Mismanaging expectations

“Embrace failure, disappointment, imprecision, unfinishedness ... allow the new, take permission, risk breaking the cycle of boredom and entertainment.” That’s the new manifesto, if you could call it that, of “anti-design”. It comes from Neville Brody, a designer (though he now prefers to refer to himself as a “visual thinker”) who emerged in punk-era London, embracing its racial, political anti-aesthetic and then went on to define the hugely influential graphic style of The Face and Arena magazines.

I visited Brody in his Islington studio to get to the bottom of exactly why a designer might be promoting the idea of “anti-design”. “It felt like the right thing to do,” he answers implacably. “My generation believed culture was at the heart of society and existed for its benefit, a cutting edge which would help society reveal something about itself; it wasn’t just something used in order to sell.”

Brody blames the decline of design into a branch of marketing on the political legacy of Thatcher and Reagan. “That’s when the idea emerged that if something didn’t make money it wouldn’t get produced. What you end up with is a showroom, all the edges smoothed off everything and you get a high street colonised by generic brands.” I suggest that while a degree of anarchy is possible, even helpful, in graphics, perhaps in fashion or performance, it’s more problematic in product or furniture. “The point is to embrace failure, disappointment,” he comes back, “to provoke debate. It’s quite political – with the new government’s cuts we’ll find out what institutions survive at all – but also quite personal. The idea is to remove design from commerciality.”

Brody adds: “I think we’ve touched on a raw nerve”. There’s something undeniably attractive about the proposition. Events sound like an anarchic return to the free-form festivals and happenings of the 1960s, all unpredictable outcomes and loose definitions – but with intriguing names including fashion designer Mark Eley, former football hooligan Mark McGowan, young artist Stuart Semple and, of course, Brody himself it sounds exactly as unpredictable as it ought to.

It can be easy to forget that the idea of design emerges from the industrial revolution, from standardisation and manufacture. It is a capitalist mechanism yet its most successful tropes often come from outside the manufacturing base, motifs and approaches co-opted and subsumed from a range of aesthetic and cultural worlds.

Punk is the perfect example, its music and its graphics emerging from the suburban bedroom in a way that the contemporary media marketing scrum has made to seem impossibly quaint. But perhaps social media and the ability to produce and disseminate without the industry middlemen and PR machines presents the possibility of an alternative future. What Brody is doing is setting up what he refers to as a “laboratory”. But where does it go from here? If it is not about success, but openness to failure, what are the possible futures of an “anti-design” festival?

“We feel we’re here to mismanage peoples’ expectations,” Brody says with a wry smile. “Our legacy will be to build our disappointment quota for next year.” It sounds promising.

Running at various venues along and around Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, London, the Anti-Design Festival will incorporate everything from sound, film, art, design, image, performance and writing to product, 3D, interiors, transmedia and interactive. www.antidesignfestival.com

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