Jonathan Barnbrook's Design Testament

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Though it's sometimes difficult in that familiar hyperactive, type-wild design manner, British graphic designer/typographer Jonathan Barnbrook of Barnbrook Design has produced an engrossingly beautiful monograph called Barnbrook Bible: The Graphic Design of Jonathan Barnbrook. Acknowledging the portentous title, Barnbrook is quick to note in his introduction that "I am not proclaiming myself the new messiah or God's gift to design" but rather offering "a statement and explanation of my beliefs and design philosophy"—but this may at least be akin to the Revelation of St. John. The highly politicized and socially conscious Barnbrook, 41, is among the most rigorous of corporately-correct designers, an outspoken foe of capitalist do-badism, who writes in the book, "I am very interested in any alternative to the Western capitalist model of living."

Notorious for the creation of provocative fonts like Bastard, Patriot, Exocet and the malign Manson (as in Charlie, but later changed to Mason in a tempest that briefly blew the lid off the generally sedate typographical teapot), his career includes high-profile collaborations with the mildly subversive and hugely successful likes of David Bowie and Damien Hirst, and he's also art directed, rather tellingly, the consumerism-crushing magazine Adbusters (there's a chapter on this in the book as well as an appreciation by Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn). While Barnbrook would surely approve of absolutely no one buying the Barnbrook Bible on Adbusters' Buy Nothing Day, it's published by Rizzoli for $75 and signed copies are sold on his website for $80 (no tax or shipping, however). Below, Barnbrook fields some questions.

Why is there a big, fat barcode right in the middle of the cover of Barnbrook Bible?

Barnbrook: It's about the fact that much of the book has an anti-consumerist stance. However, it's a commodity that is for sale as much as anything else. It's also to contrast with the word "bible"—a bible is a document of belief, something that is about spirituality, not cold, hard money.

In an interview on your site, you say that you hate Helvetica the typeface. What about Helvetica the movie? Have you seen it? Any particular reason you weren't among the interviewees? One would think you'd have a lot to say on this subject.

I haven't seen the movie, but I am on a panel soon at the Design Museum in London when the film is shown, so I'm looking forward to it. I wasn't one of the interviewees because, um, they didn't ask me. I wish they had. And, well, I do hate Helvetica. It represented everything that was wrong with design when I was younger. From the fact that design could supposedly be "transparent" when you used it—utter rubbish, it's as much a product of its time and prevalent ideologies as any painting—to its usage on all of the most depressing, nasty buildings that surrounded me as I was growing up, it didn't have anything to do with how I wanted to experience life.

If you were making your last will and testament into a poster, what font would you set it in and why?

I would set it in Bastard—one of my fonts—because the name would be a reminder to those I left behind that they shouldn't gloss over my faults. Secondly, this font is difficult to read, so that would increase the amount of arguing over who gets what. My twisted mind would find that quite comic.

Steven Heller notes in The New York Times that despite its "kinetic and chaotic" aspects, the Barnbrook Bible is in fact readable, "particularly in good light." Is light indeed a relevant factor?

I think the relevant point in Heller's text is that although it looks chaotic, there is some kind of structure to the design. For me, it's important that he noticed that, because the structure and readability are very carefully considered. I do understand all of the rules of legibility and readability; it's just that I think we can experiment with it more than many people think, and I want to acknowledge that there are many different kinds of reading.

Interpreting "best designed" any way you choose, who is the best designed U.S. presidential candidate for 2008?

That's a difficult one. Not wishing to be "anti," but I think there has got to be something wrong with anybody who wants to be president, who thinks that they have the answers to solving lives. The best leaders are those who become leaders because they represent what is good about a society or ideology and hold a higher vision for humanity. I don't see that in America—there are no Nelson Mandelas or Gandhis. The closest you have is probably Al Gore. At least he is making a stand on something positive. But nothing can be worse designed than George Bush's foreign policies, right?

(All images courtesy of Rizzoli, The Barnbrook Bible: The Graphic Design of Jonathan Barnbrook, Rizzoli New York, 2007.)

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