Neville Brody: Design Can Do Anything—Even End Poverty

Take more risks, says the British designer
Photograph by Ysa Perez for Bloomberg Businessweek

Neville Brody, 56, the head of Brody Associates, is a British graphic designer, typographer, and brand strategist whose clients have included the BBC, Issey Miyake, and Converse. He’s dean of the School of Communication at the Royal College of Art in London.

You seem worried about where things are going.
Today we stand at a critical brink in human history, that of peak wealth, and all of our observations about design pale in significance against the issue of social inequality. The extraordinary and increasing level of massive inequality is unsustainable and self-defeating. A point is being reached that signals enough, where the capability for the increasingly poor and disabled to siphon funds to the increasingly rich can no longer be sustained, like subprime mortgages.

And you’d like designers to respond to this?
In early 2002 I presented a lecture at the Design Indaba conference in South Africa, then newly free and celebrating liberation from eons-old social oppression and apartheid, extreme enforced inequality. The theme was “Can Design Feed People?” The question wasn’t literal but was intended to pose the bigger question—what role can design and designers play today? Because we do not work in a vacuum. Design is not an innocent bystander. It is deeply integral to the mechanisms of the social construct. So the shorthand answer is: We need to take more risks. As risks are no longer taken, minority interests become extinct and individual tastes are ignored. Just as governments limit the scope for intellectual and political debate, we don’t notice that the walls are moving inward and we no longer notice how shallow the cultural water. Vacuous Top 10 lists fill our in-box and news feeds, cats, dinners, and prayers the rest. For mass communication, mediocrity is the goal, homogeny and vanilla the outcome.

You’ve been similarly critical of branding.
Branding means exactly that, a burning logo of ownership stamped forever on our psyche. It makes you feel a part of the herd, the global farm where difference means estrangement. The simplification of the world into easy-to-remember brands [comes] at the price of diversity, diminishes local identity and pride. We need to create a dialog. One where the message itself may be altered, the grid rearranged.

Isn’t that the promise of the Internet?
We can use our communication skill sets to help others become aware, but media itself is not creative, it is reproductive. We use our devices to know what’s around every corner. We no longer allow ourselves the risk of allowing something to just happen, to risk the unknown, to experience something unpredictable. We must embrace chaos and trust to chance.

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