Jonathan Barnbrook is one deep deep man. Ironically for a designer who consciously challenges capitalism through his work, his commercial success both as a type designer and typographer in general has made him one of the most influential voices in typography in the 90s.
Formerly of Emigre, he now runs his own independent foundry, Virus, from his cult compound in London. I broke in, battled past brainwashed nuns and insisted he tell me about love, life, his work, and why 1 + 1 = 3.
How, when and why did you start creating your own fonts?
When I was at college around 1989, the software wasn't very developed, but suddenly Letraset released and gave me a copy of Fontstudio, it was the first font programme that was easy to use - at last you could draw letterforms with the minimum of hassle.
There were 2 main reasons for starting to design fonts, firstly as a designer you can control the photography and the layout but you couldn't control all the idiosyncrasies in someone else typeface - to have absolute control, to be able to use the exact contemporary tone of voice I felt I needed to control the drawing of the font as well. Secondly I felt that typography was not reflecting what was going on in my life or the way technology was affecting everybody's lives - yes the technology was affecting invisibly the methods of using fonts but the computer had completely changed the nature of typography and this ideology needed to be expressed in letterform design. I know some typographers will groan about this but you cannot turn the clock back and think in a non-political non-fragmentary (in terms of ideology) way about letterforms. This does not mean that I think many of the typefaces drawn using this technology are good - they are not. Just because you can process or filter a typeface on a computer doesn't make it a good idea. You still have to look at some of the basic principles such as what good drawing is and work with or against the history of typography.
Tell me what you use to create your fonts. Do you start on paper or just work digitally or, well, what?
The first thing I use is my brain and usually the inspiration comes from two sources - one is an observation of a letterforms that has been forgotten and looks like an interesting way of interpreting it, it is important though not to just copy from the past to assess it in a contemporary way. The second is I have a particular concept that I want to put over in the form of letters, this I think is a relatively recent thing - to want to express an ideology through letterform design. To explain a little better - a font I did called 'prozac' was trying to solve the problem of how many basic shapes can we take the whole alphabet down to. This is a classic design 'problem', now I don't know if other designers will think it appropriate or relevant to do so in design but I also have to express another concept a supporting thought or ideology that affects me or I believe in strongly. This is actually no different to the way design was used in the first 50 years of this century, when design was not a marketing tool but used to change society - so, there was also the political problem or ideological problem which was how to comment on the widespread use of prozac for supposedly sorting out peoples lives which had been reported widely at the time... it manifested itself through this typeface (because of the illusory way some of these drugs are supposed to sort our your problems of existence) - to solve the mystery of existential angst by taking a drug. I tried to apply this theory to letterforms - take letterforms down to basic shapes it follows that you solve all the problems of communication.
Do you have a favourite face, either your own or someone else's?
I like some of my faces but it is difficult to judge them. It might surprise you but my favourite type designer is Eric Gill - although he may not be considered to be the most experimental of type designers, he is a hero because he managed to combine a sense of beauty with a form of drawing so unique to himself that his typefaces look like his own handwriting almost. I don't think I am in anyway as talented as him but I do I hope my work has this same sense - a sense of the beauty for letterforms combined with drawing that looks like it comes from an individual that has shown his experience of the world through it. I don't have any particular faces I like today, although I do like ones which are both aesthetically and mathematically beautiful if you sort of see what I mean - where the structure of the idea or letterform is as important as the look of the typeface.
To speak in much more pragmatic terms, i.e. the mechanical process of drawing - everything starts off as a one inch sketch in my notebook, this is precise enough to judge but not precise enough to allow interpretation when I go to draw them on the computer. I am not going to say here that the computer is just a 'tool' - it does affect the aesthetic, it's just that using it is a refining process - you draw something the first time and it looks dreadful but if you work at it you know it can be refined to get closer to what you want, then you get a bit closer. Of course being 'creative' isn't quite this simple as I always hate everything I do and never think it is anywhere near what I wanted to achieve.
Nothing wrong with having Eric Gill as a hero, he was a genius in my eyes. He was quite a politically motivated person, stemming from his strong socialist (and, for that matter, Christian) background, to the extent that he recommended ditching the roman alphabet altogether. Do you find the roman alphabet a constraint... would you want to replace it with something of your own devising?
Well only a constraint in that it is a positive constraint, so I would not want to replace it, no - you have to at least agree on some standard for people to communicate by otherwise there is no point. I think this is the whole idea behind language, no? There is no point to redesign unless people find the redesign workable. For my part I like the complex history of the Roman alphabet, the idea that these symbols such as the 'a' comes from a drawing of an ox head many thousands of years ago. I think working with a constraint is something that is fundamental to being a designer - you have to solve a problem within certain parameters.
Because the western alphabet is an inherited thing I like to see drawing the characters in same way you would draw the human figure. Everybody interprets it differently - there is the academic proportional way of drawing it which can produce beautiful understandable results, there is also the bad drawing, consciousness way which can get to the essence of something which can speak about a moment in time or identify with some part of your existence inside. Also I think everybody has a sort of model in their heads of the ideal human figure, and they compare the drawing in front of them to that and how much it deviates from it, I am sure it is the same in letterform perception.
What are your main influences, or are you an island?
My main influences. Well the first is an inner anger which is a response to all the unfairness that is in this world. I don't know if this is a strange or embarrassing thing for a designer or typographer to say because the older notions of being a graphic designer are about being an invisible communicator and I believe without having confidence in the way the world is moving forward you cannot be unquestioning and invisible. The second which is a direct opposite is trying to express some of the beauty of the world - not just of letterforms but of living and of people. My work has been criticised for being too 'depressing' but I am just trying to show the possible beauty of life through showing the immense contradiction of what we have and what is possible.
I am not sure what being an island means - if you mean am I an individual that exists on my own with my own philosophies - yes I have my philosophies but, I am not arrogant enough to think that what I do is unique, there are other people trying just as hard, also I am a product of my time of my culture of my family and this is something I have to acknowledge, what I do today will be a result of this - tomorrow I will think differently and hate what I did today but I still come from the same strong position which is conditioned by these factors.
What things really piss you off about typography?
The fact that 90% of graphic designers do not know the basics of setting good text or even how to set somebody's address properly. When people come to see me with their work I am not interested in how flashy their work is. I much prefer it if they have learned the craft of typography, that they have a brain that can deal with this as well as be creative. I am not sure why this is the case maybe because colleges are frightened that students will get bored, maybe because everybody wants to be a popstar designer they don't think these things are important - well they are. A plea to young designers - learn the basics, then your work will have the underlying authority to be subversive.
Also the little amount of money you make for the effort you put in - I am just so tired of people thinking that pirating my typefaces is a form of rebellion, it's not - I am not a big multinational corporation, I draw the fonts on my own and at present I can't do it full time because I don't make a living out of it. People copy my fonts because they want to steal it and not pay for its usage, nothing more and there is no justification for it. If people want to use them in a charity project or are at college then fine I will discuss it, but nobody else has an excuse.
It also surprised me how rough the commercial world is, although it shouldn't have because capitalism is a dominant, brutal, violent, repressive force. You get accused of the worst possible motives for doing something, you get people ripping your work off purely for them to make money and claiming that they are improving it. Others calling you the worst things possible because you have triggered some competitive hatred in them. Then again I hope this doesn't sound corny but you meet someone who has been touched by your work, who comes up and says, "when I was at college I saw a piece of your work and it made me do my own stuff" and then you think what you do is worthwhile. Connecting with other human beings is more worthwhile than anything. It is always a bonus because when you do the piece of work you don't directly think about this connection, that feeling people have about worthwhile design is difficult to articulate and seldom discussed. I remember when I was young and seeing a certain record cover - how it connected and enhanced the music and thinking of how much value the design of it had in my life, that there was someone who experienced some of the things that I did when listening to the music and it confirmed some positive part of your being inside. This is one of the reasons that I have rejected the idea of mass communication - of the modernist notion that you can break through cultural and aesthetic boundaries to talk to everybody - I think this is neither necessary or desirable and a little bit 'western civilisation' centric.
Another thing that annoys is the amount of bad craftsmanship in letterform design. Well this annoys me less because it has always been there and always will be, it's not a result of the Macintosh. I just wish people would bother to use their brain a bit more before they design type, I think many are too eager to 'finish' a typeface rather than seriously contribute to the field of typography.
Having said that I don't let anything really make me miserable about typography - you have to keep such things in perspective and although I get very annoyed when I am dealing with some people as I take less shit than many - I always think it is better to laugh - as Hermann Hesse said "eternity is just long enough for a joke".
Your work for BBC Radio Scotland and BNF, taking typography into time-based media, is pretty renowned throughout the industry. How different were your processes compared to your print work? Did you feel you'd lost any control by having to give some of the final work over to an operator to implement it?
Well I feel I ought to be honest and discuss first BNF as it troubles me greatly that I did this project and that people mention it without any comment, BNF for those who do not know is British Nuclear Fuels. At the time I thought it was funny to do jobs that were so obviously immoral in my own eyes, that something was so bad I should laugh like some kind of enfant terrible and do the opposite of what I believed. This was why I did typography for an advert which talks about the merits of nuclear power stations which are owned by a private company created by a right wing government who believed that state industries to be privatised (including our health service). Now I think it is incredibly unfunny that I did it as you have a responsibility to students and other designers to show that there are some things you are not prepared to do and I think it has not helped the idea of having any kind of moral stance on work that people do.
So to answer the original question about the film work. In the beginning yes I thought I had less control, but now absolutely not. It was the first time I had to let go of work and I found it a very liberating experience. I had to deal with the fact that because post production is so expensive, I had a day to do the animation instead of a couple of weeks which is normal on a piece of print type. I had to completely readjust my way of working, so I tried to be completely relaxed and treat it in the same way as when a band goes to record a song in studio, what comes out is as much about what happens on the day as anything else, so instead of endlessly refining as with a typeface, I prepare for it with a storyboard but allow things to deviate or go in a different direction if it works.
Also I only work with particular people, because I come from a working class family, I see how the people around me were treated like shit by the people who employed them so I feel bad about telling anybody what to do, so the people I work with are equals and they have the same amount of control over the image as me. This means I have to work with somebody who I can communicate with, somebody who understands type and somebody who surprises with their own initiative. Currently I have only found three operators in the world that can do this, two in London and one in New York. The others are not interested in type, are not on the same wavelength or are technicians and not creatives.
The difference in process other than control and time aspect is that TV seems to have no format - it exists without a real boundary - you can always move the camera to see something else, you have the added factor of time which further pushes this, type can move and disappear or appear. There is also no fixed point to judge the precise position of type, you are still dealing with the basic processes of communication though and this is what connects it. Moving image type is a relatively new thing still and I would like to explore the area much more. I don't think I have even begun to start with it.
When you're wandering down the street and see examples of your typeface design and typography in shops, billboards etc, how does it make you feel?
Well I have many emotions usually - often I am slightly bemused that they are used in the most obvious way, like mason for a fantasy game. Many people see only the superficial aspects not the historical reasons for a typeface. On the positive side often I am surprised how people use my fonts because they discover a feeling or atmosphere that I couldn't see. To be honest I also get a little feeling of pride that people have selected my font - it is important that you don't get too happy about this as it is the desire not to be accepted and to produce better work than what is around you or what you have just done motivates me a lot.
What is the meaning of life (other than 42)?
The meaning of life is not 42, it is 3. The question is "what does 1+1 equal" - the sum is always greater than the parts. Think of others around you in whatever you do, unconditional love and compassion should be the basis of all decisions. This may look a little embarrassing written down, but people so easily forget the basis of what they are doing, this is why I am not a fan of organised religion, the idea of fighting a war because you don't agree with some other persons representation of the same thing (love) is ludicrous.
I am not saying I live a really noble life, because I don't. I am just trying to say that the work I do is a response to the contradictions that we have to put up with everyday, the fight to get at something called beauty in our work and the commercial shit you have to deal with. The basis of getting on in a society which is love and all the complex ways in which it is twisted to make us believe people are doing things for the best of reasons. This is the reason for working for ages on a classical typeface because I believe in the beauty of letterforms and calling it 'manson'. This is the reason for naming a font company 'virus' and styling it like a religious cult. In the end if I have affected a few people to question whats around them a little bit then I have succeeded Also if people have around working with me have enjoyed the experience I can't really ask more than that... (cue letter from a previous unhappy employee who says what a monster I am!)