Creative dialogue

Graphic designer Neville Brody strives to move past our frozen visual culture

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

While it’s not unknown for practitioners of the fine arts to gain fame and fortune almost overnight these days, (even through notoriety rather than talent), only a handful of artists in the graphic design field have gained worldwide recognition. Britain’s Neville Brody is one.

Long considered a design guru, Brody’swork for The Face magazine in the 1980s, through to his art direction and typography for The Guardian and Times newspapers in more recent years, has revolutionized the practice of layout, graphics and art direction.

Brody was in Tokyo recently for an exhibition of his works; to give some talks, including one at the British Council together with Japanese designer Kashiwa Sato; and to promote his new book, “Neville Brody” (part of the World Graphic Design 88 series published by the Ginza Graphic Gallery). Such is Brody’s stature and range of works that when renowned art publishers Thames & Hudson put out the “Graphic Language of Neville Brody” book a few years back, it ran to two volumes.

“I haven’t had anything published recently,” says Brody, “so now seemed a good time. I have been nurturing young designers in my studio. Part of the role of established designers is to feed something back.”

His new book takes a light overview of some representative works from his oeuvre, from snowboard design for Adidas’ Solomon brand to work for Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake in New York and Parco in Japan. Brody came of age during the 1970s, switching from fine art to the study of graphic design at The London College of Printing. This was the time of punk, a movement he says had a huge influence on him.

“The influence wasn’t so much the rebellion and anarchy, but that anything was possible,” he says, “If there are rules for the reason of necessity, that’s OK, but if it’s just cultural, these rules can be challenged. Punk was rebellion plus liberation plus intelligence. And creative flair — it was part artisan but also had a social anger.”

Brody is from a generation that sees art as a social force, and shares with the Dadaists, Situationists and other groups an active, politically aware mind set all too rare these days.

“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, art was seen as a way to help bring about change,” he says, “it was a revolutionary world.”

His daring, revolutionary approach to design rankled the establishment, earning him a failing grade at college, even as more open-minded outside assessors awarded him a first-class pass. He became art director of underground record label Fetish, and designed sleeves for a number of Britain’s postpunk groups such as Cabaret Voltaire, 23Skidoo and Throbbing Gristle, as well as numerous American artists associated with the No Wave scene in New York at the time.

His groundbreaking design and art direction for Britain’s leading style magazine The Face, inspired by Russian Constructivism and DeStijl ideas, turned magazine design on its head. Its strong and striking graphic layout — simple enough not to be cluttered but usually with a quirky, angular twist — has become almost synonymous with the look of the 1980s and spawned legions of copycat designs.

So widely appropriated were Brody’s innovations that when he went on to design for the men’s magazine Arena, he left all that behind and moved toward a stark minimalism instead. As is the way with popular culture, The Face, which started out as revolutionary for its time, soon became accused of supporting everything the magazine’s contributors were originally rebelling against — the mindless consumer culture promoted by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister during much of the ’80s.

Brody sees the extension of this thinking in today’s visual culture epitomized by the globalization and standardization promoted by multinational companies, but he still tries to keep a firm hold on his social and political convictions.

“The last 25 years have been a ‘frozen culture’ designed to just make people shop,” he says. “The teaching of art at university has been geared toward business, to support a commercial model. Thatcher was a major negative influence in this. Now, everything is a commodity, and no one engages in creative thinking.”

He calls this dumbing down of culture “the reassurance of familiarity,” but also has a number of other favorite phrases: “flat earth,” “global wallpaper,” and “hypnotic patterning” being the most evocative. If times haven’t always been the way they are now, Brody is also confident that things won’t be the same forever. Or even for that long — the catalyst being the recent economic slump that will inevitably shake up complacency and creative laziness.

“There’s going to be a shift in culture again, and it will force people into a creative space,” he predicts. “New budgets will force out new creative ideas. I am not celebrating the fact that people are having financial troubles, but I do welcome the possibility of new possibilities.”

The recent inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States is also another hopeful sign.

“The most important thing about Obama is that he is an icon for change,” says Brody. “People have invested in him as a symbol of change. So, even if he doesn’t actually do anything, they themselves are inspired to make change.”

Even as Brody is highly critical about the state of popular culture, there is no denying his own role, as a visual artist, in the state of things — a large part of his work, after all, comes from corporate clients. Doesn’t he feel somehow complicit in all of this?

“Absolutely. It’s a compromised position,” he replies. “You realize how you are responsible for influencing people’s thinking space. I am earning money through manipulation. But I need to earn money in order to support more radical, experimental and challenging ideas.”

Even so, it’s not so much what work he does, as how he approaches his work.

“Most branding and advertising controls your responses. The work I do tends to be ambiguous and abstract. To me it’s a dialogue; the work isn’t complete until someone responds to it. I am not trying to create something that is fixed. It’s about engaging people.”

“Neville Brody: Brody@Rocket” is showing till Feb. 10 at Space Rocket in Jingumae; open noon-7:30 p.m. For more information, call (03) 3499-1009 or visit www.rocket-jp.com