Typography I – Typographer of Week 6: Jonathan Barnbrook


Raised in the UK, Jonathan Barnbrook is a famous contemporary British graphic designer, typographer and filmmaker. He is best known for designing David Bowie’s album Heathen in 2002. He has also collaborated with Damien Hirst and Adbusters. He is also seen as one of the early innovators in the world of motion graphics, and his contribution to graphic design was recognised by a major exhibition at the Design Museum, London in 2007. Currently, he runs his own studio Barnbrook Design which he founded in 1990. We can often find him exchanging the measured world of type design for the more spontaneous activity of VJing (broad designation for real-time visual performance).



The infamous and ubiquitous Mason and Exocet fonts were designed by him and were first released through Californian innovators Emigre. In 1997 he established his own font company VirusFonts and that is where he releases other typefaces. The typeface Mason later became one of the first digital acquisitions of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Mason typeface. Images (including the one below this) obtained from https://www.myfonts.com/person/Jonathan_Barnbrook/

Exocet typeface. Image (including the one below this) obtained from https://www.myfonts.com/fonts/emigre/exocet-ot/


He’s known mainly for designing the packaging for David Bowie’s albums from Heathen (2002) to Blackstar (2016).

Heathen (2002)

Back in 2002, he produced an album cover for David Bowie’s Heathen. Here he incorporated his “Priori” typeface. That was his first time using the font for commercial purposes. Bowie then requested Barnbrook to design cover art for other albums such as Blackstar (2016) and Reality.

Blackstar (2016)

Image (including the one below) obtained by https://www.itsnicethat.com/features/review-of-the-year-2016-graphic-design-jonathan-barnbrook-151216

Look at those lines above. Oh my goodness. Symmetrical and carefully put together. And then down to the middle, he slowly created curvy ends, making it look like there’s a hole beneath.


Barnbrook Bible, 2007

17th Biennale of Sydney Catalogue, 2010

The design above was inspired in part by the work of Harry Everett-Smith and his Anthology of American Folk Music. It also takes heavy influence from antique educational books and encyclopaedias. It is a catalogue design for the 17th Biennale of Sydney: Beauty of Distance, Songs of survival in a Precarious Age. The publication features 17 individually designed essays, an extensive plates section and a series of typographic interludes.

Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, 2016

The usage of bold and bright complementary colours, orange and blue, really makes the cool weird eyes stand out in the book. I think it matches up with the ‘daydreaming’ part and overall a lively design. I noticed the typefaces used here are all different yet SO suitable. They look just right together.


Friendly Fire at Ginza Graphic Gallery

Image (including the one below) obtained by http://www.barnbrook.net/work/ggg-friendly-fire/

I personally like the one above. This poster was designed to announce the Barnbrook retrospective exhibition at Ginza Graphic Gallery, Tokyo, Japan in 2005. The poster features a detail of Barnbrook’s self-generated works, which is a Tibetan mandala made up of corporate logos.



I really don’t know where to begin. After learning about Barnbrook, now I’m wishing I work for him, or at least be a student of his because I admire so much of his works. I want to compare his works to another of my favourite typographer, Paula Scher, as I feel that they are quite similar in terms of the colours they choose to use, which are most of the time so very colourful. Both are also similar as they differ – you can tell both of their works apart very easily as they are both unique with the way they put their words out to create the visual aesthetic of a document.

I find it interesting how Barnbrooks managed to create unique typefaces that embody personalities and moods, but at the same time, refrain from making it look too tacky. Like for the Mason typeface, you could tell it’s representing the medieval period. This can be seen in the sharp ascender on the uppercase of ‘M’ that reminds me of the boldness in a knight’s armour back then. Also, the curved-in bowl (?) in ‘A’ makes it look like a knight’s shield (in the medieval period) turned upside down.

Here’s how I pictured it for the letter ‘A’:

– original medieval knight shield– turned upside down. LOOKS LIKE THE ‘A’ RIGHT? Looks like it to me.

OR it could even be the knight’s helmet:

Alright alright, I’m done with the examples but you get what I mean.

The typeface is unique and different from today’s modern-looking ones but the readability is still there and remains visually-pleasing to the eye.

As for the designs, oh I’m completely in love with them. Minimal but yet it gives me the fun vibes – like I might actually enjoy reading the books because of how the design is like at the front. And even inside (like the ones in 17th Biennale of Sydney Catalogue, 2010).

Kudos to Barnbrook. I’ve found yet another favourite typographer of mine.

Typography I – ‘The Elements of Typographic Style, The Grand Design’ reading

Here I will review some points that I find interesting from the ‘The Elements of Typographic Style, The Grand Design’ reading by Robert Bringhurst. I’ll start off with his saying, “Typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn.”

Saying “many a book….a warrior or dancer of either sex, may look well with some paint on its face, or indeed with a bone in its nose” is to make a metaphorical relation to how some documents such as magazines or children’s books, do need a creative typography presented on their front cover to make them look wholesome and enticing. Whereas for some others like telephone directory or classified ads, it only needs a simple typeface that’s readable and classic, perhaps a sans serif throughout and presented in a good layout, to direct viewers easily into reading important information. Similarly to formal things like newspapers, that simply needs a transitional typeface like Baskerville as Baskerville is a font that means business, making it a great fit for more formal media.

It’s interesting how he says “Typography is to literature as musical performance is to the composition”. Like music, it can be used to manipulate behaviour and emotions. I agree that sometimes typography feels like a musical performance when I see posters that are very well done and I could feel the letters dancing in swirls, or give a certain vibe. If it draws my attention as a reader, makes me feel something and even pleased with the typography or the whole book that has good typography, I’d say it has succeeded in achieving an exceptional typographic style.

However, whatever it is, after reading this I highly believe then that an essential principle to typography is to give full typographic attention, especially to incidental details. Like the saying goes by Massimo Vignelli “it’s not entirely about the letters, it’s more about the white spaces between the letters that matter”. Little things like negative spaces, the kerning and such, plays a huge part. Because if not, how does one read? Where is the balance in the words or even the page itself? These incidental details, play a crucial part to make typography work, even when trying to make a visual aesthetic out of it.

Typography I – ‘The Crystal Goblet’ reading

In the reading The Crystal Goblet, Beatrice Warde tries to convey the message that typography is not merely just a type.  It has a deeper purpose and more technical than we think. She uses metaphors of “solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns” versus “crystal-clear glass” as the virtues of the perfect wine-glass, and parallel that to typography.

She does this to infer the purpose of type and the effects on communication between humans. To her, the crucial thing about type or printing is to “convey thoughts, ideas, and images from one mind to other minds.”  With a ‘transparent’ type, typography will then help to highlight the thoughts and ideas contained in the written word. 

Beatrice also commends that typography will not qualify as an art “until the present English language no longer conveys ideas to future generations, and until printing itself hands its usefulness to some yet unimagined successor”. Meaning to say that to her, as long as it still serves an active form of communication and language, it proves that typography cannot be an art. A fine art artist reflects feelings and emotions, whereas a typographer and designer tend to think more than they feel.

However, I only agree to a certain extent. I say yes to the fact that the primary purpose of typography is the communication between human to human and to what’s written. That a responsible typographer is like a crystal goblet that is transparent enough to hold the wine (the author’s mind) allowing the connoisseur (the reader) to see directly and clearly on the wine. Which is why typography could be said as more technical — to make the message clear to the reader as they read along the lines of the text.

But then, what if the typographer wants to portray an underlying message behind his typography? Then shouldn’t that have a considerable amount of art included to express it? What if the purpose is to attract different kinds of audiences? Yes, a typographer does think, but he/she must also feel their work. I guess this is subjective. For some, we feel the way we want our work to be like, we feel through the different types of typefaces and fonts, and how to document them to make a certain piece look the way we want it to. I believe a text would have no visual characteristic without typography. Hence, I largely disagree with Beatrice’s idea of typography being simply ‘transparent’.