Designing His Own Celebrity:
Typographer Neville Brody
International Herald Tribune

Cynthia Rose

LONDON - Blame Britain's cult of personality on the Beatles. By toppling class barriers, London's Swinging Sixties altered the country's notion of celebrity - linking it forever to the template of pop stardom. Today, Britain still supplies more than just models, modern dancers, and entrepreneurs. She produces Naomi Campbell, Michael Clark, Malcolm McClaren; figures who publicise their talents as if they were rock stars.

Neville Brody, 36, is a celebrity in this tradition. But he was certainly Britain's first pop-star typographer. Brody is known around the world, with offices in Germany (at Meta Design) and in Japan (at Digitalogue). In London, his home base is a striking, glass-walled tower. To find the busy designer here, one must ring, enter and wait - then run the gauntlet of his secretary and minions. The boss, when he finally appears, is clad in black with small gold glasses. His manner may seem abstract, but it masks a well of concentration.

Neville Brody made famous a job which, under normal circumstances, would remain obscure. He has a flair for self-promotion and an almost infallible sense of which vehicles suit his purpose. "If you have an idea," he likes to say, "you make it happen." After leaving the London College of Printing in 1979, only a year elapsed before he managed to start his own company. Neville Brody Studios began life in a one rented room.

Using clients such as The Face, then a struggling lifestyle magazine, and record companies with names like "Fetish" and "Crammed", Brody swiftly built himself a hipster's reputation. He designed for the music industry, but also for fashion emporia; he did covers for rock biographies, yet also re-vamped New Socialist. Central to a prolific output was his view of British culture: "Britain's main exports have always been fashion, style and image."

During 1988, three things cemented Brody's status as a graphic guru. His work was hailed in a lavish book, The Graphic Language of Neville Brody. The book was then launched with an exhibition by London's Victoria & Albert Museum - one of the institution's largest-ever bows to youth culture. Plus, Neville Brody Studios bought its first computer.

With his book climbing best-seller lists worldwide, Brody and his team got obsessed by computer games. One entitled Crystal Quest, he says, cured him of "technophobia". (Although Brody had by then designed four magazines - New Socialist, The Face, Arena and City Limits - he was still drawing every typeface by hand.) "I approached the Apple Mac," he laughs, "with an attack mentality! I thought computers were just too digital, too mechanical."

Crystal Quest changed Brody's mind. Now, the Mac is his constant companion - and the recipient of many elaborate metaphors. "People think of computers as if they were replicate brains. But the Mac is more like a saxophone. You don't learn to use it, you begin to play it. You learn a whole technology so that you can improvise."

After his exhibition, work poured into Brody's studio. He moved several times before settling his staff into the current premises. Yet now he is often absent, working in Paris, Miami or Tokyo. In every city, Brody is photographed, interviewed, videotaped: part of what he likes to call "the dialogue of design". He wants, he says, to really widen the options of his profession."Graphics, type - they're always an invisible means of manipulation. I try to leave all my work open-ended. So it can be the audience who inputs evaluation."

Brody has enlarged that "audience" via some adventurous schemes. In 1990, he opened Fontworks, an electronic boutique that merchandises designer typefaces. Out of Fontworks came Fuse, a package-on-disc of specialist fonts, with five artists' posters included in every "issue". Only three days ago, Brody finished a personal project: The Graphic Language of Neville Brody 2, his second book.

This collection will be published as a bound volume. But Neville Brody 2 was originated digitally, and it will also be designed and sold as a CD-Rom. This is the latest format to engage Brody's imagination. "All the current CD-Roms," he says, with undisguised excitement, "are only starting-points created by technicians. There's no real content in them, let alone design. Interactive products call for a whole new language."

Such a call is just the thing to get the Brody juices flowing. As he hunches over the edge of a very cluttered desk (paper still remains a problem in this Mac-centred environment), Brody's futuristic fervour seems almost contagious. We discuss his work for the Austrian National Broadcasting Service; stamps he designed for the Dutch national post office, even the athletic shoes he publicised throughout Japan. All Brody's evaluations vibrate with optimism. He sees high technology as a means of global bonding.

"People think that digital design is a fixed language," he says. "But it's not; it's very fluid. It's like I'm doing a painting where the paint refuses to dry. I hand it on to the someone else, who pushes that paint around. And the process is continuous - it will never stop." This is a signal, he says, of imminent revolution. "And it's going to be bigger than what happened with Gutenberg. Levels of communication are ready to explode."

Will that explosion project Brody's fame further? One design critic who says it may is Lewis Blackwell, editor of the British-based trade journal Creative Review. Says Blackwell, "Neville is indeed like a pop star; he was elevated very high very quickly. He could never be just an ordinary designer again. His work will always be compared to what's expected of 'Brody'. But: it's a challenge he's more than willing to meet."

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