Profile: Neville Brody

Uncomfortable with the self-referential and business-friendly world of modern design, this industry maverick – and future departmental head at the Royal College of Art – has decided it’s high time to ruffle a few feathers. Jim Davies talks to him

Neville Brody is well and truly fired up. Gone are the days of keeping under the radar and quietly doing his own thing – right now, he feels design is at a crossroads, and it’s his duty to take a stand and make some noise.

Design, he claims, has become ’commoditised, prettified, over-commercialised and safe’, it has forgotten its roots and become a sorry adjunct to the world of business. Snagged on a self-referential wheel – he half-jokingly suggests that the industry’s ever-growing cohorts could virtually support themselves by selling posters, books and T-shirts to each other. Brody’s immediate response to all this is the Anti Design Festival, a subversive eight-day bonanza in London’s Shoreditch. But in the longer term, he has plans to nurture the next generation of free-thinking, risk-taking designers.

ADF will celebrate the radical fringes of communication arts through exhibitions, installations, workshops, performances and talks – a brutal collision of art, design, product, film, sound, fashion, performance, print and interactive. Tellingly, its dates clash with those of the far more mainstream London Design Festival.

Brody’s intention is to spark creative fires and ideas, exploring spaces hitherto deemed out of bounds by purely commercial criteria. He’s certainly managed to sign up an impressive band of cultural agitators, from highly politicised British artists Peter Kennard and Gerald Laing, to graphic provocateurs like Jonathan Barnbrook and Stefan Sagmeister, and plenty more besides. Side-stepping accusations of fostering its own form of elitism, public entries to ADF have been welcomed too, though of course they have to pass muster to get in.

With just six months to pull the ambitious alternative event together, the behind-the-scenes organisation has been suitably chaotic, but Brody seems to be thriving on the pressure, juggling plates like a cocksure commis chef. ’Whether we fail or not doesn’t really matter,’ he says. ’The point is to stir up some debate. It’s time we moved out of this shop window and took to the streets. We need to put an end to success culture and start taking risks again.’

In a way, this uncompromising stance is nothing new for 53-year-old Brody, the standard-bearer for a generation of graphic designers weaned on his early triumphs at Face and Arena magazines. Ever since his student days at London College of Printing, he’s questioned the status quo, and in succeeding years, managed a succession of almost David Bowie-like reinventions to keep his work fresh, relevant and spiky.

From January next year, he takes over from Professor Dan Fern as Head of Communication Art and Design at the Royal College of Art. He recognises this as ’an extraordinary opportunity to frame the future of visual design’ – at a critical point in history, too.

Brody paints a picture of imminent social and economic meltdown that threatens to undermine our entire value system. At the same time, he predicts a revolution in communication, when all archives are digitised, and potentially everyone is connected to everyone else at any time. ’Digital now is like steam was to the Industrial Revolution,’ he says. ’It’s just an enabler. We could be on the cusp of a knowledge revolution, a second Renaissance.’

The question, then, is who builds this and makes sense of it all? While there’s a place for beauty and aesthetics, Brody argues that designers need to be ready to grasp the complexities of information architecture in 3D space and time, to be able to join the dots of behaviour, experience and understanding. He wants to furnish students not only with the necessary skill sets, but an awareness of context and societal change, and an inner creativity that challenges conventional thinking.

Brody doesn’t for a moment claim to have all the answers, but with the help of staff and students, hopes to go some way to figuring them out. His bid to win a seat on the D&AD executive is part of the same agenda, another tangible opportunity to influence British design education and help forge ’the dangerous minds of tomorrow’. ’I’ve always had a feeling that I’d end up running my own school, sharing ideas with like-minded people,’ he says. But first, it’s time to ruffle some feathers with the ADF.

The Anti Design Festival runs from 18-26 September at venues around London’s Shoreditch

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