Type Talk: Jonathan Barnbrook in Conversation with Pete McCracken
PNCA faculty member Pete McCracken talks about the future of design with typographer, designer and visiting artist Jonathan Barnbrook.
Recently Jonathan Barnbrook visited PNCA spending time in studio visits with students, visiting classes and giving a public lecture in the MFA in Applied Craft and Design studios. PNCA faculty member Pete McCracken sat the vanguard of the design world down for an interview as part of McCracken’s Type Talk series.
Working with notable figures such as David Bowie and Damien Hirst, Jonathan Barnbrook has become something of a celebrity in the design world and certainly hasn’t shied away from making bold statements in public forums. He has called into question the social ills all too familiar in our times and makes no qualms about his intention to use design as a tool for change. It is just this presence of insuppressible personality that has left such a mark on the face of contemporary design and typography.
For his part Pete McCracken is something of an iconoclast himself. Pushing the limits of design and typography with projects such Crack Press Art, Design and Print, a letterpress/silkscreen studio publishing his own and other artist’s work, and Portland Type Company, custom typography and digital foundry, Pete is no stranger to the practice of stretching convention. Sitting down together, the two discussed the, frustrations and fascinations with design, the power of language and the tribulations of getting proper compensation for one’s work.
—Nathan Henry-Silva ’11
Jonathan Barnbrook in Conversation with Pete McCracken
Pete McCracken Hi thanks for joining us today. This will be a conversation. Feel free to guide the conversation in whatever direction you’d like focusing a little more on typography, of course. A few days ago you said you thought it might be time for you to move away from graphic design. So I just wanted you to expand on that.
Jonathan Barnbrook Well there are various reasons, one I think graphic design is a young person’s game. What I mean is graphic design needs people that want to change the profession and you have that kind of energy much more when you’re younger. I think that the philosophies in graphic design require that much more than something like filmmaking, where actually the experience of 20 or 30 years of life has a really positive effect on your creativity. I am of course speaking about one particular kind of graphics the area I tend to work in, which is very contemporary typographical. It needs those people who want to reshape the world, to constantly feed into the thing. But that’s the reason I was thinking about leaving graphic design. But also the profession has changed a lot, maybe its time for me to move on to try a new area.
PM In what ways do you think the area of typography and how it relates to graphic design has changed and where do you see typography and type design kind of failing along the way?
JB What do you mean by failing?
PM Well what are the pitfalls that you’ve seen in your career?
JB Well I don’t know if they are pitfalls. Things just change, not from the lack of understanding about intellectual property. I mean it’s not a very fashionable subject but it is actually quite difficult to make money on a very pragmatic level from drawing typography and typefaces because it takes such a long time and people don’t value it. So it gets passed from person to person for free. That does make it very difficult to justify doing it. I mean luckily my typeface creation is just the consequences of doing other work. But it does get to the point where it’s so difficult to financially keep it going that maybe its time to move on and put those energies elsewhere. So that’s one of the reasons for wanting to leave, but also you know not everything is printed now, as it was when I first started typography. And I still do love that absolute quality of the printed letterform on the printed page.
PM As opposed to the projected image on the screen.
JB Yeah, I mean that’s interesting as well but there’s something concrete about having a book with letters printed in it and they make words and they say things and, somehow the ‘truth’ is inherent in the printed word. I still do love that absolute quality of the printed letterform on the printed page.
PM We talked a couple of days ago about sustainable practice in the print industry and publishing. One of the things you mentioned is that we are at the tail end of something and that you could see a point where the printed book would no longer be around. Do you think that’s true?
JB I mean it’s a cliche, people have been saying it for a very long time, but talking to a friend recently we were discussing how ridiculous the production method is for a printed book. You have to export all these materials from whichever country makes the paper, you have to make the binding, you have to print the pages and in terms of saving a lot of hassle and material, and the environment, it would be much better if we did switch to electronic media. It’s not going to happen immediately and there still will always be the place for the cheap printed book, but the more they disappear the better. The rise of ebooks in a form which is affordable and not much more inconvenient than a conventional book means it’s finally possible. You need technology to be easier than what it is replacing—which is finally happening.
PM So back to the segue? You’ve done your rebelling in the early days?
JB I’ve been saying since I was 21—I’m about to leave graphic design—because that’s what keeps me in it; feeling slightly apart from it makes it possible for me to feed my energy into it. If I found that I was part of the community and really happy and spent all my time at typographical conferences, that kind of thing and gladly accepting awards, then my work would probably be terrible. So that separation is important. But I would really like to work more in film. I know I’ve been saying this a very long time but it’s that communication that you get from film that you can’t get from typography. It’s a different media it’s a different way of working, more appealing at a human level.
PM Right there’s a different language that happens that relates very specifically to typography.
JB Yes, I still love words. I’m sure what I do will be influenced by my background and my love of language and will probably include typography, as well. You know life is, this sounds very cliche, but life is very short and you have 70 years. Some people stick with one idea for their whole lives when they don’t want to.
PM Yeah you seem like, at least in the last couple of days I’ve gotten to know you, the sort of person who likes to solve something and move on, although, you’re obviously still inspired to create new typefaces.
JB Yes, and yet all my work looks the same. Ha-ha.
PM And so we go back, so we rewind right to Bastard font.
PM When was your first typeface?
JB 1989. Yeah that was pretty Bastard yes, I was…23, yeah.
PM Do you think as you look back now, let’s just say 20 years ago is there anything you would have done differently?
JB Um, I would have signed a lot of contracts to get a lot more fucking money.
PM Hear, hear.
JB I mean I realize that graphic designers are often a lot less commercial than artists and that artists are often very savvy about the way their work is used. Maybe it’s a disappointing answer for some people because I don’t really want to care about that aspect but I think it would have been better if I had been more careful with the way people used my work. And sometimes I wish I hadn’t worked as hard, you know. When I was in college every single day I would work on my typography, I’d be driven to work on it.
PM Well you know it’s an interesting point that you bring up because the premise of Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers is that the whole reason that people are better at doing something and they rise above is because they work that much harder than everybody else. The reason somebody is a virtuoso a violinist is because they practiced 18 hours a day and not five.
JB I agree with you, when I do a project usually I spend 40 to 50 percent more time than most people would, it doesn’t matter about the money, the most important thing is that the project is good. But there’s a level where you can pull back and not work every single day of your life and still work hard.
PM Right. So in terms of inspiration, is there anything that you’re seeing right now that you think is fantastic, or absolute crap?
JB Things that are absolute crap can be as inspiring as fantastic stuff, so you’re right. You know the major things I’m interested in is reading interesting texts. JG Ballard is the person that is really obsessing me at the moment. He wrote Crash, which was also made into a quite controversial film. The thing that interests me is that he is very much concerned with psychological inner spaces of people. It’s projected slightly into the future so people tend to think of it as science fiction but it’s not. He said something very interesting about the future—that he is worried it’s going to be very boring—this sense of the comfortable, white, middle class male and female sitting in their home and nothing touches them. I’d like to explore that and how the civilization parameters can be lost very easily. Absolutely nothing to do with typography, but it is in a way because when you’re working with language you’re always aware of the parameters of civilization, as language is an agreed thing between people in a society. That’s why I find swearing so fascinating because it’s a very easy way to become a savage in a way, within a civilized society.
PM What’s your favorite swearword?
JB Well that’s difficult. I mean ‘bastard’ is obviously a very good one but you’ve got to know that swear words lose their potency through their repeated use until they become less offensive.
PM And they have multiple meanings.
JB Yes, they are rich words. Anyone who says people who swear are deficient in vocabulary is a fucking wanker as far as I’m concerned, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.
JB I mean there is a sense that swearing can be an easy shortcut to the humor but it’s so much part of language. And you know, in a way it’s like pornography in relation to any creative field, because you have to have the obscenity to understand the beauty, and obscenity is part of the human character as well as the beauty.
PM So the language is part of it, but the typography represents it and so there’s a difference there that you’ve been exploring with the fonts ‘Expletive’ and ‘Tourette’.
JB Yes, that relates directly to the use of swearing, but there’s something else going on with the aesthetic of beauty and ugliness. It’s a topic that’s been prevalent for 10 odd years in graphic design, to try and draw letter forms badly on purpose, but to be aware of what you are subverting when you do it, I think is a very interesting problem in typography. Especially because you upset so many people when you do it. To me typography when I was younger it was the formalistic the Trajan Column in Rome that’s the most perfectly proportioned type. And I’d look at the kind of stuff coming from America, California in particular and it had this freedom at that time which I couldn’t conceive of. So it took quite a jump to be able to say to myself, well you don’t have to look at the proportions of letterforms, and they don’t have to be beautifully drawn. You can do anything, that’s quite difficult.
PM What was the time period and the style that you’re referring to in California?
JB Well I suppose the late 80s. Ever since April Greiman and you know Ed Fella as well. And stuff coming out of Cal Arts and Cranbrook when I was in college. But even going earlier back when I was, I mean I didn’t have a formal typographic training, I learned about typography myself.
PM I didn’t know that.
JB Well I studied graphic design, but nobody taught me letterform design. It was something that just developed. And I think that is always a problem, people think it’s too boring to teach in a way. Of course the technical aspect is boring but the poetic aspect isn’t and maybe if people approach it in that way and see that, that this is connected with language. There was a documentary recently about Virginia Woolf and she was talking about the different resonances of words, how you can mishear a word, or a word can have five or six different meanings to different people, and it’s the same with a typeface, a letterform. They trigger off different memories in your mind. One can have a little hint of this atmosphere or this time period and think those are really interesting aspects of typography.
PM I have more and more students interested in learning about how to design type. You know I didn’t have any formal training either, I just went straight to crap and tried to weasel my way out of that. I just said this is what I’m going to do and then I had to kind of work my way back. Do you think type designers are misunderstood?
JB They’re probably understood too well, that’s the problem. They are all nerds who don’t go out. I mean they talk about typography in part because they don’t know what else to talk about.
PM Right it’s true. You find us when we’re sitting at a type conference and everyone starts talking about the nuances of the lower case ‘a’.
JB No I am joking I can be quite enthusiastic about those things but the aspect of not relating it to the outside world I think is quite problematic. Again it’s not so much nowadays but when I first started drawing type it was completely devoid of any ‘rock n’ roll’ aspect. There were no young people working in it, it was the older generation who were doing very well-crafted type faces but the stuff was boring. As a young person you felt that what they did didn’t relate in any way to the world that you were involved in. That was one of the basic reasons to start drawing typefaces, to reshape my work and express the world around me in the letterforms because there was nothing there for me. We tend to forget it was that time period when typeface design exploded as creative area was because the computer first came into graphic design.
PM So, here is a question that I’ve definitely been accosted by and I’m sure you have many, many times…‘you know DUDE, We only need one typeface’.
JB Yeah, fine if it’s my typeface and everybody licenses it. No, in my lectures I do talk a bit about that because there is this question that comes up, ‘What’s the point of producing another typeface?’ And it really is the evolution of the tone of voice to express language. That’s what I try to do in fonts, to find some nuance in the way people speak and to put it into letterforms—to discuss the parameters of language.
PM Do you find—there are influences now that you have that you didn’t have 20 years ago when you first started?
JB I think there’s always a process which, you may be familiar with—you start hating something and all your work is in relation to that hatred. Then you end up absolutely loving that thing and making it part of your work. I’m trying to think of the first example of this…for instance I used to hate the, the, um…I have to be very careful of what I say here, ‘The New York style of Typography.’ And now I find myself quoting that in typefaces because I like the fact it’s the exact opposite aesthetic of what I consider to be beautiful typography. So I think there’s always that, you’re always subverting yourself and your own ideologies in your work.
PM How do you feel about the current state of typography now?
JB There will always be experiments in typography but obviously when there’s new technology, it makes things easier or makes new things possible and that first flurry won’t be repeated. I think people have taken the more interesting philosophical and aesthetic parts of that early experimental typography and incorporated it into the more practical typefaces as people have become used to certain aesthetics. That always happens not just in typography, but anything, something that is quite radical always gets absorbed into the mainstream. Whether that makes it a very interesting thing to carry on doing, I’m not sure, we’ll see. I mean the programming side of typography and the way parameters can be set up for typefaces now, is probably the new area. This is less about aesthetics and more about controlling good typography or subverting it to make very bad and interesting typography.
PM So now we’ve sort of come to the point where the questions have gotten really easy. If there’s one thing, and I’m sure this happens to everybody, but if there’s one thing that you see on a constant basis that really, really, really, really, bugs you, what is it?
JB I watch a TV program called ‘Come Dine With Me’ where people have a dinner party around each other’s house and they score everybody. Every so often someone will hold a number 8 upside down when they are giving their score and I think NO! DON’T DO THAT! There we go. No but really, I never get annoyed. You know, I’m always amused by bad things. There’s the vogue now for using the footmark instead a proper apostrophe, it used to really upset me, but you’ve got to accept that language evolves eventually whether you like it or not. Because of the position of that on the keyboard that’s going to become the norm, and the sooner we accept that, the better as typographers, and don’t have a heart attack get over it. And as there’s no incorrect way to speak, really you have to always adjust the rules of typography, to fit the civilization it is for, it can’t be the other way around because you’ll be left behind. So nothing annoys me particularly.
PM Wow, well bravo. And what do you think of this new Rupee?
JB You know I don’t follow what’s going on in typography at all so I know something has happened but I haven’t actually clicked on the link to look at it yet. Maybe I should.
PM Yeah it’s a kind of cross between R and a Euro.
JB Well good that there’s been some discussion about it, I believe the Indian Government tried quite hard to do it properly. That’s a good thing because there’s a problem with the Euro signs, about the width of it.
PM Trying to find a place to put it, that’s the hard part.
PM Maybe this is an opportunity to bring back in terms of technology and typography, your experience from being a really hand done process. Do you care about what’s really happening with web type.
JB Well, I do care because if we’re talking on a typography level, it’s going to make typography better, hopefully if you have that control over the typeface on the web. Hopefully in the future there will be a bit more control about spacing. I mean good typography is about detail, it’s not about the grand gesture. It’s about people seeing their address whether it’s in a book or on the web and being able to read and understand it properly, knowing where the figures are and where the zip or post code is. So all those refinements are quite positive. You know that original reason that I started drawing typefaces was to get the atmosphere over and to get the tone of voice properly over, and to see that being translated onto the web is a very positive thing.
PM Let’s end on real positive note. Is there a single moment that you can think of, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours, where you saw the use of your type somewhere and you were just absolutely flattered, and you were just like ‘Wow that’s really great, that was really well done’, has that ever happened to you?
JB Not really, I mean maybe it’s my personality but—I find it interesting not that it’s been used but the cultural context that it’s been used, and how psychologically the person has used it. So what was your moment when you saw something?
PM Well it was in a a little ad, for the Aerosmith greatest hits album called ‘Big Ones’.
JB Aim high.
PM It was in a place where you would sit down and you might take a little time to read the paper. And I was just sitting there and I saw this ad and I just couldn’t stop laughing I thought it was so funny. It was just a little ad you know it was just a little tiny thumbnail ad. And it was the first typeface that I ever did, it was based on my handwriting and I just did it to see if I could do it. So then maybe you can tell me about the worst, is there a worst?
JB Oh well it’s not the worst. I thought this was the most interesting and I had become the thing that I disliked in a way. Because I went to Istanbul many years ago and I went to the Old Sultan’s palace and all the signage was done in Mason. And you know going to Istanbul, it’s an exotic place and you expect ‘foreignness’ there, you are out of your own culture, you want something different—to go into this place and see my own typeface, in what was supposed to be the absolute essence of Istanbul was very very bizarre and quite uncomfortable. It made me feel like I’m a multinational corporation, going around destroying everybody else’s culture, oh my God! They used it quite well actually. There are bad uses of the fonts but it’s always amusing when people use it in a bad way. People often send me examples so… Good examples they tend to be less entertaining so. but actually Tazo Tea use of Exocet I thought was a very nice, because the characters are quite geometric, yeah they did a very good job with that.
PM Great, is there anything else
JB Well going back to swearing we can quote Anthony Burgess who wrote Clockwork Orange and he also wrote about language and the best of all different uses of the word ‘fuck’ was ‘fuck it the fucking fuckers fucking fucked’, which is a great piece of language and a great start for typography and understanding the practice of language, I think.
PM Right on.
PM Thank you very much.