Our own radio star

There aren’t many designers who come across well in spoken media, but Neville Brody’s recent appearance on Radio 4 was a surprise hit. Hugh Pearman tunes in to a perceptive session

Hugh Pearman

Hurrah for Neville Brody. First up on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week on Radio 4 the other week, and I have to admit I was nervous. A graphic designer on the radio? Come to that, any kind of designer on the radio? Moreover, Brody was there not because he’d got a new book to flog, but because he’d just started in post as Professor of Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art. Which you would have thought was a bit of a dry subject for a Monday morning.

I need not have worried. As any of you who heard the programme knows, Brody was assured, witty, perceptive – all the things you’d hope for on a cultural discussion programme. The assumption was implicit that design in all its forms was important. Marr not only introduced Brody as ’something close to genius’, but knew enough about the subject to refer to ’the Royal College’ as initiates do, rather than the RCA.

Of course, this is what you might expect. Logically, a Professor of Communication ought to be able to communicate, so where’s the surprise? I guess it’s because we don’t expect designers of genius necessarily to be able to tailor their subject to a mass audience. Imagine product designer Jasper Morrison on Start the Week. Actually, I can imagine that and would love it, but I reckon it would be somewhat more introverted.

OK, so Brody didn’t entirely avoid the private-language trap. Having rightly said that he was trying to get out of the perception of his kind of design being by a ’cloistered elite’, I did catch him describing the RCA as ’a multiple skillset space’, which would have meant little to most of the listeners. Far better was his other description of the college as ’an unfinishing school’. In other words, non-prescriptive.

And here things became very interesting. Brody detects a change in the attitudes of students. Until recently, he says, they were hung up on ’success culture’. Now – not least because of the economic climate and the lack of jobs, they don’t see that as a necessary entitlement. Ideas, in their pure form, are coming to the fore. ’Students don’t want to turn into highly tuned professionals,’ he said. Brody himself emerged from the Punk scene, at a time of social change and unrest. The following 30 years, he boldly stated, had seen a decline into cultural stagnation, but this is about to change. Revolution is in the air again. ’I’m seeing more and more students returning to the idea of ideas. How can we better serve society? I think there’s going to be an explosion – new ideas, new risks, I think it’s going to be the most exciting time.’

But beyond that, Brody demonstrated in a very Royal College way that design can converse happily with other disciplines – in this programme storytelling, art and history – and demonstrate that all are interconnected. This was not a specialist or professional making a case, which is nearly always how architects, for instance, come over in the mainstream media. It was intelligent, natural, engaged stuff.

If all this seems a touch over-effusive for what was only a shortish slot on the radio, my response comes from relief. At last! Artists don’t have to justify being artists, writers don’t have to apologise for writing or explain what writing is. Why should designers fall into the trap of assuming that they are somehow a race apart, undertaking a mysterious activity understood only by the few? Brody is a natural. On this showing, he should be made official spokesman for all British design. Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic and editor who thinks the pictures are better on the radio

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