All History is Contemporary History

March 9, 2015

Every book that comes out of Unit Editions, the London-based publishing company founded in 2008 by Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook, is a beautifully designed artifact. Every aspect is meticulously researched and considered, from the subject and design, to the production and feel, or what Adrian calls “the heft of a book.” Focusing on graphic design and visual culture, they have published acclaimed monographs on Wim Crouwel, FHK Henrion, Ken Garland, and Herb Lubalin. This year is the turn their attention to Spin, Lance Wyman, Morag Myerscough, and Universal Everything. Iker Gil talks to Adrian Shaughnessy about his start as a designer, starting Unit Editions with Tony Brook, their methodology, and establishing legacies.


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Ken Garland: Structure and Substance, 2012. © Unit Editions.

IG: Tell us a little bit about your education and becoming a graphic designer.

AS: I am an “uneducated” (in the formal sense) graphic designer. I didn’t go to design school. I messed up my entire education—expelled from school, bad attitude to authority, youthful arrogance… the usual stuff. I found myself drifting aimlessly with a headful of silly dreams and a vague notion that I might work in the music industry. I eventually got a job as a trainee graphic designer in one of the big, but long-gone, UK record labels. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was a lifesaver. I had actually found the one thing I could do—graphic design. I discovered that I had an intrinsic understanding of the basics of letterforms, layout, and the way text, image, and color could be shaped to convey meaning and interest. I also quickly discovered that despite my instinctive attraction to the craft, I had oceans of stuff to learn. But the discovery of design gave my life purpose and meaning. Something it lacked at that point.

IG: During your education, who were the designers that influenced you? Were there any figures outside graphic design that you looked up to?

AS: The designers I worked with were my educators and heroes. They were far from being creative geniuses. In fact, they were mostly journeymen designers, but with a thorough grounding in the technical aspects of design, something I desperately needed to learn. It wasn’t part of their job descriptions to teach me, but most of them were kind enough to give me guidance and advice. I didn’t want to pester them, so I had to learn super fast. The figures I looked up to outside of graphic design were the ones that I still look up to—maverick writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Then as now, I’m only attracted to iconoclastic and highly individualistic artists.

IG: Besides being a graphic designer, you are also a publisher, writer, lecturer, radio host, and professor at Royal College of Art (RCA). How do each role complement the others?

AS: Each role causes me to use a slightly different part of my mental make up. All of them give me cause for anxiety—a feeling I have to experience, otherwise I quickly become bored. I can only derive satisfaction from doing things that I need to improve at. I get no satisfaction from doing the things I know how to do. I also cherish the diversity that comes from my different roles. I am energized by the way each role forces me to use different parts of my brain and experience.

IG: In 2008 you formed Unit Editions with fellow designer Tony Brook, creative director of Spin. Since then, Unit Editions has published several truly fantastic books delving into the archives of key figures in design and focusing on overlooked aspects of design history. What was the drive to start the publishing house?

AS: Both of us love books to an unhealthy degree, and our interest extends to all aspect of “bookness”: the design, the manufacture, the content, even the way a book sits in the hand—what I call the heft of a book. Prior to starting Unit, Tony had experimented with self-publishing with Spin, and I had worked with mainstream publishers—a very useful learning experience, but ultimately a frustrating one due to the highly commercialized approach of most publishers. And so when we met to discuss our mutual interest, it quickly became clear that we both wanted to have our own imprint. Unit Editions grew out of that conversation.

IG: Did you have any reference when you and Tony started Unit Editions?

AS: There were many publishing houses we both admired. In design publishing, we both had a soft spot for Lars Muller. We admired those imprints that seemed to be uncompromising: Nigli, ABC Verlag, and Hyphen Press. Some of my personal influences were record labels: ECM, Rune Grammofon, Factory, and older imprints like ESP and Impulse. Our business model was heavily influenced by the new thinking around alternative commence, alternative distribution systems, and the new internet economy that has emerged in the last decade or so.

IG: Unit Editions is a great example of the potential of combining print and online. Your books are superb in content and production, and you pay attention to every detail, including packaging and shipping. At the same time, you use your website to provide complimentary content to your books and to distribute almost exclusively all of your books. Has that created a sustainable publishing model? Are there any aspects that you are considering adding to the model?

AS: Our website gives us a digital shop window. It allows us to display and sell physical books without the tortuous dealings that always accompany working with distributors. So yes, we see ourselves as a print and digital hybrid with a physical product.

Is Unit Editions a sustainable publishing model? Yes, but we have some way to go before it is totally self-sustaining. We have three full-time members of staff, and we have access to the high-level talent within Spin. We are debt free and remain 100% independent. We have some plans to look beyond graphic design into the wider field of visual culture, and we have already experimented with a book app. In the case of the app we found the uptake was poor, but it also led us to the realization that art and design subject matter is best dealt with in traditional book form. Continuous text such as novels works in e-book formats, but this is not the case with art and design subjects. I subscribe to the Umberto Eco view that: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

IG: The first book of Unit Editions was Studio Culture. Tell us about the experience of looking into the inner workings of the twenty-eight graphic design studios selected and what you learnt from producing that book.

AS: One of the basic tenets of Unit Editions is to only publish books on subjects not already covered by other publishers. When we started Unit we looked around for a topic that had not been dealt with before. It seemed odd to us that there had not been a book on graphic design studios—what they are, how you run them, how you grow them, and their role in a shape-shifting discipline. And of course today it is not unusual for graduates to set up studios straight after graduation, without serving an apprenticeship in an established studio where they can learn how it is done. Until Studio Culture there was no book on the subject. We printed 10,000 copies and the book has long since sold out.

The studios we featured were selected to show a range of experiences. We interviewed Marion Bantjes who works alone on an island off the Canadian coast and to Paula Scher, a partner in Pentagram. We interviewed studio heads in Japan, Australia, and Europe—not to mention Rick Valicenti in Chicago and James Goggin, now in Chicago but then based in London.

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Studio Culture cover and spreads, 2009. © Unit Editions.

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Studio Culture cover and spreads, 2009. © Unit Editions.

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Studio Culture cover and spreads, 2009. © Unit Editions.

IG: Since that first book, you have published several comprehensive monographs on the work of leading practices: Wim Crouwel, FHK Henrion, Ken Garland, Herb Lubalin. In a way, your role has been both being a graphic designer and a researcher. Is that an accurate description of your role?

AS: I’m very keen on the idea of the designer as researcher. I run a course at the RCA called Research Design Publish (RDP). This starts from the premise that all designers are instinctive researchers. It’s just that this particular aspect of being a designer is undervalued by designers themselves (they do it instinctively), and by academia, who privilege written research over practice-based research. My course is designed to allow students to value their research skills to a greater degree. So, within Unit Editions I consider myself a “designer researcher.” I want to be able to look at any subject (currently mostly neglected figures from graphic design’s past), and find a way of presenting them in a new and contemporary light. This involves looking at them as a practitioner myself and not as a detached observer.

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Spreads of several Unit Editions books. © Unit Editions.

IG: Can you share the process that you go through when producing a book? From the research process to the production and release of the book.

AS: We have a long list of books we’d like to publish. Some will appear in the next 12-18 months, others will take longer. And some will never make it into print for a variety of reasons. For a book to appear, it has to meet some strict criteria. Firstly, Tony and I have to agree on it. Secondly, it has to be a subject that is not already in existence. Or if it does exist, we have to find a way of doing it that is new and fresh. If it’s a historical subject, there also has to be an affordable source of visual material—this usually means an archive. Our three big monographs to date—Ken Garland, FHK Henrion, and Herb Lubalin—were all made possible by the existence of good archives of their work. If a designer’s work is spread all over the world, it is unlikely that we will have the resources to pull it together into a book.

Once we have located the material, we begin negotiating rights. This can take a long time, but so far we have been lucky (although I suspect that design publishing will be affected in the way art publishing has been affected by rights holders ramping up the charges for permission to reproduce works of art).

Then the writing, design, editing, and production process begins. In order to show work in its original form—books, posters, printed matter of all kinds—we photograph most of our pictorial content. This involves many hours of studio photography and many hours of retouching. In addition, Tony and I circle round our subject—debating, arguing, prodding, interrogating, fine-tuning the concept, and sweating over the book’s title and other details. I will be researching, reading, interviewing, and poking around in libraries. Tony will be looking at layouts, cover ideas, production materials. At the same time we will be thinking about format, price, and how we position the book. In the case of the historical books, one consideration overrides all others: can we identify the contemporary relevance of our subject? If we can’t, we move onto another subject. Emphasizing contemporary relevance is vital for us.

After the groundwork has been done, we start to put together the book. Design is finessed. Texts are edited and proofread. We have an experienced editor who does most of the editorial heavy lifting work of indexing, proofreading, cross-referencing, etc. Only then is the book put into production.

Finally, we have to start thinking about how we present a new title to our audience. Thanks to the internet and social media, we are able to talk directly to them. They tell us what they think. What they like. What subjects they’d like to see in print. In fact, we are in a feedback loop with our audience, something that is much harder to achieve with conventional media.

IG: After completing each book, does your understanding of the legacy of each designer change?

AS: Yes, but only in the sense that as you dig into any subject, as you bring critical thinking to a subject, your understanding and perception changes. The best example of this was our book on Herb Lubalin. Tony was a paid-up member of the Lubalin fan club. It was different for me. Lubalin was the designer of note when I started out. Older designers told me to study him and try to emulate his superb typographic skills. As a result of this force-feeding, I’d built up a slight resistance to him. But I knew he was a master of his art, and I knew there was a need for a book on him. So I was committed to publishing a Lubalin monograph, I just didn’t want to write it. But—as I started the preliminary research, I realized quickly that he was a far more interesting figure than I had realized, and I ended up becoming a Lubalin zealot.

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Ken Garland in his studio, 2012. © Unit Editions.

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Ken Garland book signing, 2014. © Unit Editions.

IG: Your next books focus on the work of Spin, Lance Wyman, Morag Myerscough, and Universal Everything. How do you decide who will be the focus of your monographs? What makes each one of them special?

AS: All of these people—Spin, Lance, Morag, and Mat Pyke (Universal Everything founder) are alive and kicking, so we are working with them closely to progress their books. SPIN is an attempt to see if we can crack the “contemporary monograph” question. By this I mean, why would anyone want to buy a book on a contemporary studio when they can see all the work on the studio’s website, or on the thousands of blogs that feature current work? Well, we’re working on something called the 360-degree interrogation. Can we present a fully rounded portrait of the SPIN studio? In the case of the others, they are all people we admire and who we feel have enough work to merit a book. In the case of Lance Wyman, we are talking about more than fifty years of astounding work.

IG: You recently co-curated the exhibition “GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years” at the RCA. Did you approach exhibiting this archival material differently than if you were sharing this legacy in a book format?

AS: This was a project with a different focus. I was part of a quartet of RCA tutors who staged a major retrospective of graphic design at the RCA. We ran it as a teaching exercise. We had a group of students and recent graduates working as part of the team. Our objectives were twofold. One, to put on a good show that the public, the design community, and alumni, would enjoy; and two, give our student collaborators an exercise in all the manifold complexities of exhibition design and curation.

IG: Does the medium selected to share these legacies (books, exhibitions, panel discussions) depend on the content, the target audience, and resources? Is there one that you think is more successful?

AS: In the case of the RCA exhibition, all three dovetailed beautifully and allowed different responses to surface. The exhibition allowed an audience to contemplate a substantial body of influential work; the book allowed a deeper interrogation of the subject by providing alumni and past teaching staff with a platform to discuss, critique, and illuminate fifty years of graphic design pedagogy. And finally, the panel discussion allowed the audience to have a say.

IG: What are the lessons that we can learn from looking into these legacies and how can they influence future practices?

AS: I’m very taken with the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. He said, “All history is contemporary history.” And this is really my view on the books we publish on figures from design history. This is a new position for me because I’ve always resisted history and dismissed interest in it as a sign that an individual is no longer interested in the present. In fact, it is a way of seeing the present—and the future—with greater clarity. FHK Henrion is a brilliant example of someone who provides a blueprint for modern design practice. He was a design polymath. Most of us can never hope to emulate him, but we can learn from him.

IG: Do legacies have any expiration date?

AS: Legacies die and get reborn. Sometimes they stay dead, sometimes they leap Lazarus-like from the grave, and we are forced to reappraise their value. I hope we’ve helped to do this—in a small way—with Henrion and Lubalin.

IG: In fifty years, a fantastic publisher wants to share your legacy. How would you want that book to be and what would you want it to transmit?

AS: As things stand, it is going to be a slim volume! But I go back to something I said at the beginning of this interview. I only value the things I can’t do. So, in my view, I haven’t yet done anything that would justify a publisher sharing my legacy. There’s still time, though.

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FHK Henrion: The Complete Designer packing, 2013. © Unit Editions.

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Books ready to be shipped, 2014. © Unit Editions.