Barnbrook: “Let’s not forget graphic design is an artistic discipline”

We caught up with graphics legend Jonathan Barnbrook at Offset Dublin to talk Bowie, the state of design education and the danger of not standing for anything as a designer.

Jonathan Barnbrook. (Photo by Teri Varhol)

Design Week: You said in your talk that ‘Pop music always points to itself’, which is evident in the approach you took to David Bowie’s album The Next Day. How have you reconciled Bowie’s past and present in The Next Day and Blackstar?

Jonathan Barnbrook: I didn’t know what his present was going to be, which is lack of existence. I think pointing to his earlier self was partly the point of the cover of The Next Day rather than Blackstar. With The Next Day there was this expectation that he had this amazing past and Blackstar was just more about the statement of the album and the emotional landscape of the album. I wasn’t trying to go much further that.


There was a decision not to put his image on the front of Blackstar. I can’t remember if that was him or me who said that, but the discussion was that the music didn’t seem appropriate for a big shining picture of him on the front.

Now you look at the album after he has passed away. The context is different but for me Blackstar was about the world – it’s a dark place politically, intellectually and emotionally. The album represented that.

Blackstar, vinyl
Blackstar, vinyl

DW: You designed Blackstar not knowing Bowie was ill and, as you say the context changed, but it took on a lot more meaning posthumously.

JB: I think I was tapping into something unconscious which he does in his music – the zeitgeist of the moment or the philosophical idea behind the music. He was dealing with this idea of mortality and I was picking up on the universal theme of mortality. I didn’t know exactly what I was designing for but I knew it was something in that area.

Limited edition poster for Blackstar
Limited edition poster for Blackstar

DW: Do you feel different about Blackstar a few months on?

JB: It’s difficult because I’m so emotionally coloured by his loss. He was not my family but he was such a big influence on my life – and a friend.

The feedback I got since he died is that it’s a fitting tribute to his last album, which is the best thing I could ask for, and I can’t get any further than that without having a little bit of distance and deciding whether it is good or bad.

Magazine art direction for Ad Busters, 2006
Magazine art direction for Ad Busters, 2006

DW: You said in your talk that people often ask, ‘Are clients afraid of working with you?  and that you can justify your more politically charged work because it comes from the heart. Can you elaborate?

JB: The discussion between clients and graphic designers only goes so far until you’re in a real position of trust. Usually it’s: ‘We’ve got this job and we want you to do it and there isn’t any discussion over what we’re going to do.’

I think its highly unusual for designers to take the discussion any further, but we have to in our own souls even if not with clients. Lets not forget graphic design is an artistic discipline. We’re talking about furthering your existence and way of being so you have to address these things.

At a lot of the ad agencies they evolve to survive. Capitalism evolves to survive. They’re taking on the ethical stance sometimes but don’t affect the main agenda. It’s production for profit not production for need. The work clothes itself in the meaning of the day to sell you stuff.

Occupy London logo 2011
Occupy London logo 2011

DW: You also talked about designers sometimes focusing on ‘the how but not the why’. Is this the same thing?

JB: It is, yes. Not being able to take question further. When clients are involved, ethical issues become complicated but at least [at Barnbrook] we try and do what we think is positive cultural work most of the time.

DW: Is there too much political apathy among designers?

JB: Design is a strange thing. There is no unionisation and there are political designers, a small number – most of whom I know of – in London. Graphic design has been used throughout history to change society. Not by famous designers but by someone who comes in quietly and creates something hand-made.

DW: Should designers be doing more self-initiated work for this reason?

JB: You have to mix personal and client work. We don’t work with enough charities really though.

DW: Would you like to do more with them?

JB: Yes, its always difficult. We’re working with one in particular at the moment. In a way it’s the same as working with a multinational because their priority is making money, so the same things are at stake. I don’t know all the right ways to be a graphic designer.

DW: And you still have to balance the books of course?

JB: Well cultural work is enough for us. It’s not that well paid but pays people wages properly.

Empire of Death book, Thames and Hudson, 2012
Empire of Death book, Thames and Hudson, 2012

DW: What one piece of advice would you give to a young designer starting out?

JB: It sounds clichéd, but have the strength in your beliefs. Even if you’re not quite sure you’re right, have an opinion, because the world is full of designers who don’t have an opinion or who are too scared to express their opinion, or just want to do any work they can.

I think the way to be successful and generate work is to have your own world point of view. You’re an artist after all and if you can make that clear there’s a real reason for people to come to you.”

DW: What do you think about the state of design education today?

JB: Well it’s gone back about 100 years. We’re back in Victorian times, where only the privileged go to art school. It will get a lot worse before it gets better. The Utopian idea of free education for all was a political one not a financial one.

I feel really sorry for students today but I suppose the students that do make it will just be different. Society evolves in different ways. Fifteen years ago we couldn’t imagine the way art schools were taught five years ago.

Doublethink type, 2006, Virus Fonts
Doublethink type, 2006, Virus Fonts

DW: Where do you find young designers to work with?

JB: Paid internships after a portfolio selection process. We don’t really look at people’s art education – just their work and whether they’re a nice person or not.

DW: You’ve had a long career. What keeps you interested and what would you still like to achieve?

JB: I’d like to do more music stuff but I’d also like to work outside of design. I’d loved to have been an architect or work on a large-scale project.

I’d love to be involved at the start of a building project. I’ll probably never get the chance but I’d love to design a building.

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