Compiling the Cemeteries section for the Scary Fonts list reminded me of my Typo Berlin notes on Jonathan Barnbrook’s presentation. At that moment in time I was getting a bit fed up with my work situation. Every time I came back from a conference the design and other work had piled up and I was left with barely enough time to write. What I couldn’t tell back then was that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Negotiations had been finalised so I knew I was going to work as a freelancer from August 1st on, and be able to devote more time to writing for FontShop.
Now I’m a bit conflicted about what to do with all that material. On the one hand it has utterly lost its news value, but on the other hand some of the presentations were so interesting that they still are worthwhile of a write-up. What I am going to do is treat those notes as raw material for future posts, to publish at my own discretion. The entries will still be structured like conference reviews and carry the familiar Type Berlin headers but shouldn’t be viewed as real reports. Although they actually are. But not really. Confused? So am I. :D
First up was Jonathan Barnbrook, one of the top British (type) designers to come out of the deconstructivist movement of the 90s. He also happens to be one of my idols after I just left the Royal Academy of Fine Arts where I studied Applied Arts (now graphic design). Barnbrook had to fill for Alison Jackson who was scheduled to give the keynote speech, but whose plane was grounded due to a bomb scare. So the organization reversed the order of the speakers. It was ATypI Lisbon all over again...
Jonathan Barnbrook started with sketching his background. Most of his student work was a reaction against his Modernist teachers who posited that typography should be a neutral vehicle for meaning – the ‘crystal goblet’ tenet. A classic example are his early mechanized stone carvings, flawed masterpieces full of double-meanings revealing the poetry of letter forms. By controlling the shapes of the characters he tried to control the very essence of communication.
Barnbrook went on to show his type designs for Emigre and Virus, starting with Bastard which he designed as a student, a typeface of ephemeral nature, loaded with history. At this point the topic of the presentation – Type is image – came into play. He pointed out the numerous sources of inspiration for his typefaces, be it early Greek carvings for Exocet, the lettering on the plane which dropped the first atom bomb for Enola Gay and on the cruise missiles for Tomahawk, or the amalgam of images that lie at the basis of Mason: the windows of Gothic church for the A, a gallery in perspective for the M, a stylised mosquito for another M, a target of the O, Cyrillic for the N, a catholic cross for the T and so on. Other typefaces are formal experiments, like Prototype, a classic example of deconstructivist type design which is a historical exploration blending the mixed upper and lower case alphabet by Herbert Bayer, the humanistic monocase reading experiment by Bradbury Thompson and some ‘karaoke’ by himself.
There also is a clearly defined concept behind certain designs – Prozak embodies the “spirit of the times”; Tomahawk critiques wars that are waged without actually being there; Drone is a reaction against education and the drudgery of working for a daily wage; Doublethink’s political statement refers to 1984; and so on. Other designs are formal exercises – Expletive Script is an experiment in modular circular shapes, and NixonScript examines the naivety of letter forms.
Now I don’t know how to say this without giving the impression I’m belittling his qualities as a type designer (which I’m not) but I consider Jonathan Barnbrook not merely a type designer. He works in the twilight zone between art and graphic design. His typefaces seem to live in a universe on their own. I guess you’re more likely to love or hate his work than remain indifferent to it. Which is great – no artistic person likes to be average.
Barnbrook also is a political activist who regularly works for organisations like AdBusters . He is adamant that “as designers we have a duty to make the world a little bit better, not a bit worse.” When applied to his typography and type design, this means he is willing to contribute to whatever expression of culture through his use of type, but never when asked to visualise concepts that are opposite to his personal beliefs. A lot of his studio’s output is political, with 40% own work against 60% commercial work. Many projects start as private things with no intention to release it.
Barnbrook then went on a political anti-brand rant which garnered him a well-deserved round of applause. I grinned when he explained the life of his partner was not always easy as he categorically refuses to drink Coca Cola, eat at MacDonald’s, have a coffee at Starbucks or wear Nike. On a personal level hearing this was a relief to me, because this confirmed I am not alone.
David Bowie Heathen CD cover David Bowie Heathen CD booklet page Barnbrook went on to show some recent type designs, like Priori which originally was used for David Bowie’s Heathen, and Olympukes, his typeface cum political stance against the over-commercialisation of the Olympic Games. He then concluded his presentation by showcasing some work he’d done. I was particularly impressed by the beauty, efficiency and flexibility of his Roppongi Hills branding. Based on 6 circles the logo can be modified at will without losing any consistency in the graphic style. Refresh the website a couple of times to see what I mean, and read more in the article on the official website.
Jonathan Barnbrook was a perfect start for the conference. He provided both eye candy and food for thought, and allowed us a peek inside his creative process. He was an entertaining presenter who had an attention to detail – the slides that accompanied his presentation were very well-designed.
07.11.2008 - 23.15.45
Posted by Unzipper
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