Brody: Genius or Wanker

Thankfully that’s the title of a recent D&AD President’s Lecture and not me being lippy for the sake of it. For those who can remember Neville Brody breaking onto the design scene he’s always been admired and derided with equal measure, though always with grudging respect from his detractors.

He’s lost none of his bullishness, his passion and drive. It might be tempered by wisdom and age but it’s still there. Willing to ruffle feathers and exposes the obvious excesses and hypocracies of his peers, disciples and critics. There was some pretence at bashfulness and a reluctance to speak , it seemed that once settled that being on stage, the centre of attention is something he thrives on. There are few designers without ego – in fact I’d say it was an essential component of the creative psyche and motivation.

The Chair, Adrian Shaughnessy didn’t let him off the hook, I’m guessing they’ve been arguing over many a pint on most topics in the design pantheon for decades. He knows that Brody has given more interviews than any other Graphic Designer and knows how to deflect and steer the conversation if you’ll let him. Until 3 years ago only 5% of his work was UK based. I can remember at art college those who embraced Brody and those who derided him as style over substance, I’m not sure that this evening did anything to change any preconceptions. He maintains his fascination with languages, both written, typographic, spoken and social, claiming that language is also limiting by virtue of being a contract, and an emotional space you can become trapped in.

Here are a few of his thoughts taken from the evening:

“In England designers should be unseen, those that control our thinking should be voiceless”
I get the contention that good design should be invisible, but I’m not sure that hold true any more. Exceptional product design is noticed, appreciated and celebrated – and still retains its functionality. Surely the same will hold true for graphics?

He does love his type: “You can never have enough, but type alone doesn’t make good work”

On Ads: “A singular idea for a singular response, letting the user complete the cycle”; “Design is the compromise, it’s a commercial as any advert”; “Decide on the response you want to elicit, then manufacture the process”; “Do the commercial in order to do the uncommercial.”

Education: “Abandon current Art & Design education”. To him it’s become a business, the legacy of Thatcher is that education has no element of guidance, no nurturing and that it’s a falsehood to claim that education is in the service of business not culture. There isn’t, he says an equation between skills and an inner connection to design or talent. “Develop right brain thinking, make it less career orientated, less predictable, less vocational.”

“Too much focus on business, science, engineering and sacrificing art and culture. Producing design engineers not creative.”

He’s developed a healthy hatred for design that’s predictable, he wants design to change society, to inspire progress, revolution and inspire, explore ideas. In a room full of designers this found a warm reception.

Touching on his digital work, Brody claims it’s the duty of every designer to learn every skill. Easy to say if you have teams in 4 cities working for you but a little more of a challenge if you’re running a more streamlined outfit anywhere else in the UK. I agree though that you need to engage rather than preach in order to communicate. You cannot control the message you need to share it. Freedom of speech is at the heart, particularly in what it reveals about us.

Speech is something Neville is famous for and in touching on his public profile he claims that in his later years he’s used his fame as opposed to celebrity to bring ideas forward. Celebrity made him unemployable, hence he left the UK and worked under the radar, unheralded.

Looking forwards he’s struggling as ever with big ideas and big challenges:

“If a global civilisation is inevitable, how do we protect individual dna? And solve society’s ills? The role of the designer is consciousness, awareness and witness. A duty to look over the fence, to help, to contribute. Use your skills to help not to sell. Modern society is built on fear.”

Thoughtful, frustrated and considered. Neville Brody is by no means a spent force, reduced to prowling the corridors of academia, guest lecturing, examining and curating retrospectives. He’s recently partnered the BBC in developing a new visual language for their complete online presence. He still has the passion and the talent but it’s now coupled with experience and guile. He chooses his outbursts and proclamations with guile and continues to be a potent force in British and International design. If you get a chance to see him talk then take it.

And in case you’re wondering about the initial question, Genius or Wanker? The answer’s ‘Yes’.

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