The Daily Heller: The Brody Bunch, NB3

Posted inThe Daily Heller

You will probably read (and hear), especially on PRINT (and The PRINT Book Club), a lot more about NB3, aka The Graphic Language of Neville Brody 3, the third (and most comprehensive) in his trilogy of monographs. Edited by Adrian Shaughnessy, with introduction by me and running texts by Brody and Shaughnessy, NB3 is not a career capstone as much as it is an ongoing history featuring work by one of the most innovative designers of Century 21.

The text below is adapted from my introduction to the book.

For a magazine-fanboy like me, the leading art directors have the same electromagnetic pull as the hottest or coolest rock bands. Magazine designers are the rock stars – Beatles, Stones, Hendrixes and Bowies – of print. They make music with ink on paper, typography and visual pyrotechnics. Like any artist, they take cues from other arts, but the best-of-the-best have influenced culture through their magazines.

High in the upper stratosphere of periodical idolatry, The Face, a British import published during the late eighties into the early nineties and distributed in major American cities gave voice to its times – and the times of a certain art director. In New York City, The Face was for publication design what the storied “British Invasion” was to music and its founding designer, Neville Brody, was suitably hailed as the maestro of editorial layout. The Brody of The Face was a choreographic performance designer who acted on each page with a unique style and distinct message. Admirers learned even more about his conceptual versatility from the first of two monographs (1988 and 1997) that captured the interest of what, by the mid-80s, had become a bifurcated American design scene – a clash of mods versus rockers or moderns versus post-moderns.

Coming into his own during the early 1980s, Brody was revved and inspired by the early twentieth century rebellious avant gardes and 1940s-50s postwar modern discipline. Yet adherence to its increase in modern formulaic tropes and stylistic ruts – not to mention its capitalist corporate rationalist dogma, which became popular in many design circles at the time – was not pushing the art of design further in the directions that he wanted it to go. Brody was impatient to make and affect political and social change through design. He was not only born into the right time, in the right place but also with the perfect vehicles to reach a young audience. Being split between old and new schools, Brody decided to move to the beat of his own rhythms.

Oh, how I yearned to be a designer-art director with Brody’s talent and intuition. Although seven years my junior, in graphic design years we were separated by a wide generational gap – let’s say a cultural grand canyon. I was in with the out-crowd. My leading art directorial models were the highly respected modernist elders – virtuoso orchestrators of sequential page design – including Alexey Brodovitch, Henry Wolf, Frank Zachary and Willy Fleckhaus, among them. Yes, they were immortal but I was not. Rather I was mired in a time warp, at best, derivative at worst mediocre. Their designs were enviable, yet unshakably classic-modern. Whereas Brody’s pages were provocatively, unexpectedly, eclectically improvisational. While the classic – my favorite – mid-century-modern magazines, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Show, Holiday and Twen were appropriate models to admire – and mimic – Brody’s The Face was transformative. It revealed a deft hand with art and image and demanded unique skill with proprietary typeface manipulation in order to come close to even imitate what he was creating.

Brody designed with an alchemist’s abandon and yet was unerringly precise. I didn’t realize it at the time, but precision with and control of every detail was in his DNA. He took portions of the avant garde past, carefully filtered it through his futuristic imagination and conjured the typo-visual language for the moment and many moments to follow. Even today, Brody’s The Face boggles the eyes for its nuanced originality. He began his career on the cusp of the digital age yet entirely defined the free form digital typographic look that dominated the turn of the twenty-first century. No wonder through his audacious FUSE magazine, he was a leader of the experimental new-new typography revolution.

Looking in retrospect at FUSE (a magazine-in-a-box that came with type fonts on diskette and printed posters of the font specimens), it is obvious to see how this earlier work has influenced Brody’s current oeuvre. This was not, as some criticized then, a fly-by-night exercise in experimentally stylistic dis-functional excess, rather it is an awesome pushing of boundaries, the foundation of what Brody has become in the current phase of his five-decade career and represented here in The Graphic Language of Neville Brody 3. His work withstands (indeed stands up to) the pitfalls and pratfalls of fashion. His typography for Coca Cola, the most recognized product in the world, is an example: He does not ignore and astutely intersects with its history. He has done work for major corporations, rarely taking what has been given existing brand elements to work with at face value. There is a Brody vocabulary that is not compromised for an existing visual persona. Coke is the most radical example of working with a strict visual menu while adding his own flavor to the outcome.

It is confounding to me that Brody is not as well-acclaimed for his distinct manner of integrating language, art and design today as he was twenty years ago. When he began as a magazine and type guru, his novelty pushed his popularity – the Brit accent didn’t hurt either. But the mature Brody makes even fresher and joyful design than those early days. The beauty of NB3 is that his career reveals a distinct arc. When in the 2000s he decided to move away from overtly experimental to a more modest type of minimalism, he did not traitorously forsake one for the other (as Jan Tschichold had done). He simply lowered the volume until he was ready to once again turn up the levels.

In his mature period Brody is a bit different but not perfunctorily defiant. NB3 exhibits where he evolved and what he’s retained. Brody’s colors are brightly and joyfully effervescent; his typography is intellectually complex and expressively sculptural. He virtually paints with these varied elements always balancing the need to be on the right side of rambunctious yet not forsaking what made him so admired in the first place. He retains his political commitment too.

I see many designers today who have walked in Brody’s footsteps. As graphic design has developed through the period of digital novelty into a multimedia communications art+craft, Brody’s initial instinct to implode pages with visual stimuli has proven to have staying power. To compare Brody today with anyone but himself, however, would to be to wrap him in the swaddling of his youth. What I love about NB3 is that it is unnecessary to validate Brody’s value through the lens of history but rather to see how far he has taken his own inventions in the forty years since he presented himself to the world as a world-class designer.