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.