It is very unusual for a graphic designer to be recognised outside of his profession. It happened to Saul Bass, and it happened to Milton Glaser, but not before they had spent many years at their craft, and their high profiles came with prestigious design work for Hollywood films, international newspapers and supermarket chains. When the Victoria & Albert Museum decides to devote the 20th Century Gallery (formerly the Boiler House) to a graphic designer, then, it is remarkable to find that far from being a posthumous show, the subject has only just seen the other side of 30.
Neville Brody is probably best known as art director of The Face, a magazine that through the mid-1980s has become in America and Europe a byword for style and modernity in design. Brody arrived at a time when magazine design had reached an impasse. As the minor flourish that accompanied punk was settling down, he stepped in to inject new blood into an ailing discipline. His emergence laid the foundations for a change in public perception of design. People started to take notice of a field that had previously left them unmoved. Strange hieroglyphics leapt out of The Face, headlines ran upside down or off the page, offset by symbols that seemed to have strayed from the pages of the Highway Code. As the exhibition, The Graphic Language of Neville Brody will show, he has covered a lot of other ground since and brought the same seriousness of intent to all he has done.
After a fine art foundation course, Brody studied graphics at the London College of Printing, an institution noted for its stringency regarding typography. This provided him with the challenge he was looking for. Everything he wanted to do which flew in the face of prevailing thought had to be forcefully argued. This approach has made him an articulate spokesman for his methods and, like the Dadaists and Constructivists who inspired him, fond of manifestos: “Graphic design is a language, a complete language. Some people are born to it, understand it fluently and can make new sentence structures, or talk slang if necessary. And then there are those who just use phrasebooks—they do not actually understand the words they’re saying, but the phrase solves their questions.”
After leaving the LCP, Brody started to design sleeves for small independent record companies. Working on low budgets, he had to push his techniques and ingenuity to their limits. Looking back now, his trademarks were emerging: his impatience with standard typefaces and clichéd imagery. It was soon after joining Stiff Records that he met Nick Logan, the editor of Smash Hits, who recognised Brody’s talent although it was not appropriate for the pop weekly. Had Brody continued working for independent record labels his influence would have been limited, restricted as it was to a small cult audience. In 1980, however, Logan launched The Face on £7,000 and brought Brody in after 15 issues. With a complete disregard for market research, Logan had avoided the compromise and stifling of ideas that can occur when major publishers plan and launch magazines. He created a “style bible”, read by the bright young things it celebrated, in which Brody’s experiments could run riot, and in so doing change the face of magazine design.
Broken down, the traditional elements of a magazine spread are the article itself, the illustrative material and captions, the headline, the introduction and the credits. Good designers use these elements to create a visual effect that will enhance the sense of the story. This is done through the choice of typeface, which offers clues to the content of the piece by its size and weight, as well as by what it says. Its relation to the pictures brings forth another set of responses from the reader. In this way, the magazine is given pace and structure. Many magazines, however, are designed on a formula basis, applying virtually the same (un)aesthetic reasoning to every type of story, creating at best a characterless whole and at worst an unreadable jumble of images and words.
What separates magazines from other areas of graphic design is haying a regular audience to whom you can communicate ideas and feelings. As familiarity grows, you can use shorthand or prompt readers to look at things differently. The V&A exhibition shows how the appearance of Brody’s magazine developed from issue to issue, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes drastically, until twice or three times a year you held a radically different-looking magazine in your hands. Brody used numerous signs and symbols, expanded and contracted headlines to startling effect, and when typefaces started to limit him, he drew his own. This led to a unique situation: a designer forced to retain a lawyer just to warn imitators of copyright infringement if they became too slavish. It galled Brody that people could glibly pick up and use typefaces he had hand-drawn for a specific use.
Success does breed imitation though, and at a certain point, The Face design became the perfect phrasebook for entry into the financially attractive world of youth and style. It was used indiscriminately by magazines and advertisers, desperate to appeal to and tap the resources of the youth market. They often missed the fact that although The Face was a guide to this culture, it was also questioning it constantly. The biggest drawback of being so influential was that every move made, every change was examined and criticised and usually, in the end, exploited. As the imitations went from bad to worse, The Face began to look more classical. The hand-drawn faces became more elegant and Baskerville, a doyen of British typography, was used extensively.
By now, Neville Brody was the most talked-about magazine designer in the country. His high profile led to approaches from other magazines. He redesigned the London listings magazine City Limits and then the New Socialist, in-house magazine of the Labour Party. Even politics could not deny the importance of design (and nor should it, Brody would argue). Both these projects were successful outlets for his ideas, but less happy were his ventures into the Condé Nast empire. New York’s Mademoiselle, influenced for some time by The Face, imported Brody to revamp its appearance. His efforts hit a brick wall in the shape of Alexander Liberman, the group’s overall design director. Although he originally approved the choice of Brody, Lieberman rejected the look he had created as not feminine or “pastel” enough. When he went on to condemn the hand-drawn headline face as “pretentious”, Brody caught the next flight back to London.
On accepting the challenge of becoming art director of Tatler, Brody had to work within the hierarchy of an established magazine. This episode was equally short-lived, as parts of the design he implemented were not printed and features were moved out of their allotted places without consultation. Having been indulged at The Face, Brody found the interference unacceptable and swiftly resigned. He returned to Logan’s patronage to design Arena – Nick Logan’s magazine for men, and has managed to keep ahead of his most slavish imitators, although he is amused by the first mimics of its, in his words, “deliberately boring design”.
As design moves increasingly into public awareness, it is essential that a designer who is serious about his work has an exhibition – heaven knows, enough kettles, frocks and carrier bags have been put on display. Design has now assumed what amounts to a stranglehold on the manufacturing and service industries, and Brody is not impressed. He considers that design “has gone off the beam. Ten years ago ‘designer’ was a dirty word because most design was anonymous, and now ‘Design’ is a dirty word to me because everything is designed.”
He sees the rise of the large design consultancies resulting in creations such as the new Midland Bank in Oxford Street. “A marriage of money and design, the perfect church for the 80s.” This adaptation of design as the crucial selling element is nothing more than “manipulation by flattery” in Brody’s words. He views the immediate future as a battle between the major design groups who “hoover up college graduates” and pander to market research-led ideas of communication graphics, and the independent designers and commercial artists.
Brody has always kept his operation basic – usually one assistant working from a small office, eschewing ambitions of becoming Neville Brody Associates Ltd. When asked what design he saw around him that was in any way inspirational, he looked outside his field: “Furniture design, which seems to be much more about craft – Tom Dixon, Ron Arad and Philippe Starck. It’s OK to be expressive, whereas it isn’t in graphics at the moment.” The only magazine I could elicit was the jazz and new music title, The Wire. The exhibition will surprise people who know only The Face. The breadth of Brody’s work shows that he has a very “classical” eye for one so associated with the cutting edge of modern design. The temptation now must be to rest on his laurels, recycling the type of work that people have liked him for in the past. But that isn’t Brody’s style. He will always question what he is doing and why he is doing it – and that’s rare.