Barnbrook on Bowie, Simplicity, and the Ethics of Design

Jonathan Barnbrook's talk at The Herbert Art Gallery on Thursday evening was timed to connect with the Caught In The Crossfire exhibition, so I'd assumed that he'd focus on his work as a graphic agitator and ethical designer. It was a surprise then that he was prepared to talk in such detail about his work with David Bowie, and in particular the process of designing (and un-designing) packaging for The Next Day.

It's quite likely that the design for TND has polarised reaction more than any sleeve in the last few years. I fully expect to see it in both "Best of 2013" and "Worst of 2013" lists at the end of the year, and that speaks to the single-mindedness of its aesthetic. Having had a peek at the design process, and at the roughs that were offered up to Bowie along the way, it feels more than ever like the only possible solution to the brief, and that's something that I think characterises the very best design outcomes. Think about how obvious something like the design for the original iPod seems after having used it for the first time, or how the minimal-button-large-screen design of the iPhone has come to define an entire industry. Great design is both completely unexpected and totally obvious in hindsight.

Barnbrook's passion for working with Bowie–a musical hero only after the fact–is also crucial. "Only design for the artists you like" is a mantra that many might consider luxurious, but it's entirely imperative to producing effective work, and might be extended to "only work on solutions to problems you care about". Without that central commitment our work as designers is absent of meaning, and we're taking up valuable space on a team. In Barnbrook's work it's become a central tenet that connects his activism with his more commercial passions; a guiding ethos that is at once challenging to apply consistently and necessary in order to live and function as a designer in society.