Around 1980, graphic designers were suddenly thrust into newly exalted roles in the pop zeitgeist, and Neville Brody was crowned Britain’s first graphic design rockstar. In the decades after making his initial mark, Brody’s radical approach to design inspired countless others of the era and continues to redefine contemporary visual culture. He ventures fearlessly across different media boundaries, messing with letterforms and page structures while mixing in striking photography whose impact lingers long after a reader has closed the magazine or browser window.
The Graphic Language of Neville Brody 3 is a glorious appreciation of the graphic designer, typeface designer, typographer, and educator’s decades-long career. The third volume in a series of monographs includes everything from his Constructivist-inspired design for ’80s magazine The Face to recent designs from his studio Brody Associates for the BBC and Coca-Cola.
Brody combines and recombines type and other elements freely and experimentally while adhering to underlying design systems, resulting in what Graphic Language co-author Adrian Shaughnessy terms “structured chaos.” His iconoclastic visual language— a mixture of modernist graphic design, punk, and postmodernism informed by 20th century avant-garde movements including Dada, Constructivism, Futurism, and Pop Art— shows both reverence for and disobedience to the assumed tropes of commercial design.
An educator at London’s Royal College of Art since 2011, Brody encourages students to embrace his brand of risk-taking. “You’re simply a practitioner in communication,” he tells them. “You might make a poster or a sound piece. You might design a physical space, or write a novel. We are trying to teach in such a way that your response is appropriate to the message you’re trying to communicate.“
This heavy 9-⅝ x 10-⅞” perfect bound collection features foldout front and back covers and six thematic sections exploring Brody’s enduring influence as a designer devoted to typographic experimentation, cultural subversion, and design systems. It includes talks he gave at Design Indaba 2000 and Mexico’s Ciudad de los Ideas 2009, essays by longtime design collaborators Jo-Ann Furniss and Naomi Hirabayashi, and text by Adrian Shaughnessy. The typeface Popaganda Extended New Plus 2 appears in headlines throughout, evolved from an original font Brody developed for Arena Homme in 2009.
After six years of development, the book’s final design and reproductions of Brody’s published work are intertwined in what Shaughnessy calls “a network of overlapping relationships…Pull quotes, captions, page furniture and typographic detailing all situate themselves on equal terms with the work they are describing or commenting on. The result is that the reader is never sure what they are looking at.”
The monograph’s 800 illustrations demonstrate Brody’s hyper-eclectic visual sensibility pushing through the edges of convention and sometimes pushing type literally off the edges of the page. He piles words into too-narrow columns, forcing them to break uncomfortably, and experiments with grids (as well as the absence of grids) in page composition. 1991’s radical publishing venture/design lab project Fuse was a manifesto championing type as an art form, exploiting the computer as a new tool to express meaning through type independent of its semantic role (a philosophy Brody refers to as Typo/graphism). Each issue came packaged in a cardboard box containing a printed publication, a floppy disk with new fonts for designers to try, and four posters using that issue’s new fonts.
Digital design represented a seismic shift in pop culture; records and magazines became the popular art form of the era. MTV’s arrival in 1981 added to the explosive growth of media aimed at a youthful demographic, and records were no longer just about the sound— now the artists needed promos, videos, and album covers. Newly media-savvy audiences eagerly embraced Brody’s influential design for The Face, his work for Stiff Records, and bands including The Slits, Psychic TV, and Cabaret Voltaire.
An early fan of the computer as a design tool, Brody embraced an improvisational jazz musician’s love of both precision and abandon as he explored the interface of writing and design. His visual style evolved along a technological arc from the Letraset and hand pasteup of the 1980s to photo typesetting, which allowed for some manipulation and distortion of letterforms if your typesetting house was willing to play along. Meanwhile, computer type put designers into the driver’s seat, free to play around with this strange new toy as much as they liked.
As a type designer, Brody reexamines all standard assumptions about letterform construction and spacing. He slices and crashes through overlapping letters, plays with internal counters and the negative space around letterforms, and dares to use type as abstract and painterly elements on the page rather than just words to be read. Sometimes legibility— one of the discipline’s sacred cows— is optional. Advances in computer technology have allowed countless other designers to follow in his footsteps and continue to expand the universe of experimental type. Visual culture is teetering at the edge of another seismic shift, thanks to the abrupt availability of AI-generated imagery. The smart money is on Neville Brody to figure out how to use this new design superpower for good, not evil. We can only look forward to the possibility of a fourth volume of The Graphic Language of Neville Brody to show us how it might properly be done.
All photos courtesy of Thames & Hudson.