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.

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.

 

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’

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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.