When Graphic Designers Become Publishers: A Conversation with FUEL

Posted inDesign Books

Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell comprise the brain trust that is FUEL. As a design house, they have worked for Virgin Records, Diesel, Penguin, and even created the title typography for Lost In Translation. As publishers, they craft bold and informative illustrated books that, on every level, are a pleasure to read. Best known for publishing three volumes of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, FUEL has recently released two new titles: Drawings from the Gulag and Dressing for Pleasure.

Is it possible to build a solid reputation as a publisher with a list of titles that range in topics from sexual fetishes to illustrated fiction and garden design? FUEL has done just that. Damon Murray was kind enough to take time out from organizing the gallery opening of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive (which Steven Heller mentioned here) to answer questions about FUEL and its approach to publishing books.

FUEL started in 1991 as a design firm. When you began did you have any inkling of eventually starting a publishing arm of the business?

We were producing print and film works while we were at the Royal College of Art. After setting up the studio directly from college, we continued to do this, producing a number of issues of our magazine and also two books—Pure Fuel (1996), and Fuel 3000 (2000), as well as commercial print work for clients. We’ve always been interested in all aspects of bookmaking, from the commissioning of writers to the aesthetics of the materials used. These interests were reflected early on in our magazines, but at that point we didn’t conceive that (as graphic designers), we might be able to control the complete process.

What inspired you to begin publishing, at first magazines, and then books?

As far as the magazines were concerned, they felt like the perfect medium for us to express ourselves. We were able to put them together ourselves, so there was no one we had to answer to. We could use our skills to express and explore ideas that were not necessarily being addressed by graphic designers. We worked together at college (our final MA show at the RCA was the first to be jointly assessed) and so we had an important breathing space in which we could push at the edges of what we were doing to define ourselves and our approach.

We began to design more books for other publishers and people began to approach us with suggestions, as well as us having our own ideas for books. We made the first Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia as a joint publication between us and the German publisher Steidl. With this book, we’d found the material, got it translated, commissioned an introduction and a foreword, as well as edited and designed the complete project. Steidl then printed the book, which quickly became a cult success. It then seemed obvious to us that our next step should be to become “publishers” – the print part of the equation was something we knew all about as graphic designers, and up to that point, it was the missing element. This hesitation was mainly because of money—printing books is very costly—but the knowledge that our work could be so successful gave us the confidence to invest. The whole process was really a natural progression. The turning point was the realization that we possessed all the skills to be publishers.

I suspect that you choose titles based on your interests, but I am curious about how you think they all relate to one another. In the ideas and aesthetics that interest you, what is the thread that binds together Match Day, the Chapman books and Dressing for Pleasure?

The thread is us. We’ve never worked in a traditional publishing system, so we don’t have any preconceived ideas about what we should and shouldn’t do. Our list is extremely varied but we always approach our books in the same way, trying to find a language that will tell the story of the subject. We always attempt to take the elements of the subject and the physicality of the book and combine them in such a way that they become more than the sum of their parts. This approach is consistent. Although there is no one defining FUEL signature, all the books follow this aesthetic, which seems to give them a complete form when they are viewed together.

As designers accustomed to working for clients, do you feel that the publishing arm of FUEL provides an escape from commercial work? Do you get caught up in sales force feedback, sales numbers, etc?

When you are the designer and the client, it can be a schizophrenic experience. The work we do for ourselves is often actually harder than the work we produce for clients. All our books tend to become labors of love—this is what we like in the books we read, and so we always try to give our own books our maximum attention. In contrast, commercial work can be more clear-cut – sometimes it’s simpler when a client says they love or hate a design. It can also be more straightforward just to be given the parameters of the material to work with, rather than having to research exhaustively the last word on a subject yourself.

Much of our design work is also based around books, so being publishers allows us to try out new approaches that perhaps commercial clients might not be comfortable with. Any successful techniques we have applied in our own books can afterward be confidently used on commercial projects. Another factor in commercial and personal work, as far as design is concerned, is that most clients who commission us have a good knowledge of our work and want a “FUEL” book, something that has our signature. This means that the gap between design for clients and our own books is actually minimal. The subject matter might be the only difference. If someone approached us to design a book like Drawings from the Gulag, for example, I think we’d come up with the same design.

Inevitably, we get caught up in sales numbers etc. Any information about how our publications are selling is of interest, but I don’t think it would actually influence the books we produce too much. They all stem from a personal interest in the subject matter.

Today, is the design work still what pays the majority of the bills?

No. All our books have to make money. The publishing side of the business functions in the same way the design side does. Because each book requires a substantial investment of time, energy and of course finance, each one has to work in its own right. Of course, some of them work better than others, and when you publish such a diverse list, this is to be expected. But overall each one pays for itself.

Will FUEL ever get into the e-book/app game with any of its titles? Something like Bibliodyssey could easily lend itself to this since it started as a blog, but I’m curious if you would convert something like the Marriage of Reason and Squalor to an electronic format, or develop a new title idea only as an e-book.

We do have a couple of ideas bubbling for e-book/apps. At the moment, these are still being formulated. For us, these formats feel like they haven’t yet reached a satisfactory point where designers can work using a robust language. At the moment, work produced on these formats seems to date quickly. The nice thing about physical books is that the material gives every designer and publisher an equal starting point: they are all paper in the end—if you have the right content designed well, then you can create something that is timeless.