13 November 2006
Rachael Doherty
For the past fifteen years, celebrated typographer and political commentator Jonathan Barnbrook has challenged the way we view design and the role it plays within our world. Now with release of Bourgeois a 32-strong family of fonts and back from the politically unchartered Korea, Jonathan plans to bring it home to London in an exhibition at the Design Museum. Rachael Doherty reports.

For Jonathan Barnbrook, London based typographer and political designer, letterforms are a passion, and central to anything that comes out of his small studio - Barnbrook Design - incorporating the foundry Virus Fonts.

Embraced by the design community (almost to the point of celebrity), Barnbrook Design was touted as "one of the most innovative design groups on the UK design scene" with its outspoken views on politics and globalisation, collaboration with artists, and its tight stable of fonts.

Since then, Jonathan, and his small studio of four, has managed to break taboos about North Korea in a ground breaking exhibition called Tomorrow's Truth, and release their largest family of fonts so far - Bourgeois - a collection of 32 variants.

It's a truth that Barnbrook Design plans to bring to the Design Museum London in an exhibition scheduled for June 2007 and (fingers crossed) to Australia too.

A {font}: family is born
Bourgeois, drawn in its first form for the mori art museum in Tokyo, is an ambitious release by any standards, especially for such a small studio. So why the 32 weights? Simple really the studio needed it.

"We needed a sans-serif with lots of weights to be used for lots of different jobs."

Separating it from many of Barnbrook's other fonts - which Jonathan says were designed 'purely as experiments', he sees Bourgeois as quite usable, but quips, 'we did add some alternative styles, which can be mixed with the straighter characters'.

The name 'Bourgeois', as with any of Jonathan's fonts, was carefully considered. "Often there is a strong visual link to the name or the origin of the font, but in this case less, it's more about typography generally."

Bourgeois, a term for an old type size measuring somewhere between eight and nine points, was selected both because of its historical connection to the letterpress and as a response to the class system.

"I thought it was a very poetic name."

Not afraid to confront the viewer, Jonathan will often choose a name that challenges - "it's a weapon to use against the expectations of the font... so (in the case of Bourgeois) there is a bit of anger in it, and a bit of beauty in it."

Carving a voice
"Letterforms are strange things," says Jonathan. "Their origins are pictorial, but now they are seen as abstract shapes."

Explaining the presence of crosses, targets and details of architecture throughout his own fonts (especially in some of his more flamboyant faces like Tourette, Expletive or Prozac), Jonathan says, "I try to put 'my universe' in my letterforms. The shapes hint at the representational world that I perceive and what influences me."

It is these influences that ultimately impact the voice of the font.

"The voice is very important. People often ask why I continue to design fonts, and it is exactly because of that to create a new tone of voice."

"When I hand the typeface over to somebody to use, it's actually quite refreshing. People will see or use a tone of voice I hadn t expected, so I am rarely annoyed mainly intrigued. I also love the fact that people want to use them."

Politics, power and the two Koreas
As a political commentator, the plight of the North Korean people had always held a deep interest for Jonathan.

"North Korea is such a strange place. I have always been fascinated by it. It seems left over from a time before it would be comical if it wasn't about the lives of real people."

This fascination was fuelled when Jonathan befriended Korean journalist and curator Ran Young Kim, who encouraged him to produce a series of works surrounding the North Korean situation.

"I met her in Seoul at the Icograda conference in 2000. She arranged for my first North Korean series of works to be published in a Korean magazine."

The series of eight images, entitled North Korea: Building a Brand, examined memory, power and propaganda - issues that Jonathan once again revisited as part of a later exhibition, Tomorrow's Truth.

Tomorrow's Truth
Touring South Korea and Japan in 2004, Tomorrow's Truth was inspired by the saying: "today's heresies are tomorrow's truth". It featured more than 50 design pieces with over 20 created especially for the exhibition and also included themes of globalisation and international government and corporate war profiteering.

Through the preparation of the Tomorrow s Truth exhibition, Jonathan discussed the works with his Korean contemporary, who assisted him with much of the leg work.

He credits Kim with finding an appropriate venue, translating the work and captions into Korean, organising interviews, and assisting with the hanging of the artwork.

"It really was a case of her supporting my work, because she believed in it."

When it finally went to show in Seoul, the exhibition created an enormous amount of controversy for two reasons.

"Until recently, North Korean imagery was banned. There was also a feeling that because I was an foreigner, and didn't live with it (the division) everyday, I shouldn't be able to comment."

Which is ironic, considering that if Jonathan was Korean, it may never have been shown. "It's not really allowed by law there."

To build acceptance, an effort was made to explain to the public that as an outsider, Jonathan offered an alternative point of view.

"I hope I've added to the opening up of the debate about North Korea in South Korea. I also hope I made people smile too."

Despite the persuasive nature of advertising and design, Jonathan says that his political design pieces play a relatively small role in instigating change.

"A person will not see a political piece of work and then change their point of view," he says. "The work I do adds up to the political ideological landscape of society."

Citing equal voting rights and racial equality, Jonathan believes that it's protest that brings on change, and to this end, he assists protesters by providing copyright-free pieces on his website.

"If enough people protest then society will change. You just have to look through history to see that."

Now and the future
While continuing to help others raising their voice, Jonathan admits that in his next series of political works, he ll be softening his own.

"I want to try and comment on these problems in a more reflective way: not 'shout' quite so much about things, and be a little more reflective; more humanitarian."

It's an approach that stems from his love of the 'poetry' of language, which fuelled his initial interest in typography.

"I want to put that kind of search for beauty in the messages I am sending out."

He is also busy working on his book: "barnbrook bible" - scheduled to be released to coincide with an exhibition in June 2007 at the Design Museum in London - and is further exploring new experiences for the viewer.

"I am actually creating a lot of music, trying to do the whole package, animation and music together for a total experience."


About this article
Reprinted with permission from
DG magazine