"Negative times can be very good for interesting work. When things are too easy you get boring and decadent projects."Mark Penfold interviews the legendary designer and typographer.
Fonts based on the lettering used on military hardware, wall charts detailing the taxonomy of corporate vermin and a history of collaboration with Damien Hirst. Jonathan Barnbrook is far from being an everyday designer, yet his work has the mass appeal we usually associate with the mainstream.
Barnbrook himself argues for a new design based on ethical principles - one of sustainability and social conscience. One that isn't divided from the individual who creates it by the rules of free-market economics.
Detailed in his recent monograph the Barnbrook Bible, and a retrospective at the London Design Museum, the success of his studio Barnbrook Design in the fields of corporate branding, book design, posters, music, film and typography provides ample evidence that his strategy is valid. Design can do good.
CA: What projects are you working on at the moment?
JB: We're working with a lot of companies doing environmental work in Japan - we get a lot of work from there anyway. We're completely re-branding an NGO who were some of the first people to set up organic farming in the country.
There's another Japanese client, a company that does recycling. That's the way the work is going, and I think that's healthy. A lot of companies are taking on board the environmental message.
CA: So it's a change for the better?
JB: If you look at what it was like ten years ago it's completely changed since then, and although some of it is quite cynical the environment is at least on the agenda. It's a positive thing that people are acknowledging the problem now - even the American government.
CA: Do you think we're on the verge of seeing big changes, environmentally?
JB: I never expected a big rush. We have to be practical. It has to be economically viable for people to do it, and that's beginning to happen.
CA: But do you feel that your ethical approach is being vindicated by events?
JB: If you just look at history, then this is the way things happen. Something radical is proposed, and gradually it gains acceptance as people learn about the issues. At the moment it feels like governments are lagging behind what western populations think about questions of globalisation and oil.
CA: What can designers do to help?
JB: It's not about politicians making changes so much as it's about people persuading them to do it. So we all have our bit to do to make politicians realise that these things are important. And we show that by our actions. That is fundamental to making change happen.
Topics like the environment should absolutely be part of the agenda. If you do something that considers the environment or sustainability, it's good for everybody. It's what designers' clients want, I imagine.
Designers shouldn't always be thinking in commercial terms. If you are interested in design that is a bit more sustainable and actually helps people - and there's no reason why you shouldn't be - then you have to think not just about your company, and what goes on in your street. Just try and help a little bit.
Design isn't just about money. Obviously it's about making a living, but primarily it's about communication. You should use your tools in a positive way. You'll get something back much greater than money when you work with people who are working for a good cause.
CA: What about other projects? Are you doing any new typography?
JB: We're just doing a new typeface because we haven't done one for a while.
These days our typefaces tend to be going towards the more readable - after all, we want them to be used. That can be difficult when they're a bit particular, so we want be a bit more balanced. They have to function in upper and lower case, whereas before they were just upper-case experiments.
CA: How do you feel about Exocet being one of the most copied fonts?
JB: I could get annoyed, but it's quite flattering in a way. It's not a problem in terms of people using the typeface, if they find it relevant.
I'm never upset about the way people use our typefaces. It's always a genuinely nice surprise to see people manipulating them in ways that you wouldn't expect.
CA: Your studio monograph has finally been released. Were you waiting for just the right moment?
JB: I didn't wait - I just didn't finish it! It took seven years. It's one of those projects where I thought 'I'll get on with it', but I didn't quite get around to it when I said I was going to. In the end I just had to stop working on other projects.
I wrote it as well, which didn't help. There's one long essay at the front plus four shorter ones on the inside, but all the explanatory text is by me, too. So that's why it took so long.
CA: You've also had a recent show at the Design Museum. How was that?
JB: It's very nice to be offered an exhibition at such a place. When you're starting out as a student it seems like it's quite a big deal to have something on there.
CA: Does it mean you're part of the establishment now?
JB: I suppose it does in a way. I'm not young any longer! It's more a chance to explain the whole background to the works. The captions are longer than in the monograph, because showing the works in relation to each other and how they developed was quite important.
The exhibition was good because it showed that there is a path to go down that isn't just about working at a big design agency. You can survive on your own and put the things you believe into your work. You don't have to separate your job from what you believe in life.
CA: Do you think the current climate of fear will affect design?
JB: Obviously fear does affect the general creative environment, because people do tend to start taking less chances with everything. The first thing that goes is artistic expression in those moments of terror.
Design is very linked to the market economy, but it's just that the work we do responds to political conditions - whether they're good or bad. The time is very interesting politically. So I hope that anybody who reflects that in their work is being very creative.
Your job is part of what you do - it's not everything that you do. Your job should reflect what you believe as a person. There can be some conflict between the two.
CA: Will Barack Obama make a difference if he is elected?
JB: I think people in the positions of power are actually paralysed. Look at how Tony Blair had to side with Bush over Iraq - I'm sure he had no choice considering the history between the two countries.
Maybe there would be a few less stupid decisions, possibly a few less wars. I don't think it'll change unless there's pressure from the American people. Perhaps if Obama gets in we'll be seeing the beginning of that change.
CA: Any final comments for our readers?
JB: Negative times can be very good for interesting work - when things are too easy you get boring and decadent projects. If you want to say something, now's the time to say it. There's so much going on, such as the abuse of people's liberty. Let's get to work now!