08 November 2006
Jacques Lange interviews Jonathan Barnbrook
Jacques Lange interviews Jonathan Barnbrook

Jacques Lange, the president of Design South Africa, recently interviewed Jonathan Barnbrook, the UK based designer, typographer and film maker, who provided some interesting comments on some of the themes that will be addressed at the Continental Shift 2001 Icograda Congress, to be hosted in South Africa, from 11 to 14 September, 2001. Barnbrook will be one of the 56 prominent international speakers who will participate in this, the first-ever, global convergence of designers on the African continent. Their conversation dealt with regional and global issues relating to the relevance of design, designing and designers.

Jacques: Why did you decide to accept the invitation from the South African organisers to be a speaker at the Continental Shift 2001 Icograda Congress?

Jonathan: I feel that I have a relevant voice to share on the topics of design, designing and being a designer. There are too many people pushing the corporate point of view of design, too many people who talk about market, and many of the supposed experimental designers spend most of the time saying you can do anything , which I do not think is true either. Design has the possibility to change society and directly affect people emotionally, and I hope to remind people of the facts, which in my opinion, they seem to forget.

Jacques: The Continental Shift 2001 Icograda Congress will address certain themes that have not been dealt with before at a major international design forum. Why is it important for designers, researchers and theorists to investigate the work of designers from emerging economies and the third world, and why is it relevant to the international professional design community?

Jonathan: I think graphic design of the past hundred years has been very western-centric. The ideal of internationalism in the 50s, 60s and 70s was based on the western idea of what is international - even something as simple as pictogram for toilet doors are based on western ideas of western dress. It is time to treat others cultures of equal value and understand that the modernist ideal of design for everyone is flawed - society is fragmented and design should reflect that. Also, I think, when designers design something they often have little notion of how these things are manufactured. It seems to have been the case that over the past 10 -15 years that most manufacturing has moved to emerging economies, which means that the workers making nice designed objects are often underpaid, with few worker rights, while [first world] designers and [commissioning] company bosses sit in their nice little offices . There should be some acknowledgement of that and the imbalance and problems it causes in emerging economies.

Jacques: What do you expect to result from the Continental Shift 2001 Icograda Congress?

Jonathan: It is always difficult to quantify the result of a conference. For some people it will be a nice time only, for others I hope that this conference will provide them with new energy and enthusiasm for the untapped possibilities of design and designing. Personally when I go to a conference, although I enjoy listening to the speakers, the most interesting conversation I have are in between the lectures when people come up and talk about there passions to me. I get direct contact and feel the passion of other designers. I also hope that I will make people question their own parameters for designing.

Jacques: What is the relevance for the international community for hosting the first-ever Icograda Congress on the African continent?

Jonathan: I hope the location will make many of the designers from outside South Africa feel that they have a responsibility to consider the social and economic impact of design. This also includes the question of ethics It is not so long ago that apartheid existed in South Africa, and I wonder how many designers from around the world worked actively for companies that broke the trade embargo or would consider the ethics of such activities. This may not be directly part of the conference but it is one of the bigger questions that people should face.

Jacques: What are your opinions on globalisation and the preservation of unique vernacular design identities?

Jonathan: I think globalisation is one of the biggest threats in the world today - on all levels, from the way to workers are treated to the threat to public services, to the amount of power that multinationals have to influence governments. As for its effect on vernacular identities we cannot contain its influence. Cultural identity is a constantly evolving thing not a museum piece to be revered. Culture will continue to change and react as it has done all through history. Globalisation will create a backlash in culture as well as an assimilative response. External influences will be adapted to be uniquely part of the culture they are affecting.

Jacques: Is it relevant for designers from the first world to engage with peers from emerging economies and the third world? What in your opinion, can the world's designers learn from their peers in the developing world?

Jonathan: Of course it is relevant. To be a good designer you have to be a well-rounded human being and understand your profession s standing in the world so, it is vital to meet designers form other countries and differently structured economies. It is impossible to say what they can learn because it is always difficult to say directly how anybody learns anything. But, I am hoping for a better understanding of the relevance of design in different culture and the possibility it has had to educate and help the new Republic of South Africa. There is also a lot we can learn form countries that are not as industrialised as our own. What I mean is that I would not exactly say that the west has got it right on issues such pollution and the resources that it uses. We need to look beyond consumerism and globalisation and focus on society.

Jacques: What in your opinion, are the most important challenges that face the international graphic design community in 2001?

Jonathan: To take responsibility for their part in the politics of the market economy. It is not something that can be conveniently ignored. We are as responsible as everyone else, and in doing so, try to salvage the once utopian vision of design which has been in the pockets of the money men for the past 50 years. Designers need to try and be human beings first, before being short-term businessmen .

Jacques: Do you consider graphic design to be a true profession?

Jonathan: I see it as a profession in the same way as I see being a musician as a profession. It is not just a job but is about your energy and enthusiasm for the area and its effect on people s lives. In fact, I would like people to see it less as a profession, as it sounds like it is an industry in which our first priority is to make money.

Jacques: Jonathan, a final question. Can graphic design really make a valid contribution to socio-economical development and a better quality of life for the citizens of the developing and first world?

Jonathan: It is impossible not to! It is at a critical point in between the manufacturer and consumer. This is why it has such great potential in terms of the betterment for society - every designer has this responsibility - they just have to realise this. Everything has the potential to be used for good and bad purposes. Hopefully designers and their employers will use it for the benefit of mankind. There appears to be a movement of new humanism in the world. We can see it on the opposition to globalisation and the active role some citizens take in it. Designers, if they want to be truly relevant, should recognise it and work with these people.

About the Sappi World Design Convergence
Sappi World Design Convergence (SWDC 2001), sponsored by Sappi, the world's leading producer of coated woodfree fine paper, will take place at the Sandton Convention Centre, in Johannesburg, South Africa from 11 to 14 September 2001. SWDC2001 is a global design festival that include the parallel congresses and general assemblies of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda) and the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IFI). It will form part of the activities of National Design Week, a national initiative declared by the South African government to highlight the importance design across all disciplines and its impact on all communities in the country. Both congresses will address the theme of Continental Shift , a thematic combination of paradigm shifts and continental drifts and reflects the impact of emerging economies on the global graphic design profession. SWDC 2001 will utilise an African perspective on global design to examine current issues facing the international graphic design community. Participants will explore the contribution of design to the development of cultural and economic regeneration and rebirths, the impact of new technologies and the implications of the global practice of design. Focus will be placed on current theory, research and the work of designers who are spear-heading the future of the profession. Woza! Come. Engage.

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