Lecture in Progress inspires and informs the next generation of creatives with advice, insight and first-hand accounts that demystify the day-to-day workings of the industry. Creative Lives is a series of in-depth interviews with people making the industry thrive: from producers and project managers to filmmakers and illustrators.
Craig Oldham can pinpoint the exact moment when his career took a sharp turn for the better. Following a deflating exchange with his nan, he realised that laying out other people’s ideas simply wasn’t going to cut it. Now operating out of his own Manchester-based studio, his practice has expanded beyond the realm of traditional graphic design to encompass teaching, curating and writing. In an environment that actively encourages learning, experimentation and “messing about”, the studio balances client work with self-initiated projects, including Craig’s much acclaimed book In Loving Memory of Work, documenting the UK Miners’ strike. We caught up with Craig to discuss his multidisciplinary approach and the influences that have shaped his path so far.
How would you describe what you do?
I head up the studio [The Office Of Craig Oldham] as a director. It’s my studio, so I’m creative director and founder, if you want to be official. Essentially we’re a full-service creative studio. We have a really rich and varied diet of work, and that’s why I wanted to set up on my own. I had this really good grounding in classic, traditional forms of graphic design from working with The Partners, The Chase, Music – problem solving where the idea rolled out as branding, print and digital, but I wanted to explore other things.
I don’t see design as pushing type, image and content around on the medium. I see it as an intellectual discipline, and I think that can be applied to anything. If you get the solution right, the outcome could be a chair, writing a play, a poster or a brand. That’s what we try and do as a studio, to mix our practice, and push our skills into other places – which has led us into campaigning, publishing our own work, writing and lecturing, filmmaking, and we’ve curated and designed exhibitions.
How does your work come about?
It’s not an exact science, it’s a real mysterious dark art, getting work in. You can try all sorts of stuff; word of mouth, new-business pushes, you could send something to someone, or network. I guess I try to do all of those things and follow things up. When we work with someone they generally recommend us to someone else. We get a lot of work from referrals.
I think the thing that stands us apart from other studios is our self-initiated work. I published a book [In Loving Memory of Work] on the miner’s strike a few years ago, and through press, and people seeing and buying it, the studio has had so much interest, and so much work off the back of it. I work with people that really want to work with me, and I really want to work with them. If we get on, we can challenge, push and understand each other. It doesn’t come from chasing a brand – that doesn’t generate good work, good relationships do.
“I had this really good grounding in classic, traditional forms of graphic design, but I wanted to explore other things.”
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Craig Oldham: In Loving Memory of Work
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your work?
I love working with really interesting people, there’s a real joy in that. But to be honest, more than my design career, I feel honoured to be able to teach; to sit in front of people who are so passionate about what they do, so ambitious, challenging and enthusiastic is incredibly rewarding. My mum used to work for the NHS, she was a sister on an intensive-care ward. I can’t compete with that, I’m really proud of her. The closest I get to feeling like that is by helping people through teaching them, by sharing what I’ve learnt and my experiences.
The worst thing is that it can be hard when people kick the shit out of your ideas. It’s part of the job and it’s hard work, but it’s really rewarding if you love it. I feel fortunate that I still do.
What has been the most exciting project of the past twelve months?
Probably the books. We did a second edition of the miners’ strike book, which has been life changing for me. It was so personal – my dad, my mum, my extended family were all involved and helped make it. I don’t think I’m ever going to eclipse that. When you can pour a bit of yourself into the work you do, it’s incredible.
I also really enjoyed working with Naresh Ramchandani at Pentagram and his charity Do the Green Thing over the last six months, plus we just did a couple of posters and illustrations for his charity about going vegetarian at festivals and the impacts of meat on the climate. Again that was just from knowing Naresh, and getting on with him. I’m really proud of it.
What skills that are essential to your work?
I think, above anything else, a designer has to have empathy. It’s about experiencing something. Bob Gill always says if you’re doing something for a launderette, go and actually sit in the launderette. You have to understand your client, what they do, what their audience is, does, or needs. You’re only going to get that by actually experiencing it. I think that above everything else is paramount.
“As an industry, we’re always banging the drum of knowing what we’re doing, but being creative is about experimenting. It’s falling off your bike and getting up again.”
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Craig Oldham with Jemma Lewis: Poster for Leeds Print Festival
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
At like 12, 13 years old I had a teacher called Chris Green, and for his first lesson he told us about typography, including the really anal details. From there he used film posters, and games packaging (stuff we were into) and told us they had been made by a graphic designer. That was the hook for me, I just put my energy into it – I feel lucky that I knew at an early age. I always say graphic design is a really easy way into the creative industry. You might end up doing filmmaking, or fashion, because all these skills are transferrable. Graphic design can be your entry point into anything.
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
It wasn’t necessarily a project, it was a reaction to a project, and I remember it so vividly because I can identify the point when my thinking changed. I’d made a book on football poetry while I was at The Chase. I remember showing it to my nan, and she was like “Oh, you wrote this?” I was like “No”. She said, “Oh have you done these illustrations then?” “No.” “What did you do?” I began to explain, but before I even started she interrupted, “Do you want a cup of tea, love?” That was it, the conversation was over, and I remember thinking, I can’t let this happen again. That was the key point where I thought, I’m focusing far too much on the inward design, when I should be thinking about communicating other people’s ideas; equally opening up the opportunity to have my own. That was the light switch moment. It wasn’t a gradual change, it was literally on or off.
Have there been particular challenges or mistakes you learnt from?
I make mistakes on an hourly basis, but I encourage that. As an industry, we’re always banging the drum of knowing what we’re doing, but being creative is about experimenting and doing stuff to see what happens. It’s falling off your bike and getting up again. How boring would the world be if you knew the outcome of every single thing you were going to try?
“My mum used to work as a sister on an intensive-care ward. I can’t compete with that. The closest I get to that is teaching, sharing what I’ve learnt and my experiences.”
What would you like to do next?
I want to try different things and different mediums. At the moment I’m interested in breaking down that wall. I genuinely believe that pure creativity comes from anyone and everyone, especially when a lot of people get together because they’re really pissed off about something. That is proper creativity that can actually make a difference. I think my head is going more towards looking at the work of others, and showing graphic designers the rich rewards that can come from that, how that can influence their work and thinking.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Have a belief in what you do, the confidence to back that up, and the work ethic to get things out there. I think bravery is so much rarer than talent. Anyone could give a talk or make a book, but they just have to believe in it enough to get off their ass and do it. It’s just about finding what you want to do and going for it.
See the full feature on Lecture in Progress, including information on Craig’s background, his career history, his advice and more.
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