“The first job is the hardest”: Jonathan Barnbrook looks back on his journey from band logos to Bowie
Jonathan Barnbrook is something of an icon in the field of graphic design. The British-born designer and typographer, renowned, among many other things, for his longstanding collaboration with the late David Bowie; has been the subject of his own exhibition at the Design Museum and seen his typeface, Mason, become one of MOMA’s first digital acquisitions. Reflecting on his own career challenges, he shares his advice for emerging creatives on everything from finding likeminded collaborators, to putting together a personable portfolio and developing your own philosophy as a designer.
Owner, Barnbrook Design (1990–present)
MA Graphic Design, Royal College of Art (1988–1990)
BA Graphic Design, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London
BTEC Higher Diploma (unfinished), Croydon College of Art
BTEC Diploma Graphic Design, Barnfield College, Luton
Damien Hirst, David Bowie, Art Basel, Adbusters, John Foxx, Occupy London
Founding his self-titled design studio in 1990 and font company VirusFonts in 1997, Jonathan’s multi-faceted practice has granted him glimpses into several other fields, perhaps most notably in art and music. His work, often politically-charged and meaningfully-driven, has attracted him to like-minded collaborators including anti-corporate collective Adbusters and the Occupy Movement.
A graduate of Central Saint Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, Jonathan attributes his education with not only teaching him to be self-reliant, but also giving him the confidence and self-belief to pursue his own work.
Growing up, music played an integral and influential role in Jonathan’s career journey, with the letterforms of new wave band logos serving as an early introduction to the world of graphic design. While quick to acknowledge the ‘magic’ of record covers and the relationship between visuals and music, it wasn’t until he received a phone call from David Bowie that he actually got round to designing any covers of his own: “Bowie was one of the first artists to understand that all arts connected; that what he wore on stage was as important as the melodies that he created and the album packaging.”
“Ignorance can be a good thing in your career. You can’t control what people think, or how a job will come to you. All you can do is be passionate and do your thing.”
When thinking of approaching likeminded collaborators, dream clients or potential employers, he considers self-censoring to be the worst thing you can do: “Pinpoint who you want to contact, and just go for it. Talk about why you like their work, address them personally and show genuine passion and interest in the area they're working in.”
For Jonathan, being a good graphic designer is an all-encompassing pursuit, and one that benefits from maintaining an expansive viewpoint – whether you’re trying to sell something or add to culture. Design, in this sense, is something that can always be used to bring about positive change: “I don’t want to be cynical, ever, about design. There are a lot of people who think it’s a pure commodity. Of course there is the financial side: you get paid for work. But I want to believe in the good of human beings and secondly in the possibility for good design to do positive things – whether it’s an exhibition that changes people’s lives a little in some way, or a placard at a demonstration where you’ve added your voice. They’re all positive ways of using design.”
Jonathan talks us through a journey that saw him go from scribbling band logos on school books and working as a waiter in Croydon to designing for cultural icons like Damien Hirst and David Bowie. Reflecting on his own career challenges, he shares his advice for emerging creatives on everything from putting together personable portfolios to side projects and starting out in the industry.
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