Jonathan Barnbrook, Photo by Tomoko Yoneda

Jonathan Barnbrook about responsibilities in design

Watching over what is happening in the design world for a bit, PingMag finds it inevitable to mention, that some quiet voices are recently getting much louder concerning conscientious design. The increased awareness of the responsibilities of design made PingMag want to talk to one person in particular: Jonathan Barnbrook, who is not only famous for his various fonts and own foundry but who has also been active in this responsible field with its outspoken views on politics and globalisation for a long time.

Written by Uleshka
all images © Barnbrook

Jonathan, most people who hear your name think of the typefaces you created, the various works you did for Damien Hirst or – especially here in Japan – the corporate identity you created for Mori Building.

I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One To One, Always, Forever, Now – Damien Hirst monograph, 1997
Roppongi Hills corporate identity, 2003

What are you currently working on?

At the moment we are preparing an exhibition at the Design Museum London for June next year.

At the same time there’s a book coming out with studio’s work which will be called Barnbrook Bible. I’ve been working on that for 5 years now, so hopefully it will be finished before the exhibition starts! I’m writing most of the time for that in between designing, so it’s been taking a very long time.

preview of some spreads from the Barnbrook Bible, to be published in June 2007
preview of some spreads from the Barnbrook Bible, to be published in June 2007

On the commercial side we’re doing a charity advert for an organisation called Unifem, which is the United Nations development fund for women. Our project is mainly about violence against women.

Recently we have also been working on another worthwhile project together with Ryuichi Sakamoto – the design of the Stop Rokkasho website – a nuclear reprocessing plant in Japan, where there have been several leaks, and the issue of proliferation of enriched uranium, which could be used for nuclear weapons.

design for the Stop Rokkasho website, a collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto about the nuclear reprocessing plant in Japan

Very exciting to hear about your next exhibition. Will that be similar to your ground breaking exhibition called Tomorrow’s Truth where you addressed controversial topics such as globalization, consumerism and managed to break taboos about North Korea?

North Korea: Building a Brand, 2004: A project completed for a South Korean magazine about issues surrounding the Stalinist dictatorship of North Korea. The work not only criticises the regime, it also talks about ideas of freedom and the power individuals have over dictatorships.

detail of Disneyland, 2004: Like Disneyland, North Korea is a contained fabricated geographic fantasy. They are both also very expensive to get into.

Corporate Fascist, 2001: Here with the addition of the barcode, Bush is ironically seen as a Hitler for the modern age, dogmatically following the corporate agenda to the detriment of many human beings.

When we do an exhibition we very much like to do work which is of the moment. Graphic design can’t last for a very long time, so we always make sure we create something which relates to what people are currently thinking about. This time, we want to try and comment on those social and political issues in a more reflective way, so rather than ‘shouting’ trying to be a little more humanitarian and reflective.

You always choose very specific and critical names for your fonts such as Bastard (to be used by corporate fascists), Nixon (to tell lies in) or Drone (for text without content). Where as your older fonts can be seen as typographic experiments, you were recently working on some more ‘mature’ typefaces like Bourgeois and Priori.

various Barnbrook fonts

When did you actually become such a conscientious designer?

There are two stages of consciousness – now that sounds like I am the leader of the Aum Cult or something like that. (laughs)

First one was when I was a student.

Frustrated by the lack of content of the college’s commercial projects I focussed on working with bits of text from the book Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse in my second year. (I know all Germans hate this book because they have to read it at school, but it was the first book I read which understood my experience of life.) I thought I would never get a job or be completely unemployable, but I then realized, that if you want to work in an area and are passionate about it then the work will find you and people will be interested.

The second stage was when I actually left college. I spent so long on these pieces of work with typography, that I was starting to attract projects but those projects involved working on text that had no meaning to it. So I was just searching for something more in the work.

Japanese katakana version of Jonathan Barnbrook’s Bastard font
detail displaying the characters: a, i, u, ka, ki, ku, sa, shi, su

Social, environmental and political issues are what your work is often about. Can you point out any good examples of design work which helped to change people’s opinion about those issues in a successful way?

I don’t think it works quite like that. Any kind of information does not change people immediately, for instance if you see a commercial for a car, you don’t say: That’s a great car! and then go and buy that car. It works over time and it filters through into your consciousness, as does work with a political message.

If you look through history, nothing has been directly changed by one poster or one campaign. The work I do adds to the political ideological landscape of a society. You put things on the agenda and I know it is successful, because globalization is on the agenda now and it wasn’t just 10 years ago. This is through the pressure of protest from ordinary citizens.

When talking to designers, I often find that many don’t question what clients they work for as long as they can do cool work and are paid well, where as I am more than happy to notice more and more responsible people like you around. Would you say that there is a general shift in consciousness at the moment?

Graphic design is many things and there are people on both sides, but now there is a general feeling that we have to take a bit more responsibility for what we do – yes! – definitely. The fact is openly discussed now, where as it wasn’t before when we released the First Things First manifesto with Adbusters in 2000.


First Things First manifesto

First Things First manifesto, detail

I remember that I went to the AIGA conference in Las Vegas just after the manifesto came out and although there were no formal lectures about it, it was the main subject everyone would come and talk to me about in between all of the talks. Some people were absolutely offended that the question about responsibility in design was asked and other people would have been privately thinking about it for a long time. It is in general discussion now where as it wasn’t before.

Some designers are very good at working with clients without really considering the implication of what they do or what the client does. They are happy that they get a living wage or they are happy just to do cool work but that’s really not enough.

But how much power DO you actually have as a graphic designer? How influential can your work really be?

You have immense power because what you do is to mass produce messages with a meaning. That can start a revolution or it can indirectly help change society.

You chose to keep your studio small in order to chose what clients you want to work for. Going freelance can be a solution to have more control over who or who not to support through your work, but is there an alternative if you are working for a big design company and don’t have the freedom to decide which jobs to take on?

What you can do is, you can create some kind of balance outside your work time where you can put your skills to some kind of other use.

I know, people work hard enough already, but graphic design is a skill that is very useful to most people. You can do something for your local area or worthwhile charities who need design work.These kind of things can be done rather than thinking you have to turn down a big job from someone if you are employed by somebody. You just have to think of it as a balance sheet of positive and negative. But if you are working alone, I think that you should try and make some sort of ethical choice of the jobs you take on.

I don’t really like the question: How am I supposed to pay my mortgage? That is the lowest common denominator statement. This is just negating the issue completely. If you believe that graphic design has some worth, you should try to use it positively rather than just feeling that we have to do our jobs without question.

You can’t ignore what companies are doing in relation to various political situations in the world and you can’t ignore the role of graphic design within that. There is a political, social and psychological impact of what you do as a designer.

People shouldn’t pretend that they are not responsible, because they are. We all are!

Can you talk to your clients about ethics? And if so, how?

Well, that depends on the sort of client you have. Recently we had a Korean company that asked us to do a corporate identity for them. They own loads of hotels and that kind of thing. They have a nice website with lots happy family photographs on, but actually their foundation was from the Korean war. They manufactured the land-mines around the partition zone of Korea, also the tear-gas that was used against the student protests in the 80s… so, you just don’t work for those kind of people!

So, what did you do?

We were contacted by another company on their behalf so I wrote to them that (very politely) the reasons why I couldn’t work for them. I think they can speak very good English, but they didn’t write back. They didn’t want to discuss it, but at least I explained to them why I wouldn’t do it.

How do you decide what kind of jobs to take on or not? I guess that even if you do research, there will still remain some dirty secrets hidden…?

Surly research won’t tell you everything, so in the end I also have to trust my gut feeling. If something doesn’t feel right, I just don’t take the job, but often you will find, that many companies have questionable work practices. For instance, I use Apple computers, but they are made in China and I have no idea if the workers are treated well or not.

Things become very complex! In short I would say, if you have your own company you should make a decision about what work to take on and if you work for a company you should try to make a balance. But if you feel like you should leave, then you should take the chance and leave. Your Design is not separate from you!

Your wife is Japanese and you have a lot of fans in this country. At the same time consumerism and globalization can be found in Japan to its extreme. Is there anything you would like to say to our Japanese readers in particular?

The first thing you said: “I have a lot of fans…” – I am not trying to get any fans! It is nice if people appreciate the work but I’d rather that the people look at the messages in the work, not at who is making it.

To answer your question, it seems like the ideas behind Adbusters are completely alien – or at least were completely alien a couple of years ago – to the whole make-up of the Japanese design community. Consumerism isn’t the saviour of every economy and consumerism also isn’t the saviour of the way we live our lives. That is very important. We can live fulfilled lives without the pressure to shop and societies can be positive without just measuring the economic growth, as the pressure to consume leads to all kinds of problems from feelings of inadequacy to unnecessary use of resources.

We did a Japanese version for Adbusters’ Buy-Nothing-Day commercial. It was shown in Shibuya on the big Q-Front screen.


Buy Nothing Day – spot, Japanese version. Buy Nothing Day is an event which is held once a year where we are encouraged not to shop and to think a little about what the values are, of a society that regards consumerism as so important.

Buy Nothing Day – spot, Japanese version.

Really? What were the reactions?

I have absolutely no idea, but I’m sure that some saw it and just though: Huh? Buy-Nothing-Day???? That’s stupid, but others completely agreed with what we were trying to say. It confirmed one of the major problems with a consumerist society.

It seems like graphic designers in Japan, especially the younger designers (even more so than in other countries) seem to be very obsessed with style and style isn’t about what’s cool!! Style comes from a philosophy behind the work. It’s about solving a design problem! So I hope that designers turn a bit more into problem-solvers rather than style-makers.

Thank you so much for this long interview, Jonathan! I very much agree to the core of your opinion and hope that this article inspires our readers.

  • http://fly.com fly

    I’m missing something. The top of the article mentions he designed the logo for Roppongi Hills. Else where it states he is anti consumerism. Roppongi Hills is the ultimate expression of consumerism in Japan. The most expensive stores, the most expensive restaurants, $6000->$20000 apartments, home to Goldman Sachs and Lehmann Brothers. It also mentions being against globalisation of which Roppongi Hills is also one of the best examples of being filled with world wide brands instead of local brands.

    What am I missing?

  • http://100kr.uv.ro 100kr

    i love that bastard font

  • http://www.ocularinvasion.com emory

    fly:
    He isn’t anti consumerism, he is against corporations that are built on questionable ethics.

  • ChuLi

    A designer with incompromising posture,
    with attitude, faithfully, skillfully, a great model for people like me(in the first year of design program).

  • ill p.e.

    fly – i couldn’t agree more on the roppongi hills thing… but i guess if you research about it online from far away mori building still sounds good and like someone trying to “improve” tokyo which obviously failed completely … but you always know better in the end, don’t you? great logo still!

    well – apart from that i am glad that jonathan gets up there has the guts to talk about responsibility in design (and does enough projects which show, that he really acts and not only talks). let’s not hunt for mistakes, just to condemn the whole article – where he mentions so many important and progressive ideas. nobody’s perfect…

  • fren.jp

    ganbatte jonathan!

  • http://www.micron.carnacia.com Jake

    I can usually see the Mori building out my window, but for some reason it’s hidden tonight through the smog. I think that would be a bigger issue than which brands are represented in the building. I guess it’s all connected though.

  • mike

    I like the Bastard font too, but theres way too much space betweeb the ‘t’ and the ‘a’.

    Very good interview!~

  • http://- Gisela

    inspiring interview that reminds all (graphic) designers about our own responsibilities and issues we should take note on. i totally agree that nowadays, designers look too much into style, and forget that design is a functional tool that enhances communication, providing solutions to problems and spreading of messages. well, but things always have double sides, and so.. as what he mentions, a balance must be achieved and maintained. and that’s the ultimate thing that every graphic designer will learn in the end. and when will this be learnt varied from designer to designer. right?

  • zerogun

    not to dog, pingmag, but this interview is probably the best one I’ve read to date!

    by far, this has been the most inspirational and informing interview for myself that I’ve read in a long time towards my profession.

    I definitely agree with what Barnbrook is saying, however I feel that he is one fortunate individual to break from the perception of designers in todays society.

    Whether you work for yourself, a corporation, or even an in-house design department, society as a whole seldom recognize and respect the work of the message that designers project in their work.

    In society, the message is green, its all about the dollar and how effective it is in reaching the market. Surely giving your skills to do charity work is important, as it is self fulfilling, but only then can you really put ‘your’ thoughts into your work.

    In the rare situation that a client will respect your work, and give you freedom to create, they ultimately have some sort of “idea” in their own heads, which of course ultimately change what you (as the designer) would like to convey.

    Design is no separate from you, that is true. This truth however creates all the more problems whereby the client/company will change you to become a “drone” like them.

    Designing is an individuality, but more and more designers are becoming a uniformity of constants. So back to what I was saying in the beginning, Barnbrook is although a great designer/thinker, I believe he is also one of those fortunate enough to break free from the constraints of “graphic designers”.

  • fidel

    i would have to say that in the past year of living in tokyo and working within the design industry here, i am no longer surprised by anything. the average tokyoite lives in a strange bubble that completely revolves around consumerism. there is almost no understanding of issues in the greater world, and the people are completely puzzled by any sort of grass roots action, even if it is simply boycotting starbucks or not taking a plastic bag from the convini when unnecessary.buy nothing day is basically a concept from outer space.its great that barnbrook is promoting an alternative, but as is always the case with graphic design, i fear that it might be picked up and used while novel, then forgotten next year when being irresponsible comes into fashion again.

  • http://www.snapprinting.com.au johnny handsome

    JB and Che? Nauseating and hysterical…Poor JB, he just loves to bite the hand that feeds him. Apart from designing typefaces that yell “look at me…look at me” and are thus are a pain in the butt to use, JB’s glaring flaw is his political shallowness and predictability. I do wish the ‘design community’ could find an alternative conscience to parade. JB is so English when it comes to design – all style and no substance.

  • http://abc.net.au/dig/ Michael Mackenzie

    Thanks for that johnny. Not only nauseating and hysterical…try horribly contrived. Probably thinks he is following in the footsteps of lennon.

  • http://www.freewebs.com/robertlhuston/ Robert Huston

    Yes, this was a very wise interview, yet I have several issues with the way he goes about describing graphic design. I don’t believe half of everything he mentions. Yes, he is widely known, and yes, he is a great graphic designer. But he mentions about choosing the companies you work for, and mentioning localizing your work. But, is he saying he became so wide known graphic artist by working on companies he chose, and only local work? I just don’t believe that. Graphic design is such an competitive field nowadays, that the idea of picking your own companies to design for is a false hope unless you are at the top of your game.

    And, it is always mentioned, that the question about paying his mortgage, and how money is his design should have no place. Well, that is one lie. That is awful moral of him to say, but how can you achieve great recognition without bringing in the cash flow? Since, in this kind of world economy, where most recognition is how much money you bring in from your career, which also depends on how wide known you are in your field. And, not to mention the most basic question: If he is so noble, how else does he pay his bills, if no money has place with his thinking of his graphic design?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love how he mentions the relationship between his graphic design as true art, and getting a message across, along with its political ties. And I do love when he mentions he wanted more meaning in his work. Since, with my experience, graphic design does take less and less meaning behind it to the mass society, when compared to more traditional artworks. But, I think there is a building mass of people, mostly designers themselves, that take is the appreciation of graphic design as real artwork.

  • Jo

    Dear Jonathan and PingMag,

    I just wanted to say thank you very much for this interview. It is very inspirational and gives me great hope of achieving my dreams to become a socially responsible graphic designer.

    There are times when I feel dejected with the commercial reality of graphic design. That no, I’m not making the world a better place, no, I’m not saving or helping anyone. Rather I am greasing the wheels and cogs of commerce. Beautifying consumerism and materialism.

    I have since accepted this fact, swallowed my pride and realized that as I start out in the big world, there are certain things I will have to do which morally I’m not happy with but are necessary to further my career and stature in the industry. As the years go by, I will have more of a say and be able to be more picky on who I work for.

    I believe our individual beliefs and thougts transmits through our work as graphic designers and no two designers are alike.

    It is my ultimate dream to design for a cause I believe in. I will one day work as a graphic designer for one of the great cultural and educational hubs of the world.

    In two simple words,
    Thank you.

  • http://indianweddingindia.blogspot.com Helen

    Hi, just reached here searching various designs, but these are numerical in nature i want something different. Anyways nice blog from Japan

  • http://www.hairyplaces.com/freeporn/ hair everywhere

    I can’t be bothered with anything these days. I guess it doesn’t bother me. What can I say?

  • m

    kitch(sp) the political statements seem really shallow in their content and are really just mimiking the popular media opinions without showing any signs of real depth of thought. The opening pictcure of Johnathan and the che image in the background says it all. Bush and Hitler are nothing alike and to imply such shows insensitivity to the Jewish plight as a whole and also is just name calling. It’s like a 10 year old taking a magic marker and doing the same. “down with corporate greed – unless i can do their logo-” sounds like a bad 80′s Michael J. Fox movie.

  • http://superpowerups.com alvin

    It seems like graphic designers in Japan, especially the younger designers (even more so than in other countries) seem to be very obsessed with style and style isn’t about what’s cool!! Style comes from a philosophy behind the work. It’s about solving a design problem! So I hope that designers turn a bit more into problem-solvers rather than style-makers.

    word to yo` mommas!

    hey uleshka. great article.
    hey barnbrook, nice, alot of things.

  • http://negrotorres2004hotmail.com negro

    hola necesitaria saber sobre la tipografia MANSON SERIF o sea por que la creo el señor Barnbrook….es para un trabajo de la universidad..desde ya gracias

  • http://uchi.co.uk uchi

    Most designers need to work in order to pay their bills. Those that are

    well known and establised may be able to pick and choose for the right cause, if they

    wish. Many are content to just execute good design and earn money and are not concerned

    with ethics or politics. A designer like any artist is fortunate to be able to express themselves and have it seen by the masses as art or they could sit back and convey someone else’s message, or do both. I’ve used Barnbrook’s fonts in tshirt and poster designs that have a positive message and a commercial value. I personally don’t see what the fuss is about. Barnbrook has something to say, created the tool and used it the way it was meant. Someone else may want to sell theme parks or burgers with it but that’s up to them as long it reads well and gets the point across.
    My passion for type and my own expression is paramount. So, as long as I have type I’ll use it to express myself and my own opinions regardless who I else I’m working for and what they stand for. If I didn’t have that there’s always the spray can and the wall of the local HSBC.

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    Awesome, I allways thought all Graphic Designers just did a design and didn’t give a damn about the impact on society. But I was very very wrong!

    It’s cool to know I can use my design for ethic things, this is inspirating.

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