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Graphic Design

Unit Editions

Posted by Will Hudson,

When you get one of the most renowned design writers collaborating with a design studio with a pedigree for fantastic book design the results are more than exciting.

The key to the success of Unit Editions and their first publication Studio Culture is it’s informed, it’s put together by people who love design talking about design, they are passionate about the subject and the results are clear to see. Those aforementioned people are none other than Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook, we caught up with them to find out more.

Spin are widely renowned as one of the leading design studios in the country and Adrian Shaughnessy a highly respected design writer, how did Unit Editions come about?

Adrian Shaughnessy: I was aware of Spin’s work from my time at Intro. Both studios started up at roughly the same time and we were often grouped together in magazines and books. I always admired their work. I didn’t know Tony too well, but we were having a drink one day about a year ago, and I said I wanted to start a publishing company as books were the thing that got me most excited. I also felt that many of the mainstream publishers were doing design books badly. Tony said – why don’t we do it together? This made perfect sense. I always liked Spin’s take on book design, and they had also done some successful self-publishing – the Spin series of newspapers. So it seemed like a good marriage.

Tony Brook (Creative Director of Spin): At the same time as Adrian was hatching his plans I was at a reasonably advanced stage of development in the creation of a Spin publishing house. Our meeting was heaven sent for me, here was a fabulous designer turned author with great track record with Intro and a passion for his subject. Our working together was a no-brainer.

AS: There is a third partner in the business – Trish Finegan. Trish is the business manger of Spin and keeps Tony and me rooted in reality and stops us publishing 30 books a year. Plus there is the Spin design and production team who supply important input.

Once we’d decide to start the company everything went really quickly. We didn’t borrow any money or look for any investors, so we had to do everything ourselves. In the case of Studio Culture we edited it, wrote it and designed it in about 9 months – while doing our ‘day jobs’ at the same time. The only thing we didn’t do was print it. We used the excellent Granite Press for that. The book is selling really well – especially the edition we sell online.

TB: Because of the relative lack of financing we have to be smarter than your average publisher. The digital realm has been a fundamental to our approach with our website and Flickr presence allowing us to talk directly to people. The response has been phenomenal, we have had contact from people all over the world. It has been a humbling experience.

As a result of the book, what makes a successful design studio?

AS: Well – the one thing we learned from doing this book is that there isn’t one answer to that question. What struck me is that there are lots of different approaches and none of them are wrong if they work for the individuals concerned. But I’d say that you make a good studio by getting the balance right between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. When this balance is out of kilter, studios tend not to work too well. Experimental Jetset talk about this very eloquently in their interview in Studio Culture. They really get the balance right, I think.

But there are all sorts of studios: some have autocratic leaders and some are genuine collectives where everyone is equal. Autocratic can work as well as democratic – but individuals have to know where they stand from the outset. Sometimes designers join studios and discover too late that their boss is a control freak.

I like the way Paula Scher puts it. In her interview she explains how she makes no bones about the fact that if you join her team at Pentagram, she is the boss: ‘I’ve always told my team that working for me is like being in a band. My team is my band. When you play on my team you get to learn, you get exposure, and you can grow, but in the end, it’s my band. Ultimately, if you want to play your own tunes, you have to form your own band.’ I don’t have a problem with that. It wasn’t how I ran my studio when I had one, but at least everyone joining the Paula Scher team knows where they stand.

This was the great thing about the people we interviewed in Studio Culture – they really opened up and talked candidly about stuff that doesn’t usually get talked about.

If you had to create a hybrid studio of the best bits from everyone else’s, what would it look like?

AS: I find the thought of a hybrid studio scary. For me, the studios that work are the ones with a really clear vision about what they do and say. Personally I like the way Matt Pyke runs Universal Everything – as a sort of global network of floating talent. Sometimes it might be hard to convince clients that this was a good way to operate. But I believe that the days of the big cumbersome design group are over. In one of the best interviews in the book, Erik Spiekermann points out that in the big global design groups all the work only ever gets done by small teams of 5/6 people anyway.

TB: It would be a big, small studio with a staff of one, two, three, a hundred. That has spaces in the heart of the city, deep in a forest and in a shed at the bottom of the garden. That listens to loud, quiet, fast slow music for inspiration and that has a flexible/inflexible/no philosophy. That makes great work.

This is the first book published under the Unit Editions name, what can we expect in the future?

AS: We are not quite ready to announce our next title but it is a graphic design subject that – amazingly – hasn’t been covered in book form yet. There are another two or three titles that we are ‘in negotiation’ over. But whatever we do, our books will always be a mix of high design, top-notch text and visual content, and excellent production. Currently, many publishers seem to be going in the opposite direction and producing thinner and thinner books. This seems madness in the age of the internet – if you want people to buy books, the books will have to be rich experiences with intelligent content.

What was the last design book you bought that’s worthy of a recommendation?

AS: I liked the Corporate Diversity book. That is close to being a model for the sort of books we want to do under the Unit imprint. But of course they will have our own signature and style. I enjoyed Rick Poynor’s book on Jan van Toorn. And I’m currently reading a book by the designer/writer David Barringer called There’s Nothing Funny About Design.

TB: In and out of Amsterdam – Travels in Conceptual Art 1960 – 1976, published by MoMa and designed by Mevis and Van Deursen, not strictly a design book but it is a beauty physically, typographically and has great content. The Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2008 is also worth a punt, designed by Laurenz Brunner it is inventive, awkward and interesting.

Studio Culture published by Unit Editions is available to buy now, online and through selected retailers.
Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy would like to invite you to the launch of Unit Editions, 22 September 2009, 6—8pm. Haunch of Venison, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET.

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Posted by Will Hudson

Will founded It’s Nice That in 2007 and is now director of the company. Once one of the main contributors to the site he has stepped back from writing as the business has expanded. He is a regular guest on the Studio Audience podcast.

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