Would you pass up a juicy brief from the swoosh, the golden arches or any other glossy global with cash to spend but a somewhat chequered back-story? Is there room for conscience in our glitzy, soundbite world?
In his time, Jonathan Barnbrook has turned down Coca-Cola, Nike and a seemingly innocuous leisure company who, after some digging, turned out to be owned by a landmine manufacturer linked with the Korean War. And while he stresses that ranting for its own sake can be counterproductive, if the opportunity arises he’ll make it abundantly clear why that client has been crossed off the list.
“You have to take responsibility for what your clients do,” he shrugs. Consumers and commissioners are waking up to the power of visual communication as a prime shaper of our culture, but the transition from determination to disillusionment is all-too common. His Soho-based studio regularly receives correspondence from design graduates unsure of how to balance watertight morals with a half-decent living.
“I’m sure I’d be a lot richer if I agreed to work for large corporates, but I’d be unhappy,” is Jonathan’s take on the issue. “It’s an outdated idea to put over the client’s message and not think about what you’re doing. Working for a trendy sports manufacturer isn’t necessarily the ultimate job. I don’t see it as kudos – to me, kudos would be working for a charity. Money is an issue; you have to keep going. But I’m not starving. I can turn down work and still survive.”
So has he burnt his bridges with the agencies that came bearing accounts that for many designers would carve a reputation and top their folio with a crown, albeit a thorny one? “They’ve never been in touch again,” he’s prepared to admit. “But to be honest, we don’t want to be desperate to get work from these sorts of people.”
Jonathan’s close ties with the global underground scene inform his often politically-motivated design and typography. When the Coca-Cola brief landed on his desk, he immediately picked up the phone to Kalle Lasn, founder of Vancouver-based counter-culture organisation Adbusters, to work through the ethical dilemma.
Kalle himself is optimistic. “People are more aware now; creative people are starting to feel their responsibility,” he insists. “They had to bow low before corporate clients and kiss their arses – now the feeling is that it’s us, not the corporations, who are the cool-makers and the cool-breakers.”
Jonathan first crossed paths with Adbusters and their culture-jamming magazine back in 2000, when they set out their individualist stall in a manifesto entitled First Things First. “Too much design energy is being spent to promote pointless consumerism,” it read, “and too little to help people understand an increasingly complex and fragile world.”
It created “quite a ruckus,” Kalle recalls, with many ‘old-school’ designers protesting that client satisfaction must always be top of the list of priorities. Their argument boiled down to the scale of success: two hundred employees polishing the corporate crown are better than twenty who subvert it. But the ruckus was there, and many young design and advertising students signed up.
One of Adbusters’ central concerns, he explains, is that the culture many of us swear by is “spoon-fed to us” – filtered down from the top echelons of the multinationals as they scrabble over each other in a “quest to put a glow around brands. To create cool.”
In a world that is gradually fabricated around us, fashion and social acceptability are handed down ready-made: “Culture no longer grows from the bottom-up. We should be able to decide for ourselves what we like.”
Almost from birth, we’re told what is fashionable to eat, drink and wear – and it’s only through the ever-expanding mouthpiece of the media that this is made possible. So in a world so firmly under the control of the ‘creators of cool’, is the brand-polishing bandwagon the only way to make a name in the design industry?
“It’s the job of every human being to be proud of what they’re doing, and do it wholeheartedly,” he declares. “But visual communicators have become part of the marketing arm of corporations. It’s not the job of designers to give clients everything they want, but to try to be ethical whilst making the world a better place. They should have the courage and ethical guts to say no.”
But clearly it oversimplifies the situation to polarise all potential clients into good and bad, light and dark, ethical and unethical. I challenge Jonathan to draw a line in the sand. “Ethical clients are concerned about the impact they have, and will have in the future,” is his considered response. But while certain issues – such as worker exploitation, war profiteering or wanton destruction of the environment – will automatically warrant a firm refusal, there are inevitably grey areas.
“With some companies it’s more about what they represent,” he goes on. “We’ll always research around a company before making a decision, find out who they might be owned by and so on.” So after 17 years in the industry, has he felt any sense of disillusionment himself since the heady days of student activism?
“If anything our work has become more extreme; more confident,” he reflects. “Graphic designers are finally standing up and saying no. Of course it’s difficult if you work for someone else; if it’s not your choice. But then you can always use your talent to do something useful in your own time.”
Jonathan’s ethos sits at odds with much of the London design community, which he identifies as “very commercial, intensely competitive and very much about the money.” But Barnbrook Design has always kept an international outlook.
“There’s a lot of underground stuff in London, but nothing compared to New York or Berlin,” he observes. So why continue to be based in the Capital? “Our work is very British in style, particularly our typography,” he asserts. “We have lots of connections with Tokyo, and our British aesthetic is very different to what they’re used to.”
In an industry where smooth, clean-cut visuals can put a glossy sheen on a rotten core, Jonathan has touched on a buzzword that Kalle believes is an early signpost of change from the ground up. “The last couple of generations have seen a slick, commercial, corporate aesthetic,” he observes. “The big project of the next generation is to develop a new aesthetic not driven by big branding, that has a sustainable future.”
“Design anarchy is hard to predict, but I sense a bold move away from modernism and slickness,” Kalle goes on. “A ratty, organic feel that moves away from straight lines to reflect stalks of plants, perhaps. There’s a public feeling about slickness within the design community, an acceptance of uncoated paper as a medium and so on.”
“Grids and straight lines mark the archetypal designer of the past, sat in front of a computer with a template, dividing the page into little bits, creating slickness so it pops off the page and highlights the product.” A distancing effect, perhaps, that separates the consumer from the client with thick, shiny plate glass? “It’s boring,” is Kalle’s less complicated way of putting it. “And no-one has the guts to break the paradigm.”
If design is the language that shapes and reflects our culture, he argues, forcing a regimented structure of images and typography into a tight grid will inevitably cause a backlash; an overspill; an organic sprouting elsewhere.
“Designers have not realised what power they have. With power comes responsibility, and just by realising that, the designers of the future are making a step forward. The designers of the past by-and-large sold out – they were the foot-soldiers of consumer culture. But the black-and-white choice between corporate design and small non-profit creative projects is a false route. There’s a third way emerging that’s much more tantalising and lucrative.”
© Nick Carson 2007. First published in Issue 6 of TEN4 magazine