Neville Brody pushes the boundaries of type

Neville Brody doesn’t want you to think outside the box: it would appear he’d prefer you do something like tear it up, tape it back together, spray paint it, wear it as a hat, and then throw it out. Brody wants designers to decide what to do with their own boxes. Since we’ve moved from a physical to digital space, Brody feels that experimentation has given way to an engineering approach. “Facebook feels very much like a grown up version of AOL.” The world starts to look the same.

Photo Credit: Amber Gregory

“Design should not be precious. We don’t want to make things to put in museums. If you use it too much, you should wear it out.” Brody points to New Deal, the typeface he designed for Michael Mann’s film “Public Enemy” (starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger). The typeface was purposefully designed to have no shelf life, to never be reused or desired for reuse (contrast this with most film fonts that are bought, rather than created).

The way we arrive at these ideas—of sameness and permanence and thinking outside the box but inside a slightly bigger box—Brody partly attributes to the culture of design schools. He points to the Royal College of Art, where he teaches: students were telling him they hate graphic design, calling it “a manipulative thing to make people buy stuff.” They see it as a political thing that they don’t want to be fed, but have more control. “I think art schools should be where new things happen…where new brains are formed.” Brody encourages students to create the courses themselves, to treat the school as a laboratory for new ideas that help fend off the trend of sameness.

With that in mind, Brody turns to the history of design, and typography in particular, as a method of building corporate. Traditionally, typography is seen as a way of manipulating thought without you even realizing it. Brody likes the idea of bucking that trend by designing things that force consciousness of design upon the viewer: “Make trouble, make think.” Brody decided to make a little of both with the Anti-Design Festival, reflecting on 25 years of London’s design culture, where a lot of things “didn’t get made.” “If an idea didn’t look like it would make money,” Neville sighs, “it wasn’t pursued.” So he invited the public to contribute to the “organized chaos.” People would bring stuff in and take stuff home. There were no rules. It was constantly changing, had no order, and was pure joy.

Brody continues on this point with the example of FUSE, the quarterly design magazine last published in 1997 after an impressive 20 year run. It became a laboratory for explorations of design and type. Brody showcases examples of explorations in typography that threw off the shackles of legibility and language. The results could be compared to the familiar Wingdings, but that would be like juxtaposing a Debussy etude with the Alka-Seltzer jingle. The experiments are closer to art than design, in the sense that “design” has been co-opted by commercialism and art is the last bastion of creative exploration. Indeed, Brody contends that digital space closes the income gap: “Connect is what we should be doing, with society and other skill sets and disciplines.” A design community that is less insular, and more open to non-commercial pursuits, will elevate the craft beyond a mere profession so that designers can dictate the course of commerce, not the other way around.

“Bringing design back into a living space, that’s what I’m about,” he says. “That’s why I’m at the Royal College,” inspiring young designers to make trouble, make think.

Neville Brody is a difficult designer to summarize, and would appear he likes it that way. He is perhaps best known for his early album covers for Fetish Records, various type families, art direction of The Face and Arena magazines, and the foundation of Research Studios. He currently serves as an educator, making further reading on his work in digital spaces and print media an appropriate assignment.

posted by Cori Johnson