Winter 2005

How to be a graphic designer without losing your shirt

How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul

By Adrian Shaughnessy
Laurence King Publishing, £17.95

This book sets out to ‘help you become an effective and self-reliant graphic designer’. Adrian Shaughnessy co-founded the consultancy Intro and was its creative director for fifteen years.

The book’s title could merit its own review. Shaughnessy ‘toyed with the idea of using “shirt” instead of “soul”‘, but ‘shirt’ would suggest a guide on how to work with minimum stress and interference; ‘soul’ implies an ethical emphasis. Those seeking the latter will be disappointed: ‘political questions are a matter for individual consciences. If, for instance, you are asked to design the packaging for a canned drink which contains dubious chemicals, you have a moral decision to make . . . This book doesn’t tell you what to do in this situation: only you can make the decision.’ On attempts to draw up ethical codes for designers, he writes: ‘Unfortunately they tend to be undermined by shifts in public and business morality.’ Case closed.

Instead he describes the available employment options, discusses internships and apprenticeships without being patronising, lists the pros and cons of free pitching, defends the sometimes frowned-upon idea of working in-house, and extols portfolio presentation as a discipline in its own right. Anecdotes contextualise the arguments and demystify studio life for those who haven’t experienced it. When explaining how to approach a potential employer by mail, he stops just short of reminding you to affix a stamp. This is not to mock such hand-holding: uncertain graduates may well be glad of it. However, it doesn’t square with his shying away from more complex business matters – ‘There are better people to tell you about these subjects’. Perhaps, but we’re here for his opinion, not pointers to impenetrable finance tomes. How does he decide what to charge? Does he prefer to assign or license the rights in a design?

There follows much talk of ‘cultural awareness’ and fame, one of the three criteria for ‘good work’ being: ‘Is the project newsworthy?’ The tone is optimistic, but the world portrayed is a slightly nightmarish cartel of press exposure, peer approval and awards, with little room for the idea that work outside this cycle might be valid.

Ten brief interviews (actually ‘questionnaires’ – no interviewee is pressed on an earlier answer) with established or ascendant stars are included. The responses are honest and sometimes insightful, but case studies of their unsuccessful projects might have been more pertinent. Only Neville Brody mentions ethics, saying of Microsoft: ‘By working for them, I’m saying the war is over. I want to try and get them to humanise their process.’ Like the rest, this reply is left unprobed.

Aside from its fudging of such issues, the main problem with this book is repetition. ‘Loose sheets, covered in replaceable acetate, are preferable to sheets clipped together in a ring binder (attaching them and detaching them can be distracting).’ Four chapters later: ‘consider loose sheets rather than bound ones . . . they avoid the torturous process of clipping and unclipping sheets.’ Two paragraphs on the importance of studio philosophy on page 81 are vaguely reworded overleaf – presumably a mistake, but there’s so much duplication throughout that it’s difficult to tell. Even interviews ‘elsewhere in this book’ are needlessly requoted. The result is a sense of going round in circles. More subheads, more strictly observed, would have meant that specific advice could be consulted quickly when needed. The selection of illustrations is also bizarre: a Peter Saville design is described but not shown, while the covers of two quoted books appear for no good reason. Captions usually comprise a horizontal ‘Designed by . . . ’ below the image and a vertical ‘Courtesy of . . . ’ alongside it. No title, no date, no information about who the client was or what, exactly, we are looking at. With unfortunate irony, the words ‘you need to show your work in context . . . not just a succession of arresting images’ fall directly above an arresting image ‘Designed by’ and ‘Courtesy of’ Build – context absent.

For new designers, or those wanting to change their working arrangement, there are valuable words from an experienced professional here, but they must be hunted for. A survival manual for graphic designers – to keep both shirt and soul – is indeed sorely needed, but this isn’t quite it.