The Burning Question

Neville Brody: Genius or W**ker? Was the title of one of this years D&AD Presidents Lectures at Logan Hall, just off Russell Square, London. Following a great day of inspiration, meeting new friends and catching up with old students (more of which, next week) I shuffled my way in to the traditional banked auditorium with a couple of hundred or so other designers, lecturers, students and generally stylish (lots of black and grey polo neck sweaters, thick rimmed spectacles etc) and probably very lovely people. I was a little excited and apprehensive. Let me state this up front. I like Brody. I have since I was a student. My first living inspiration; most of the stuff I had really fallen for as a callow youth was produced in the first part of the twentieth century. My views then are a little biased and I will inevitably write this post with more personal generosity than others will do theirs.

The lecture was presented in a different format this year. Rather than a formal ‘show and tell’ style lecture, it was decided to do a ‘Paxman’ style interview of pre-prepared prompts, questions sent in via the Creative Review blog, Twitter and from the audience, all fielded by fellow designer, writer and commentator, Adrian Shaughnessy.

I’m not going to write a blow by blow account here, just share a few thoughts about some of the things that were raised and commented upon. Before I get to the answer of the burning question (that comes at the end, just scroll down and get it over with – next time, go Twitter!) it is fair to point out a few things about the lecture. Firstly, whatever anyone’s decision on whatever Brody is, he is definitely brave.  Following some pretty unpleasant stuff being bandied about in the blogosphere about him, he still went ahead and put himself in front of a large audience of his peers, contemporaries, detractors and acolytes for an unrehearsed question and answer session. I have read one or two comments already posted on various blogs about last nights lecture (and his own,) some good, some lukewarm and others quite critical about the lack of direction in some of his answers. I’m fairly sure that responding to spontaneous questions does not really allow for clarity, so I am less concerned about how unpolished his ‘content’ was.


OK. My own take on last night. I think Brody was on the money with a few things. The commercialisation and consumerisation of education by successive governments is definitely not a good thing. What he thought the answer was unclear though – starting again? By whom? The government – no chance, the less they have to do with education the better! The institutions – hmm, I can’t see any of them working together for the common good. The design industry then? I doubt any of them would want to free pitch for the contract! Plus, it would probably be given to the two unpaid interns fresh out of uni as a tester job. And no, I don’t have the answer either.

That designers should employ their conscience in their work. A bit of a no-brainer that one – shouldn’t everybody, no matter what we choose to do for a living?

He also said that “skills are not difficult to learn, but we need to learn what we might do with them.” The process of nurturing creativity, and the individuals approach to how their own skills may be employed have all been largely ignored by educational policies, if still clung on to by isolated teachers and lecturers.

There was some contradiction too, especially when prompted to respond to the price of fame and the unpleasant comments published on the CR blog. He understandably referred to the way that the internet, blogging and Tweeting has allowed for (and possibly encourages) ungoverned personal attacks on individuals, without experiencing the consequences (would you say the same things to his face in a pub?) but on several occasions made his own personal attacks on a range of politicians in this public forum, without him having to experience the consequences. I am currently trying to arrange a meeting between Brody and David Cameron in a back room in Northern Working Mens Club, tickets available from all the usual outlets!

I was also puzzled by his statement that it is the duty of all graphic designers to learn all of the skills sets. I am in agreement that we should  be grounded in a range of skills, but if we have to learn to do everything, we would lose those who would become specialists; those who do fewer things and do them much better, or differently, as a result. These are usually the people we admire and aspire to – those that raise the bar for the rest of us, just like Brody did, way back when.

It is crazy that todays young designers need to be experts in twenty different software platforms, understand the complexities and idiosyncracies of the rapidly changing commercial print process, as well as speaking fluent HTML. Come on, get real!

I was a little discomfited by his comment about the decline of popular culture for him, started with the pop group Haircut 100. All music has been driven by marketing – it is just more explicit now I guess. People don’t seem to mind that their ‘stars’ have been market tested to within an inch of their gossamer thin veneers. Times change, and very few of us like it when they do. How many ‘comebacks’ did Elvis do? Is it any different now that Robbie Williams has said ok to a Take That reunion? The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, Eminem all had/have their ‘machines’ to maintain, promote and maximise revenue streams.

There is always a level of nostalgia connected with music, particularly if ‘we were there when it happened.’ Brody was just lucky that the post-punk music scene was what it was. As a lot of it emerged from art schools and those longing for more than the aesthetic desperation of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, lots of new things were emerging visually to represent it. Brody should thank his parents for the foresight to conceive at the right moment to put him in that exact place in time. So what if the music industry is safe and crap now? It’s not the end, as Brody himself has proved. Designers have to adapt and contribute to change, or fall into that old camp of ‘it was better in my day.’


In my day, lectures were not influenced by battery life. Nor did they allow for halfwits to try and arrange workshops with him at their university (the fact that he was visiting lecturer at the institution is question must have been painfully embarrasing for the lecturer who was also present) and the third years complaining that they didn’t get enough time with their lecturers (a real problem I know, but is this the forum?), but if you are going to give anyone a turn, well, you have to expect that sort of thing.


Genius, w**ker, or confused? (bad pun, I know) Perhaps a more honest approach could have been sought – more cards that may have read ORDINARY, HONEST, PASSIONATE, CONCERNED, RESIGNED, SELF-IMPORTANT, LUCKY or all of the above.

So my verdict then. A bit of both. I like people who are not afraid of having an opinion. Being able to communicate that opinion is a fundamental right of democracy. We don’t have to like it. We can choose. We also shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

It is not important what Neville Brody says and thinks. What is important is what we say and think.

But we do need to listen to those with experience – it is the primary act of learning. But we need to listen to a range of them and think about what they say and think, distill it, question it and argue about it with others (if they’ll listen!) before deciding whether to adopt it, modify it, reject it or forget about it. It is our choice. Brody was there to answer questions and give his opinions on things and he did just that, whatever we think about it. Don’t have a go at him though or it may result in a fat lip. The photo below is my favourite. Remember, what is printed on the other side of the card and is been shown to Brody. I guess it all depends on where you sit.

Just for fun then.
I did get the feeling that at times, Brody wondered what he had got himself into, and I got a good shot of him collecting his thoughts. What else may have been going through his mind?

Save this image and insert your own caption. Please rename it in this format smithjohncaption.jpg (obviously using your own name!) or .png or .gif  and email them to me for inclusion. If you are sending more than one image, please add a number to them also.  Please note that if you are sending me images, then you are giving me your consent to publish them on the web. Don’t send them if you don’t want them uploading. These images will only be used for this purpose. Lets not be nasty too. Leave that sort of thing to the CR Blog!

I’ll pick a winner before Christmas and I’ll custom make a unique sketchbook for the winner. Best of luck, and pass the word around…


3 thoughts on “The Burning Question

  1. Chris,

    I found this particuarly interesting reading, and I am also pretty gutted I couldn’t get down to see the event live.

    What is the e-mail for the competition, because the link doesn’t seem to do anything my end?



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