Interview with Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook

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By: Charlotte West | September 24, 2009

Although traditionally centered around 100% Design, the current rendition of the London Design Festival has offered up a spate of attractions and events for designers of all stripes. Among the highlights was the official launch of Studio Culture: The Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio (below), an inside look at 28 graphic design studios around the world. It’s the first title to come out under the Unit Editions imprint.

Unit Editions is an unconventional new publishing house started in 2008 by Tony Brook, co-founder of Spin Design, and Adrian Shaughnessy, designer, writer and principal of ShaughnessyWorks. The pair set up the venture in response to frustration with the traditional design press, where they say decisions are often dictated by sales representatives who don’t understand either the subject matter or the target audience.

Its nimble approach combines insider knowledge of the graphic design industry with an openness to sharing information and engaging its audience through social media. The look of Studio Culture itself – a lightweight, hand-sized volume with an itty bitty title on the spine – also breaks all the rules of traditional book design, opting instead for a much more graphically driven cover. Whereas many graphic design tomes never leave the coffee table or the reference library, Studio Culture encourages you to stick it in your bag and take it along.

The book already has the London design community buzzing, with commentary appearing on the front page of The Incidental, a community-generated newsletter and website tracking the buzz during London Design Festival. Brook and Shaughnessy say that copies of the book, available for purchase through the Unit Editions website, are already flying off the digital shelves.

They are currently inviting designers to send a picture of their studio or workplace. No matter where you are on the planet, Shaughnessy and Brook want to see where you work – and they want everyone else to see, too. Email your image to, include your studio’s name and where it’s located, and they’ll post it on the Unit Editions website. As they put it, “Let’s turn the secret life of the studio intoan open secret.”

Apropos of a chat about the secret life of design studios, I caught up with them at the Spin headquarters in South London.

Charlotte West: What is the background for Unit Editions?Adrian Shaughnessy: Tony has actually done some self-publishing, but I’ve always worked with established publishers. I’ve gotten frustrated with conventional publishers in that they are locked into the publishing system where you have to have everything nine months out, etc.

Tony Brook: There is no sense of flexibility in how they release their titles either. We’ve talked about the physical aspect of books and that the different subjects that can be covered are limited by the process.

AS: I thought, this is madness. Why don’t we do it ourselves? Because we know our audience, why not take control and have a palace revolution?

How are you positioning Unit Editions in relation to other publishing houses?

TB: We’re not coming from the same place as conventional publishers.

AS: Our philosophy is to publish books by designers for designers. This also comes back to one of the fundamentals of what we’re about. Why on earth would you produce a design book in the age of the Internet? But I think that our feeling is that there is still a strong appetite for designers to own books made out of organic materials. But the books have to have rich content. We wanted to make something that has both a life on the Internet, but also has a reason for being a physical book.

TB: If you’re going to chop trees down, you’ve got to have a good reason to do it. Books have to earn the right to be.

So how are you using the Internet to promote Studio Culture?AS: Our website is a blog; therefore, it is a conversation. We are arrogant enough to think that is something we can do because we know who we are talking to. We are using the blog to really engage our readers, by giving them free content, for example, you immediately get a reaction. Some things we’ve posted, people just go mental for. We share stuff online on the basis that some of these things will turn into books. Later on, we’ll be posting parts or all of the book online. We hope our payoff will be that people will buy our books.

TB: One of the most rewarding parts of this whole thing is how warm and enthusiastic the online design community has been.

Why did you choose to go into the world of the graphic design studio for your first title?TB: The reason for doing the book (on the studio) is because it was a secret, undiscovered world. The studio is an entity, a private creative space that hasn’t had any light shone on it. Nobody ever ‘fessed up to anything. We wondered when we started if our interviewees would actually open up. We were asking quite sensitive questions, about salaries, bonuses, etc, and people answered. It has been quite a revelation for us. If any of the conventional publishers had asked the questions we ask, they would have been told to politely go away.

How did you select the 28 studios?AS: We wanted a good geographic mix, and also all sizes. Large studios, small studios and people who work on their own.

TB: Adrian made the criteria, that it could be any design group that had a heartbeat. We were never going to ask the conglomerate giants.

What was the juiciest gossip to come out during the interviews?TB: Neville Brody (Research Studios) needed to be reigned in a bit.

AS: The only person who had really theorized the studio is Erik Spiekermann. Most people make it up as they go along. But his approach is academic. Experimental Jetset (Holland) were strikingly honest. They said a wonderful thing about interns. They said that they would never take an intern because they would never want to ask someone to do something that they wouldn’t do themselves. Their interview is full of really revealing and frank stuff like that.

With the way the publishing climate is right now, why did you decide to launch a new publishing venture now?AS: My theory is that if you produce something with quality content, a high design quotient, and at a reasonable price, then designers will buy it. Quality always sells. We also seem to have hit the zeitgeist with Studio Culture. The people we interviewed were very honest and many of them talk about how they got through tough times. This is really useful to anyone who is currently struggling.

TB: I don’t think we would have such a huge respon
se if we had done it two years ago … When we set up Spin we worked from home and kept our overhead as low as possible. This is no different. We are keeping the overhead as low as possible.

So what’s next?

AS: We are very close to announcing our next book, sometime in the next two or three weeks. We’ve found a subject that hasn’t been covered in book form yet, but it’s very sexy…We’ve been so excited by the number of Studio Culture books we’ve sold on the Internet, we are also looking very hard at smaller books, less expensive, maybe selling to a dedicated design audience purely online – and maybe in a few select shops. We’re hungry to do more, and are planning two to three books next year.