Book List of the Week

Not Directly About Design: Jonathan Barnbrook’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter April 24, 2012

Jonathan Barnbrook

Graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook: Barnbrook (London)

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Whether it’s through his work with musician David Bowie, artist Damien Hirst, author-philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky, or with controversial publications like Adbusters and the “First Things First 2000” design manifesto—Jonathan Barnbrook is unmistakably about activism. In fact, “activism” is one of the areas included in the description of his multifaceted design consultancy, along with graphic design, industrial design, motion graphics, and typeface design. All of these interests and passions come together in his 2007 book, Barnbook Bible (on Rick Poynor’s list of “Books Every Graphic Designer Should Read”).

Barnbrook Bible, 2007 (Rizzoli International Publications and Booth-Clibborn Editions)

Activism and books (novels, specifically) go hand in hand for Barnbrook. To create good design that can change people’s attitudes, “you need to understand human beings,” Barnbrook writes in his introduction to his list for Designers & Books. “For me, the novel is the best way to understand how people experience, affect, and are influenced by the world around them.” “I don’t read directly about design,” he says.

Barnbrook’s comments about the novels on his list cut right to how he was affected by them. About J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition he states, “This novel made my head explode”; and of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “I couldn’t breathe for the first few pages—it was like someone had experienced my life and emotions already.” George Orwell in 1984 has been “so influential on my work, from the way he analyzes dictatorships to terms like ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Doublethink.’ I am constantly going back to him for ideas.“ And Barnbrook describes Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as “the start of my trying to look at politics in a way that was poetic, emotional, and human rather than dogmatic.”

Pages from Barnbrook Bible illustrating Barnbrook’s design process for I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, 1997, 2002 by Damien Hirst (The Monacelli Press)

Andy Warhol (in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, also on the book lists of Jonathan Adler and Carin Goldberg) stops Barnbrook in his tracks with “a philosophy that had a point of view that was completely contrary to everything else I was reading at the time.”

Barnbrook also includes plays and poetry on his book list, and articulates why they engage him. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot surfaces “the internal monologue that is on repeat inside my soul and that questions why I am here, what I am doing, and whether there is any point to doing it.” From The Bhagavad Gita Barnbrook says he comes to understand that “we have to risk everything if we are to learn or evolve spiritually.”

In all of these books he notes, he “looks to the philosophies and experiences found in literature to influence my work.”

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