appraisal of his work. Well overdue and it would also be timely given the lack of any attention he has received of late. There are a number of other designers who exhibit similar traits of humanism and a wider world view in their practice - Jon Barnbrook for example.

Wasn't NB just a victim of his own success? - the first 'young superstar' designer to receive extensive coverage in the design press (and even in the mainstream press later on). At the time it was fantastic to have a voice that represented younger design - maybe the issue is that it is hard to do ones growing up in public with your every stylistic tic examined and copied.

I clearly remember that even early on when speaking at design conferences he would often try to shift the agenda and attention away from his own work and try to get the audience to take on larger issues and debates. His projects such as Fuse and the early collaborations at Touch Magazine have received little or no appraisal.

As regards the 'service' nature of design and a lack of critical practice or reflection on that practice in a wider context - perhaps we are asking too much of such an adolescent discpline.

I suspect that we are still some way off a situation we could regard as ideal. That said design writing continues to flourish and grow and I do think that a number of good writers have come from both the practice and the area of education. Despite Rick's comments on education supporting the the notion of design as a sevice industry.

I know that a large number of design courses position themselves as 'feeders' to the mainstream but like the practice itself there are a number of significant educators and design courses which have positioned themselves to challenge the existing order. In any issue of Eye or Emigre there are usually a signifcant number of educators and those straight out of design courses who contribute to the debate. It is a shame that Neville has not committed himself to more writing and teaching time over the last few years. I believe it is here that he may have found a welcome audience.
Ian Noble
02.24.04
03:54

well, i've always viewed brody's work as extremely derivative, but fully realized stylistically. the ideas he popularized globally were qlready exhausted by other more daring designers in the decade prior to his emergence. essentially, i think of him as a minor signpost in the long historical road of graphic design. sure, he was a minor superstar on the design horizon (i love painfully mixing metaphors) for a few years, but his lack of sustainable growth of ideas and his sudden fade from view denotes his work as a period style. he's much more in common with peter max than with heinz edelman, milton glaser or even any one of the big four of the psychedelic poster artists from san francisco in the 1960's.

he's a mild burp in our chronic design indigestion.
art chantry
02.24.04
04:04

Art, it's exactly this kind of general perception - an unexamined perception for the most part, I believe - that I was trying to prod a little with this post. Who are the more daring (British) designers that you feel had exhausted this way of working a decade earlier? I've just spent the last nine months doing intensive research into the last 40 years of British graphic design and my conclusion is that Brody has been wrongly sidelined, for some of the reasons given above.

Comparisons to body sounds: the new criticism?
Rick Poynor
02.26.04
02:23

genesis p orridge.
malcolm garrett
peter saville
jamie reid
helen worthington-ford
barney bubbles
rocking russian
etc. etc. etc.

rick, it's precisely because i'm aware of the people above (and many many others) that i dismiss brody as a latecomer. sure he defined the style to it's fullest, i suppose. but he certainly didn't create it out of whole clothe. that's like saying john van hammersveld invented psychedelia.

gurgle.
art chantry
02.26.04
03:43

wasn't brody working at rocking russian? or was that dagama?

spurt.
graham
02.26.04
05:21

yeah, he was with rocking russian when he started out. stylistically he didn't seem to add much to the group from i can see.

blorch.
art chantry
02.26.04
06:23

Rick, what if Neville Brody is the kind of rare designer who is made of complex ideas about design and culture, but his political leanings were the exact opposite of who he is; let's say he's an ardent conservative which he expresses by working for certain likeminded clients. Would you still be interested in what Brody had to say? Or is it his politics you like?

In other words, are you at all concerned that your own political leanings, which I'm guessing parallel Brody's to some degree, are guiding who you deem to be an important designer? And if that's the case, isn't that a somewhat limiting method by which to determine who is and who is not a significant graphic designer?
Rudy
02.28.04
01:04

Rudy, this is an interesting question, but I think you slightly misunderstand the point I am trying to make with this post. I am not trying to produce a single yardstick for measuring significance in design.

A lot of the judgements that designers make about other designers are superficial. There is an acute awareness of who's in and who's out, what's hot and what's not. This is often passionately felt, and certainly it's relevant and perhaps essential as a guide to a designer's own creative directions and positioning in the marketplace, but it won't do as a critical tool for assessing the achievement, meaning and value of bodies of work.

Cultural figures go out of fashion for all sorts of sometimes quite arbitrary reasons. Early masterpieces of film-making are often unknown to generations whose perceptions of cinema effectively began with Star Wars. Even the finest writers can sometimes go out of print before, with luck, being rediscovered and reintroduced. It seems to me that something similar has happened to Brody. In his case, the reason appears to have been the backlash effect that follows too much ubiquity and success. This doesn't change the fact that he is, historically, a significant figure, both nationally (my particular interest) and internationally, who produced a complex and varied body of work, which is supported by exactly the kind of critical thinking that writers in Emigre have often urged us to apply. Yet still Brody is neglected and overlooked. So far as I can recall, his Fuse project was never explored in any detail in Emigre, even though it was one of the most ambitious and sustained experimental type projects of the 1990s.

What interests me in Brody's case is the totality of his work and thinking. As it happens, I do sympathise with Brody's political position, as expressed 20 years ago. I also share many of the same cultural interests, both in art history and the post-punk music scene. I am curious to know how his work with Fuse, and his commercial projects of the 1990s, connect with his earlier thinking. So far as I am aware, no one has explored this in any substantial published piece of writing. (It astonishes me that more critical work isn't done in this kind of area. It seems so obvious. Subjects for postgraduate inquiry are everywhere.)

What I am emphatically not saying is that the only yardstick for assessing design quality is whether it conforms to particular political views. As we know, even a hateful message can be expressed in a graphically powerful, formally perfect manner. However, it is inevitable that searching questions about the role of design in society will lead some designers to take a sceptical and oppositional stance. Like you, I think, I am drawn to such figures and I believe we should value them.
Rick Poynor
02.29.04
01:04

passionately overlooked? you are kidding, right? he's still one of the most "famous" graphic designers of the last 25 years. that hardly counts as overlooked.

face it, rick - you are a fanboy.

when are starting the neville brody fanclub up? you could call it the "neville brody underappreciation society". has a nice ring to it.

30 years of carefully examining british graphic design (from an american persepective) taught me that brody was distilling the work of those who came before him. to understand brody, you have to understand his cultural and historical context. without those who broke the ground and built the hiways, he would have no place to cruise his cadillac.

so, my point is simple - he was a great stylist. period. the dialog ot those who built the context for him to exist were brilliant and daring innovators.

honest, rick. in attempting to create design history, you need to consider the context of design. without the world it reflects, design says nothing. this ain't art. honest.
art chantry
02.29.04
01:34

The whole business of assessing importance is as slippery as it is interesting. I agree with Rudy's implication that politics (and I'm using the word literally here) often has much to do with such judgments. Left wing provocateurs whose work would be dismissed as uninteresting or merely crude if it were apolitical or as a sociological freak show if it were right wing tend to be discussed as paragons of graphic design excellence.

I don't see that as the case with Brody, however. His politics may be the appeal for some but his compelling style was (perhaps ultimately to his chagrin) the reason most people paid attention to him.

I find it difficult to explain to students who were born in the '80s why anyone found Brody's work (or April Greiman's) surprising, weird, controversial, or anything but part of the mainstream. (Perhaps by Art Chantry's standards they were just part of the mainstream but that dismissal glosses over too much.) I remember Brody's book being met with some combination of derision and confusion by designers I knew in the '80s. A few years later the work was so absorbed by the commercial graphic design world that it was hard to notice the source. By the same token, there were a few years where his name would have come out number one in a poll of American design students about design heroes.

Brody's political activity is interesting if for no other reason than that the Cranbrook/CalArts stuff that replaced his work in the pantheon of stylistic innovation [with Rick Valicente and who else between?] was so often regarded as generally deeply political when it rarely was overtly so and people who rejected it for aesthetic or practical reasons were often dismissed as (politically) conservative.
Gunnar Swanson
02.29.04
02:59

i find this re-assessment of brody's work to be confusing. i'm truly surprised that we, as a group, have not become more insightful into the purposes and fucntion of graphic design in our shared visual dialog. we seem to be destined to repeat the thinking of art criticism, or at least academic art criticism in that it tends to remove the artwork (and by association, the artist) from the context in which it was presented. as a result we tend to view art as being seperate from the culture that spawned it and assign it a territory magically distinct and above the societal context. this, in my estimation, is the very source of the problem what destroyed the popular cultural viability of 20th century art in general and the modern movement in particluar. in reality, none of it was ever even remotely detached from the popular culture, but in fac it wallowed in it. it was the criticism (and the academic view of it) that was detached. in essence they were reflecting the wrong context onto and into the art discussed.

this is the problem with contemporary graphic design history as it's being developed. those creating this history bring with them the academic and scholarly prejudices learned in the world of fine art. yet, there is no arena i can think of that has less to do with elitism and scholarly critical disciplines and predjudices than the world of contemporary graphic design. our shared culture creates graphic language. graphic designers just reflect it.

so, in closing, i think this sad discussion attempting to lionize the work of neville brody as a seminal and powerful force in our shared dialog is missing th point entirely. we need less "great man" theorizing and more hardcore research into context that created this language we all speak.

i think brody was important, but the world he emerged from was far far MORE important than anything he did when it comes to impact on our shared visual language. brody may have some sort of politics (which i've frankly never noticed). but they fail in comparison to the ravenous cultural distortion created by the ideas jamie ried and genesis p. orridge (which merged along with the influence of barney bubbles into the self-contradictory style ideas pioneered by malcolm garrett and peter saville). viewed in this context, neville brody's ideas pale.
art chantry
02.29.04
03:25

I didn't use the expression "passionately overlooked", Art. You made that one up.

I realise that when threads get to this length it's easy to lose track of what has actually been said. The need to pay attention to context is my guiding principle and it applies here, too. The context in this case is 1980s British style culture. I'm interested in Brody's impact on British design - my context, Mr Chantry - and I saw this firsthand in the early 1980s as a consumer of items he happened to have designed: records, books, then The Face. As someone who wasn't at the time involved in design, I first noticed his name because he was involved with these things. I am fully aware of the contributions of the other people you have mentioned. I've written about some of them.

Of course, design, like art, is not separate from the culture that created it. No one here is trying to lionize Brody or overestimate him and no one is suggesting that he, or any other designer, stands apart from the world he was part of - the idea is ridiculous.
Rick Poynor
02.29.04
05:04

rick -

ok, then, what's your point? what are you attempting to say exactly about brody? that he was good? that he should be recognized more openly? that maybe these youngsters these days should respect their elders? that's all?

art chantry
02.29.04
05:34

Art, because I think your questions have been asked and answered, I'll step in here and suggest that you and Rick disagree on the importance of this particular designer and respectfully suggest it be left at that.
Michael Bierut
02.29.04
05:44

michael -

no, that's completely wrong.

but i will submit to you diplomatic tendencies.

- art

ps - i thought forums like this were to discuss ideas and their differences. am i wrong?

art chantry
02.29.04
05:51

Rick, I'm not saying you're trying to use a single yardstick, but it seems to me you are setting up a kind of curious threshold; you like Neville Brody because unlike most designers he has much to say beyond the fundamentals of graphic design. Besides the problem stated in my previous message regarding politics, I see a second problem with this. Neville Brody is a verbal person and he is (like Bruce Mau) a great self promoter. But what about those designers who are just as innovative and progressive as Brody, with the same complex ideas about design and culture, but who are simply not as vocal and who do not promote themselves with such vigor? Will they simply be overlooked?

Also, Brody has hardly been sidelined. As far as I know he still lectures regularly, meaning that institutions around the world still invite him because they value his ideas and work. And he has received far more critical appraisal (your own article in I.D. a few years back comes to mind) than many others who may be just as deserving.

By the way, one reason we did not discuss Fuse or Brody in great depth in Emigre is because he received so much press that it became less interesting for us to interview him. He was ubiquitous. Emigre's goal during those days was to critique and question the dogmas of Swiss International Style Modernism and to expand our own typographic palettes. Brody was clearly on a similar track, particularly with Fuse. But while we mentioned Fuse in Emigre, for deeper investigations we always seemed to veer towards exposing the lesser known players.

Lastly, I'm puzzled by Art Chantry's comments. First, I think it is exactly the value of context that we're all discussing here in regards to Brody's work. As I read it, Rick's opening essay was about placing Brody and his work in the larger social/cultural/political events of his time, and that when doing so, at least in Rick's opinion, Brody stands out. You may not agree with his assessment, but Rick is doing exactly what Art suggests is necessary when evaluating designers and their work: he looks at the bigger picture.

Actually, I think it's Art who is taking the narrow view of Brody and his work. It seems Art's idea of context is to simply see who else was working during those early Brody years and then dismissing Brody as a latecomer to the scene.

In that respect I see clear differences between Brody and the designers that Art mentions (Saville, Bubbles, Reid, etc.). Sure, Brody may have been influenced by them (what young designer in the 70s and 80s wasn't?), but I think during his career he carved out a very impressive body of work that's undeniably his own. His work in typeface design alone sets him apart from the designers who Art mentions, since very few of them were active in this area.

Anyway, it's difficult to determine whether Brody was a latecomer in the world of late 70s Punk, or a great innovator in the world of early 80s style magazines. Probably a little of both. Styles continuously morph and overlap and progress and regress. Saville, Bubbles, Reid, etc. didn't exactly invent all that stuff from scratch either.
Rudy
02.29.04
07:20

boy, sometimes i feel like i'm talking at royalty.
art chantry
03.01.04
01:24

I spent this weekend sitting around in NYC reading the Design Without Boundaries anthology. The first thing I was struck by was the four lines of indexed page numbers devoted to Neville Brody; there are more references to him than to any other subject in the book, so I suddenly realized the ongoing importance to Mr. Poynor of this agenda.

Reading more of Poynor's take on the subject, I was left with the impression that what is at stake in a discussion of Brody is indeed crucial to furthering our understanding of design, which I like to assume is the real purpose behind design writing and criticism. "What is at stake" is very much involved with, again, the role of autonomy in design as it relates to the role of autonomy in art. Because of this, I will share some of my thoughts on this topic and avoid what I see as more superficial concerns about whether Brody is over- or under-represented or to what extent Brody and Wozencroft are responsible for changes in "graphic design". The important thing, to me, is that they were the first to accessibly attempt to voice these particular issues, and thus are not just worthy of discussion but are capable of being discussed. They have provided some substance with which we can build our understanding. It is not an issue of assessing Brody's importance; it is a question of whether we will make his work important (significant) to us (a courtesy owed to everyone) by considering his position and allowing that consideration to influence us.

The point that I would like to make here about Brody's autonomy (and I admit I can't adequately address everything about it here) is that he seems to believe that graphic design will follow Art into abstraction and self-reflection, and perhaps self-annihilation. But is the field of graphic design merely the remnants of a long history of art-for-hire after "Art" went off to explore itself right down to its total self-negation? Can it only follow suit, or is the inquiry into "graphic design" a unique one where the very nature of its object prevents such a radical path? Or what, then in other words, might autonomy mean in the context of graphic design, if autonomy is freedom from social constraints and graphic design is inherently social?

Habermas has shown how different spheres of rationality (objective, normative, subjective) have separated themselves from one another and become more or less autonomous. To cross these lines in argument is implicitly to undo the basis of modern worldviews. But design seems to "need" to do just that, and it is not done in a reactionary spirit! It seems to me that the study of design, and in particular communications design, should have important consequences for our understanding of human rationality and humane progress. In a discipline where autonomous practice is logically impossible, where science, society, and art meet and "impossibly" coalesce, "autonomous practice" is the integrated tripartite human autonomy that is the desired thrust of the Enlightenment. Autonomous design is not just "art", not just discourse, business, or science; it is a holistic practice of being human and progressive, opened up through our deep interest in communication which is not limited to words, images, market, or technology alone.

But that is just a tentative and flimsy attempt (if not a poetic disclosure of an unexplored possibility) to answer the question of autonomy in design. The question remains: what does autonomy mean in design? Brody's seeming answer is not satisfying to those who care about communication as an integral part of it all.

The point is that design is not art. Oblivion might be the rightful end (and beginning) for art, which continually dissolves itself into and rematerializes from the unknown, mystical void which is it's essence, but design is only partially Art.

While art may have introduced us to radical freedom, there is a different possible project for design--the application of freedom to all spheres of life, which art alone is unable to accomplish.
Tom Gleason
03.01.04
04:39

How did art (not Chantry, the profession) get mixed into an already convoluted discussion?

I am constantly surprised by those who enjoy disregarding a [famous] designer's contribution to our profession because somebody had already done it before him/her. So what if Brody wasn't the first to do it? So what if it got copied and absorbed by mainstream? This happens all the time when David Carson comes into discussion (but that's another thread altogether).

My point is that Neville Brody had something extra that catapulted him above and beyond those before him and that's what's special about those designers we admire and write about - yet we find it unfathomable to accept that as our only reason for admiration or recognition. The ability to transcend one's profession is not an easy achievement, so why not simply accept that Neville Brody, regardless of context and political agendas, is a great designer with great influence?
Armin
03.01.04
09:46

you misunderstand. my point is that design is cultural language, and that designers build upon what they experience around them. somebody always sets the stage for the famous guys, and i think that these trailblazers get ignored in favor of the guy who figuratively "cashed in" on their work.

we need to quit looking at design history as a series of geniuses leading the rabble. we need to realize that rabble is the designer, not the "great man" on top.

that's my point. this constant insistance on elitist thought is inaccurate and tired. brody was a wonderful designer in all respects. but, the people who created his world were brilliant.
art chantry
03.01.04
10:01

The ability to transcend one's profession is not an easy achievement, so why not simply accept that Neville Brody, regardless of context and political agendas, is a great designer with great influence?
Because from there, it's a short step to having to accept Britney Spears as a great musician with great influence. That may be an extreme example (maybe) but, as always, we can start sliding the line and see where you drop someone out of being "extra" and I don't. Unfortunately, there is not a Platonic ideal of "deserving" attention that I've been able to identify so it's a case of delving into the messy dynamic of how value is ascribed.

I may be reading into your comments, Armin, but I sense a common thread prevalent in such design discussions: everybody knows Brody (Mau, Rand, Carson, et al.) is great, why fuss? With respect, I don't know (I may be the only design-interested person on the planet not to have read The Graphic Language of Neville Brody) and want some reasoned reasons.
Kenneth FitzGerald
03.01.04
10:16

As designers, critics, educators and observers, isn't it preferable that we all see the world (and design) differently? As Sam Potts once said, A world designed by Karim Rashid, Chip Kidd, Stefan Sagmesister, Landor, Phaidon, Frog, etc, would be a kind of visual fascism. No thanks.

I don't think there should ever be one viewpoint that is the acceptable definition or gauge of someone's greatness. Why should there be? So we can all get along? To make it easier for those witnessing or viewing the work? So it can be "anthologized"?

Sometimes I love Neville Brody's work. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I think the work is genius, other times I question it. Same with the work of Carson, Tibor, Sagmeister, Winterhouse, Pentagram, and so on. That is what makes it interesting to keep looking at things. Watching things grow, evolve, change with the times (or keep up with them). But I think it is more about assessing the work, and not the "personality," so to speak. Would this conversation be as provocative if Mr Brody's persona was more like Ed Fella's?
debbie millman
03.01.04
12:58

Debbie, you just argued for an exacting criticism--it's all about diversity of opinion, as opposed to the received wisdom most people operate under.
Kenneth FitzGerald
03.01.04
11:27

Kenneth, would you mind explaining what you just said to Debbie a bit further? I'm not sure I understood your argument, but I'm interested to know.

Armin, I think art (the activity, not the "profession") is a very important aspect of a discussion on Brody--it is the "something extra" he brings to design. I don't see how we can really discuss his significance if we avoid the issues.

I feel Mr. Chantry's frustration here with the unspoken "rules" and hierarchies involved in blogging. Sometimes I feel like there is a placebo effect at work in this technology.

He's arguing for a more inclusive history of design. I'm arguing for a more "useful", engaged history/criticism. It seems to me that our blogging communities need to learn/invent ways to better identify and discuss the subthreads that evolve out of this. This is where new stuff can happen in design if we let it. We could end up with much more substance if we learn how to open up conversation rather than shut it down (but alas, discourse is power and exclusion). Trackbacks might be useful, although I'm not quite sure how they'd work. Otherwise, this is all no better than the Procrustean cirriculums in school, allowing no room for further interpretation, re-evaluation, or fueling inspiration.

What I am asking is that people who generate fame and a career out of demanding more thinking, I'm asking them to "put up or shut up". Back up your commitments. Let people talk, encourage it. Talk to them. Rip them new holes, but don't ignore them and don't let them feel unwelcome. Legitimate conversation happens everywhere, not just in print.

We need 500 more people willing to "blather on" incessantly before something new and significant can happen. Geniuses don't come from nowhere. At the moment, there simply isn't enough heated discussion for anything significant to happen, and we're getting pretty good at keeping the heat down. The water won't boil just by telling it to. You have to turn up the heat, and the heat has to come from below. This is why I'm not interested in publishing articles. A grassroots blog revolution.
Tom Gleason
03.02.04
03:07

The idea that criticism is a process to establish and regulate a singular, totalizing hierarchy of quality is what I read in Debbie's comments (and in many others'). I suppose that can be inferred, as long as you don't look at the specifics. In other words, I'm sure Michael, Bill, Jessica, and Rick agree on many things but to regard them a monoblock of opinion just don't stand even passing scrutiny. I mean read them--it's right here. Toss me in and--well, the property value just went down.

Anyway, I see the monothought threat coming from "let's all get along" fuzzy groupthink that comes from popular media (in design, Print magazine) and presenting (lectures, workshops, etc.) Who's making the decisions? Are individuals really expressing their opinions?

Not many regular graphic designers see the work of the most storied designers firsthand. Designers know other designers' work through magazine profiles, competitions (as winners), anthologies, lectures. All of these provide an aura of achievement that can't be denied.

I like to think of myself as a free-thinker but I'm as succeptable to Authority Opinion as the next person. Milgram's shocking experiment years ago demonstrated the lengths people go to to satisfy authority. And somewhere recently, I read about some other experiments which showed how peer pressure can make people vote against their own eyes.

What happens is that buzz gets generated: AIGA Tahachapee invites Designer X to speak because they saw that AIGA Tonopah had her, and there was that big CA spread on her, and I hear BoothClibborn's coming out with a book, etc. Suddenly, everybody knows Designer X is great. Am I saying Designer X is totally without merit? No--but can you tell me all those thousands of designers know based solely and fully on their reason?

Criticism says, let's examine this work in a broader, exacting, argued manner. It is putting forth your value system (and examining the one claimed by Designer X, if she has one) and critiquing it along with Designer X's work.

My critical motivation is: Why Not Me? I have an opinion and rather than accept what I'm told, I want to work it out for myself, in a manner that lets people see how I arrived at my conclusion.

I don't know what to say to people who are intimated by the reality that designers with notoriety will read and respond to their comments. Other than Get Over It. I've been intimidated since Day One. As far as I can see, the only thing I have going for me is the quality of my criticism and my willingness to express it. And that's how it should be. But I'm of a mind (to paraphrase one of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison) that when it comes to rejecting my opinion, you're going to have to toss me out the front door. I want the best to tell me I'm full of shit.

Criticism is all about clearing space for your views--and it provides the tools, regardless of what school you attended, who your clients are, what firm you work for, what awards you've won. It's democracy in action.

And having Emigre publish you doesn't hurt.
Kenneth FitzGerald
03.02.04
05:29

Kenneth, sorry for the late response. I see your point regarding the Britney Spears analogy... Which actually made me think a little bit more about that extraness I was mentioning. (And no Tom, it's not art).

It has a lot more to do with one's personality and ability to sell yourself. Salesmanship, for practicing designers, is one of the most important assets. One of the reasons (I think, can't backup with facts) that set Brody apart (or any other "famous" designer) from those before him was that he was able to promote himself - or was good about other people promoting him, or something like that - some people have that ability, to attract attention. Whether it is deserved or not is probably where design criticism comes in.

I guess my point is that I agree with you, Kenneth, that one of the roles of criticism is just that - exposing the phonies, if you will. It is easy to get dazzled by somebody's constant exposure and praise (I'm a constant victim myself I have to admit) but there are reasons - beyond context - why some designers get the attention that others don't and I wouldn't be quick to dismiss that just because of overexposure in AIGA Tahachappee. It's that extraness, and it is intangible.

(Was I the only one enjoying Art and Kenneth's exchange?)
Armin
03.03.04
12:52

(And no Tom, it's not art).

Armin, it's not as if there is one "extra something" that is at work in every great designer. Each is unique and important and able to be considered rationally because he or she brings a different "something extra" (which is not to say some mystical je ne sais quoi, but something real and tangible) to the table. We can value some great self-promoters simply because they are great self-promoters; but that is not everything about significant design work, and not every significant designer was "famous".

You can say it is because he is a great self-promoter (and if that is his genius, so be it), or because he has a Boswell, or whatever, but still you are avoiding the issue (which you did raise) of criticism separating the wheat from the chaff. Is Neville Brody a phoney? Yes or no, supported by reasons. Then we'll be beyond talking about his obvious fame, to talking about why he is or should be considered important.

I said that "art" (in a specific way) (and also his important publications) was Brody's extra something. How can you deny that his main significant tendency is to follow the path of art into abstraction? The "Contents" logos, the Fuse project, etc. This idea should be considered in a critique of Brody.
Tom Gleason
03.03.04
03:34

Then isn't the task to discriminate between the brilliant and second-rate designers that are great self-promoters, and also promote brilliant-yet-not-so-great-self-promoters? If Poynor's written about some of the designers Chantry prefers, why isn't one of them the subject of this thread?

Actually, I think it's Art who is taking the narrow view of Brody and his work. It seems Art's idea of context is to simply see who else was working during those early Brody years and then dismissing Brody as a latecomer to the scene.

That's the most trivial way of putting it, sidestepping any greater value those designers may represent. They are the people who originated a movement, as opposed to those who appropriated it (of course, I don't know if Brody did).

And does it matter anymore to say nobody is 100% original? Everybody knows that. Whenever anyone says that, it seems like they want to ascribe different people with equal originality, genius, influence...to mostly dull the distinctions and diffuse grounds for argument, so everyone can retreat and get back to themselves. What happened to "every act of creation is also one of destruction"?

Unfortunately, there is not a Platonic ideal of "deserving" attention that I've been able to identify so it's a case of delving into the messy dynamic of how value is ascribed.

What's in it for me to only understand how value is ascribed? I am still interested in changing my goals and values, and I hope I have the guts to change, especially since I may very well have to change again and again.

Jonathan Barnbrook's typefaces also remind me of "artsiness". Letters are abstract and lend themselves to this activity. Same with logos and other abstract graphics (I'm recalling some of Karel Martens' book covers). Rand, Brody, Barnbrook, Martens—what do they have in common?
aizan
03.03.04
04:28

Then isn't the task to discriminate between the brilliant and second-rate designers that are great self-promoters, and also promote brilliant-yet-not-so-great-self-promoters?

This seems like a good distillation of our contemplations on "criticism", Aizan. I wish we could pinpoint some of the many other aspects of this discussion as well. Such summaries are useful. I think a productive blog session would consciously use analyses like this as well as syntheses that provide the substance for such findings.

Then you went and opened up new territory, confusing things again. Good posting.
Tom Gleason
03.03.04
08:22

What's in it for me to only understand how value is ascribed?
What's in for you is the possibility that someone beside you will assign value to what you do. I wouldn't characterize this action as "only" in the sense that it's of little importance. For me, it's the essential question: how is value created? And I mean this in a broader, more profound than, financial sense. If you're like Emily Dickinson, writing just for the trunk, understanding how society detemines something is valuable might not matter. I'd say designers need to be steeped in this concern, as they are trying to generate, second-hand (in that they have no personal investment in the thing they're working to implant value into) a sense of value.

As I said, it's a messy dynamic, one that's played itself out here, as people have asked, why Neville Brody and not Barney Bubbles? Why Paul Rand and not Bradbury Thompson? Why Bruce Mau and not me?
Kenneth FitzGerald
03.04.04
10:34

Aizan, I think you're misreading what I wrote. I simply said that in order to establish Brody's place within British graphic design it requires a much broader view than simply listing his contemporaries. I'm not dismissing those other designers at all.

Also, it is not my intention to ascribe everyone with equal originality. Of course not. But when it comes to graphic gestures, mannerisms, or styles, it's nearly impossible to determine origins or who did what first.

Finally, isn't it a little early to be wondering about Brody's legacy? Isn't he only at mid-career? I'm curious what he'll come up with during his second half. What we may find, when we look back after 20 years, is that Brody did his most exciting work during a period when music (Punk) and technology (introduction of the Mac) were turning everything upside down. He's one of those designers who was in the right place at the right time, had great talent and instinct, hooked up with the right people, knew how to make the best of it, and loved the spotlight. And that's no small feat.
Rudy
03.04.04
01:02

I should clarify that by 'only', I meant 'solely'. As in not to stop at understanding, but also doing something about it. I wasn't going for 'insignificant', although it could be.

More concerns on the differences between the designers Chantry advocates and Brody. What are the differences? Obviously, they're doing some similar things design-wise, stylistically and whatnot. Their approaches to the style must be different, as befits the place that style had in their lives. That depends a lot on how old you are at the time something happens, so I've looked up their birthdates.

barney bubbles. West London, 1942 (by '77, he was 35)
jamie reid. Croydon, 1947 (30)
genesis p orridge. Manchester, 1950 (27)
peter saville. Manchester, 1955 (22)
malcolm garrett. Northwich, 1956 (21)
neville brody. London, 1957 (20)
helen worthington-ford. Couldn't find online!
rocking russian. 1977

I should probably look up if and where they went to college, but that's not quite as within reach. *shrug* Brody's the youngest of the bunch, but not much younger than Saville and Garrett. They would be in and around college when punk started. Bubbles, Reid, and Orridge were considerably further into their working lives, and would have been in a more proto-punk atmosphere when they got out of school. What were they up to in the intervening years?

So...Bubbles, Reid, and Orridge were older. They'd established their skills by the time punk started. Brody may not have any significant inventions to his credit, as far as punk style goes, but that's because when he came of age, punk was already well established, a national craze. When he went to work on The Face, the punk style was already worked out and winding down. How brilliant can you be then? Post-punk and new wave had more room for invention because it was just starting.

But for reasons other than age, Brody went to work for The Face when Saville went to work for The Factory. I think examining those reasons is more important and interesting than brilliance or lack thereof at a certain time.
aizan
03.04.04
02:41

Thanks for those birth dates, Aizan. The appearance of these names in this thread perhaps suggests that they are unfamiliar, or in some ways overlooked, figures. For the most part, though, they're not. Some of them have received a great deal of attention - for good reason.

Here, I'll just offer a few notes on Genesis P-Orridge, a truly remarkable figure, indeed one of the most notorious and controversial characters in British cultural life since the 1960s. At one point, with his activities under investigation by the authorities, he had to flee the country to live in the US. P-Orridge (real name Neil Megson) is an artist, musician, performer, cult founder, and provocateur. His activities in the 1970s with his music group Throbbing Gristle have been extensively documented and explored by Simon Ford, an art critic and cultural historian, in the book Wreckers of Civilisation. Throbbing Gristle's background is also explored in two essential volumes of interviews, Re/Search 4/5 (1982) and Re/Search 6/7 "Industrial Culture Handbook" (1983).

It would be stretching the term to breaking point to describe P-Orridge as a graphic designer, but the visual presentation of Throbbing Gristle's albums was highly original for the time in its bleak, threatening austerity. Their first album, The Second Annual Report (1977), more extreme in content than any punk album of the period, came in a plain white card sleeve with a simple sticker in the corner bearing the title. Clearly, such a visual approach had little in common with the flourishes of later 1980s "style graphics". TG band member Peter Christopherson was a designer with Hipgnosis, a highly influential British music graphics team founded in 1968.

Throbbing Gristle were a key influence on the development, in the early 1980s, of "industrial" rock music. The "Industrial Culture Handbook" also features musicians such as Non, SPK, Z'ev, and, from Sheffield, Britain, Cabaret Voltaire. It is no secret that Brody was strongly inspired by some of this music. He produced a series of covers for Cabaret Voltaire (all shown in The Graphic Language) and designed a boxed set for Throbbing Gristle, Five Albums (1982), and a poster for the band (see p. 37). In 1982, P-Orridge was an organiser in London of "The Final Academy", an extraordinary series of events relating to the work of William Burroughs, a key figure for industrial culture devotees. Brody designed the catalogue, as well as the cover of Victor Bockris's A Report from the Bunker with William Burroughs.

I hope this is enough detail to show that Brody was heavily involved in this subculture and this degree of commitment - part of the questioning spirit that informed his work - is one of the things that makes him interesting as a designer during this period. The continuities, interconnections and influences have never been in any doubt for anyone who lived through, or who has retrospectively studied, the post-punk scene. Design historian Catherine McDermott's early survey, Street Style: British Design in the 80s (1987), has a chapter devoted to British new wave graphic design that begins with a consideration of Throbbing Gristle's graphic approach, before moving on to Brody, Garrett, Saville and others.
Rick Poynor
03.05.04
02:04

I'm a student in the field of graphic design. I find that there are too many old fashoned designers out there dictating whether new design is good or bad. There are not enough Brodys out there.
Matt Fletcher
03.25.04
08:03

I have a suggestion why Neville Brody become so well known, as did Peter Saville, as did David Carson, when other equal talents of the same period(s) fared less well.

I believe It's a question of consistency and marketing. For a significant portion of their early development they each had one principle client, with a more or less unchanging brief month by month. Furthermore each of these clients became more like a patron, allowing them to indulge in developing their own particular graphic 'language' consistently and thus to hone it to perfection. Brody had The Face, Saville Factory and Carson that other magazine whose name escapes me. None of these could really be compared to the kind of conventional client that other designers had to contend with. (You could also bring Vaughan Oliver into this group with his work for 4AD if you really wanted to).

In conventional terms there was not much old fashioned problem solving design required once they'd got things looking how they wanted. The job then was to keep on doing it, and to keep on telling us about it, until we had no option but to notice. People forget that Brody worked for The Face for well over a year before he did anything of any graphic significance with it. He didn't even design the front covers for god's sake. Actually at one point he didn't want to bother at all because editor Nick Logan didn't pay him enough. (So much for socialist ideals). Once he realised he could make it his own vehicle and really took the reins, however, he was single-minded enough (some might say one-dimensional) to keep on doing what was effectively the same design month after month and make it work. Don't forget the magazine was in the right place at the right time as well as Neville.

I'm not saying Neville was an uninteresting or uninventive designer, but he was definitely one who was clear about what he liked and what he didn't like. He had his way of looking at the world. I know, I've sat through plenty of his lectures, and he knows that I think his world view can be somewhat narrow and often depressingly negative (I've told him many times).

Anyway, I think Art Chantry is right (and not just because he mentioned me in a favourable light), it is the climate and the context within which a star shines that are usually the interesting if less obvious aspects, rather than the one (lucky) prominent figure.

By the way, Rocking Russian was started by Alex McDowell (b.1955) who employed Neville briefly as an assistant in about 1979 (as did Stiff Records about that time following Barney Bubble's departure). Alex was recently Production Designer on many significant recent movies, including Spielberg's "Minority Report" and thus doing far more interesting work than I've seen Neville do in over ten years. I'd love to see him shine again but I'm not sure he will. I fear that along with Saville and Carson he may well be irretrievably stuck in the past, despite Fuse, despite "24hr Party People", despite "The End of Print".

Also Rick, just because Neville produced a few record sleeves for Throbbing Gristle (via Fetish records and noticeably in his own style which is not too sympathetic to the original Industrial Records ethic) is no reason to suppose he was in any way involved with (or impressed by) the cultural terrorism espoused by Genesis and his cohorts. I'm sure it was just another job to him, and one which wouldn't interest him if he could not speak in his own voice.

Sorry this is a bit long, but I do appear as part of the discussion so I thought that my view would be of interest. Thank you.
Malcolm Garrett
05.21.04
08:26

Funnily enough, Matt, there are those who think that Neville himself has become one of those "old fashioned designers out there dictating whether new design is good or bad". Have you heard him speak publicly recently?
Malcolm Garrett
05.21.04
08:35

Thanks for these comments, Malcolm. I think you perhaps underestimate the degree to which Brody was invested in his early music graphics before The Face. This has always struck me as some of his most resonant work. In conversation a few weeks ago, after my remarks above were written, Brody said that these early designs meant more to him than his work for The Face. He may not have felt that way at the time, but this certainly makes sense because the early work is more personal and, as was clear by the late 1980s, Brody was very conflicted about his own role in "style culture". His interest in the avant-garde axis that stretches from Dada to Burroughs/Gysin is a matter of record, and the projects I mention provide some evidence for that, but without more detailed research into these matters (which will come some day) no firm conclusions can be drawn.

You are right, of course, about the potential of ongoing projects, including magazines, to allow designers to pursue personal concerns and sometimes to propel them into the limelight. But most magazine designers doing a fine, professional job, month after month, never achieve the impact of Brody or Carson. Clearly the projects that made their names expressed something larger in the culture, and it's these connections that made this work so interesting.
Rick Poynor
05.22.04
08:18

I admit that Neville may well gain a lot of personal satisfaction from those early works, I merely question how relevant they were to the musicians and their works themselves. Taken as a whole they look very similar to one another and don't appear (to me) to make much attempt to embody the variations and nuances of the different musics they enclose.

I am a great fan of Throbbing Gristle (as you know) but find Neville's work for them quite jarring. It really doesn't have the same resonance, nor the same unsettling 'ordinariness' (and consequent strangeness) that Peter Christopherson's own sleeves had, and these were aspects that were of fundamental importance to the TG view of the world.

I do, of course, acknowledge there are a great many magazine designers out there doing a great job and few command the kind of respect that Neville does. My point was that few are given (or sieze) the kind of freedom that Neville had. I made reference to early issues of The Face looking unremarkable to emphasise the point that until Neville really took the opportunity to bring us HIS OWN singular brand of creative flair the magazine really was just another, albeit good looking, music magazine.

A magazine really can be a great vehicle to explore one's own typographic fixations, if the client is effectively yourself. If you have the talent, and drive, that Neville certainly had, then it can be a promotional godsend for a designer. Unlike other design challenges, with a magazine the 'personal comment' component is a necessity rather than a potential intrusion. You get so many times to perfect the details and put them in front of the very same audience time and time again. I hope you see I am talking about practicalities here and not offering a value judgement as such.

Many designers in the past have also benefited from just such a vehicle, including the great El Lissitzky, and coming right up to the present day with designers for Avant Garde, Nova, Sunday Times Magazine and i-D to name but a few. (How come Terry Jones hasn't been mentioned throughout this discourse?)

Great discussion though, I only stumbled upon it by accident yesterday. I don't get out much :-)

Malcolm Garrett
05.22.04
10:31

Like Malcolm Garrett, I stumbled on this board by accident, although, unlike him, I get out quite a lot...
Anyhow, good t' find such lively comment on The Graphic Arts. However, I do keep wondering what some of designers I've admired over the years might think if their work was being chewed over & interpreted in the heavyweight & (if I may say so) deadeningly earnest fashion that Neville Brody's has on this forum. It does seem that, in order for one's work to be taken seriously, it requires not only to have merit, vision & a finely honed instinct for the zeitgeist, but also ( groan ) A Philosophy.
It would seem to follow therefore, that lack of the prerequisite philosophical underpinning to one's output
might result ( in these highminded surroundings at least )
in being viewed as lightweight or lacking in gravitas. I would've thought that the world of Fine Art provided example enough of the pitfalls of pretentious comment
by ( and about ) its practitioners to illustrate the dangers of venturing down that particular blind alley.
I'm delighted to find Art Chantry contributing to this forum, & as an admirer & relative newcomer to his work I'm pleased to find that he takes a not dissimilar view to
mine, which begs the question: would his approach to his work stand up to the kind of interpretation we see here in the discussion of Brody's work? Would he want it to?
I do hope not.
I look forward to seeing a future forum on the philosophy
behind Reid Miles' work for Blue Note, & in closing I'd like to quote Robert Hughes' riposte to being asked to write a piece on Brit Art....' I'd rather fuck newts underwater.'

Jim Rafferty
06.22.04
11:04

"Nick Logan didn't pay him enough. (So much for socialist ideals)"
Malcolm Garrett at May 21, 2004 08:26 PM

Unrelated to the topic of Brody, but I am always confused by these kind of statements. How does working for low pay demonstrate socialist values?
Marcus McCallion
09.26.04
12:31

There was an article published on 22.02.04 relating to the difference in degree value by Garrett Anderson I think. Is there any way this document can be forwarded to me? I would really be greatful. I need it for my assignment. Thank you.

Subrena
Subrena de Groot
03.01.05
08:07

neville who? oh, yeah! he was that guy doing all that english stuff about 25 years ago, right? you know, the guy who was copying the ideas of guys like genesis p. orridge and malcolm garrett's early work? yeah, he was a regular superstar.

whatever happened to him anyway?

ha ha.
art chantry
03.01.05
12:58

...and whatever happened to Art Chantry?

If you're geniunely interested, you'll find the ol'man here. ...maybe you can get together, talk about ol'times.

Like Malcolm - you should get out a bit more

ha ha


DelBoy
03.02.05
10:08

art chantry? that hack? i think he lives on the street selling his old pencils that nobody uses anymore.
art chantry
03.02.05
10:14

"Nick Logan didn't pay him enough. (So much for socialist ideals)"
Malcolm Garrett at May 21, 2004 08:26 PM

What I was meaning was that during the first couple of years of publication of The Face Neville was often complaining of being 'undervalued', and questioning why he should be working for little or no pay whilst others took the glory. He therefore had little interest in continuing to do so, and his contributions were actually quite restrained at that time, until it was pointed out to him that there was a potential 'real' value in exploiting his own design agenda within such a vehicle, which far exceded mere cash. Neville got his payback many times over by eventually following his heart not his wallet.

Malcolm Garrett
07.06.05
05:15

I'm a newbie poster here but wanted to throw in my tuppence worth.

I had a friend who worked at New Socialist magazine at the time Brody redesigned it and she thought (as I did) that the new design looked neo-fascist. He was imposing a "look" that was completely inappropriate to the subject which to me, isn't the mark of a great designer. A record sleeve is one thing, but a serious magazine is another. If he has a reputation as a style merchant he only has himself to blame, he may use a lot of fancy words in books and lectures but that "thinking" never really reflected in his work.

His attempt and redesigning the CND logo is another example, despite the rationalization of what he was trying to do in his book any working designer could see that he was lost doing that job.

A book on Barney Bubbles in long overdue.
Lee Caulfield
07.06.05
03:23



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