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Graphic design needs friction, says Jury President Neville Brody

The Brody Associates founder says the landscape of design is rapidly changing, and believes there are opportunities to shift away from efficiency towards creativity

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

“There’s a real question as to the role of graphic design right now,” says Neville Brody, former D&AD President, and D&AD Awards 2023’s Graphic Design Jury President, who counts Sony, Samsung and Shiseido amongst his current clients. “The majority of successful work tends to be focused more on graphic engineering than a purely expressive approach, due to the need to ease distribution and delivery. For instance, while we used to have static theatre posters, these have now transitioned to a largely online experience, which represents an exciting new challenge in creative invention. Some expressive non-digital spaces remain, like book covers, some vinyl and some branding, but right now the majority tend to need to be more homogenous and content-led. What we’re looking for are projects that work well with the new demands, yet stand out from all of that.”

Over the course of his 40+ years in the design business, Brody has witnessed exponential change. His early career focused heavily on record covers and print magazines including the original iteration of The Face Magazine, and Arena, which were rich territory for graphic designers at the time. He says he remembers waiting weeks to buy an album on vinyl, and then spending hours poring over the sleeve notes and artwork. “That’s an experience that’s harder to discover these days,” he adds. “It tends to be faster and more disposable. I believe designers can add more depth that embraces the user at different levels.”

“What we’re looking for are projects that work well with the new demands, yet stand out from all of that”

In contrast, he says, modern brands often want design that encourages people to stay on a journey, rather than stop and consider. The priority around creating well-performing websites that deliver clicks and purchases can be challenged by creative designers who buck the trend.

“In that sense, graphic design can often be misleadingly seen as something that could get in the way of the process,” he says. “The idea of graphic designers having a role of greater creativity and questioning within this journey is something we need to embrace and rethink. 90% of clients today see themselves more as platforms and systems to carry content. As a studio, we have shifted the centre of gravity. We develop strategy, we create a system and we build components — which might be a typeface, for example, or icons, or photographic art direction. Then we do an expressive piece which shows how it all comes together, and that’s quite a major shift to what we were doing even 10 years ago.”

Brody believes designers need to rediscover their ability to create friction, and integrate this into the building of smooth digital journeys. This would also help design reclaim its cultural impact. But when Brody talks about friction, what does that mean exactly? “Friction means it’s something that makes you stop and think,” he explains. “It’s not just content-driven, it’s about how you present the content. Graphic design, the presentation itself, was part of the content in the message. The risk is that it’s becoming invisible, the Helvetica-isation of luxury fashion. 


“The risk is that it’s becoming invisible, the Helvetica-isation of luxury fashion”

“Efficiency needs to be equally cultural,” he adds. “Within a process which is constantly speeding up, we sometimes miss the emotional, intellectual depth and stimulus that is vital for quality of life. These days, it has to be instant, and this is taken as avoiding anything that risks getting in the way of the journey. This is where our opportunity now sits to invent and create new experiences and expression.”

If brands and designers were brave enough to embrace a bit of friction, says Brody, they might deliver vital journey experiences while avoiding the trap of homogenisation — which can often leave businesses from totally unrelated sectors appearing indistinguishable from one another. “Brands can bring it back,” he says. “At the moment they often focus on scaling up the mobile experience, but far more can be done with complexity at each stage of scale when used in the right place. The kind of work I’m looking for embraces the complexity of human existence in some form, while delivering professionally. We need places where we embrace friction, surprise people, and ask questions.”

Written by Emma Tucker

D&AD Awards 2023 is now open for entries. Download the entry kit and submit your work here. Read more insights from jurors into their corners of the creative industries here.

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