Neville Brody: “Design shouldn’t have to make money – it can just be out there doing great stuff”

Brody Associates is the consultancy behind a huge collection of wide-ranging branding, typography and graphic projects, from Channel 4 and Coca-Cola, to the Royal College of Art and punk festival Punk.London.

Following his talk at this year’s PromaxBDA conference in Barcelona, we speak to founder Neville Brody about the necessity of risk-taking in design, balancing work with big and small clients, and why design shouldn’t be “precious”.


Neville Brody 2

Design Week: How is your studio structured?

Neville Brody: We’re a small studio – there’s normally two or three designers, plus myself, then we outsource specific skills, pulling in specialists for coding, motion graphics, film, architectural design or very accurate type design – like a big family. It’s a flexible, modern model.

DW: How do you go about creating?

NB: It’s more about an approach than anything – we’re very systematic. We always start with doing a lot of background research, and look at what the client is trying to do with the project. We then think about resources, and our limitations.

There’s a period of very open, loose exploration and experimentation after that, so you can’t come up with a formula at the beginning. We always tend to over-service the client unfortunately. We try not to, but we always end up providing more ideas than they’ve asked for. 


DW: You’ve completed a mix of projects, from commercial to independent. How does your design process change depending on the project?

NB: I don’t think we have a process. Our strategy is to figure out a rough space of where we should be going – then it’s pretty open. We always try to create a DNA of core elements for the project, which could be the font, colours, images, textures, patterns, sounds, UX, etc. We develop those things then look at how they come together. I think our process is just to keep boiling it down until you find the essence.

Sometimes, it’s not about a system, it’s just about exploring a lot of ideas – it’s often error-strewn trial. When I designed a poster for Coca Cola, I must have come up with 30 different ideas. It’s about realising when something interesting has happened as you’re experimenting – sometimes it just doesn’t happen.


DW: How do you balance doing commercial work with more creative work?

NB: We’ve always mixed it up. We’ve rebranded ORF, the Austrian version of the BBC, Christian Dior and Dom Perignon champagne. We’ve always kind of been that side as well, alongside things like Fuse magazine and the Anti-Design Festival – which both lost a lot money, and it meant the studio came to a standstill for six months.

It’s not a case of compromising – we won’t do work because it’s commercial, but we will try to work with a certain client. For example, what was beautiful about the Channel 4 project was its sense of a team. It had a collective approach, so it didn’t suffer from the usual, steep hierarchy of big brands.


DW: You recently created the branding for punk festival Punk.London. How did you go about developing an organised system for a concept that is meant to be about chaos and anarchy?

That was the real challenge. Punk never had a style or a story – it was just an attitude. In fact real punk would reject the idea of an overarching brand language.

But the advantage is that every event or participant in Punk.London can take advantage of that umbrella – it allows them publicity, to share a story. We put a “.” (dot) inbetween “Punk” and “London”, because it allowed us to personalise it for different cities, so it could be used for Punk.Manchester, .Liverpool and .Belfast.

DW: What’s been your favourite project to work on?

NB: There’s so many – none of them were easy! The Anti-Design Festival was really rewarding. We only had six months to plan the festival from nothing and we ended up with 20,000 people in a week. On the opening night, we had 2,500 people who just wouldn’t leave.

We put it together so that anyone could touch the art, bring their own stuff and put it up on the walls, and take things away – it was a completely open process, and not at all precious.
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DW: Why did you decide to create such an open show?

NB: The whole idea of it was about how most art and design ends up in showcase now – unless it is going to make a lot of money, it doesn’t get the green light. We were concerned about the loss of risk. There’s a message to young creatives that they shouldn’t experiment, because you can’t risk something not making money – a “success culture” that’s resonated for the last 25 years.

It’s time to get back to thinking that art and design doesn’t have to make money – it can just be out there doing great stuff. We need these spaces to explore new thinking. There’s always the need for creatives in society to be asking questions – we need to live in a state of permanent revolution, as Trotsky said.

DW: How do you continue to take risks as designers have become dependant on digital tools?

NB: We work in a very mixed environment in our studio now. We’ve just recently done quite a big project, which we can’t disclose yet, where we broke out of digital and back into physical. If you start by staring at a screen, you always feel limited by that frame, and what you can find in that box. There needs to be a physical experimentation process.

I’m working with young designers who haven’t really done physical stuff before. Now, we’re painting, doing linoprints, marbling, then scanning it back into the digital space, and reworking it – it’s quite cyclical. Digital can also really enhance what we do in other areas, with the ability to add in things like sound, light and movement.

Neville Brody spoke at Promax BDA, an annual conference focused on broadcast marketing and branding design, on 14 March. It is one of 11 Promax conferences that take place worldwide. 

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