Winter 2009

Studio scrutiny

Studio Culture: The secret life of the graphic design studio

By Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brooks
Design: Spin. Designer: Ian Macfarlane
Unit Editions, £24.95 / $40

Web 2.0 has done strange things to graphic design. It has rapidly popularised the discipline but it has also radically altered the boundaries of who and what is a designer. Many believe that anyone with a cracked copy of CS4 can design, while others cringe at the very notion of graphic design in the hands of non-professionals. And as cliché-ridden, press-release dependent blogs continue to increase their market share, quality analysis is often lost amidst the hype-cycle.

But perhaps even more problematic than the designer is the design studio. A traditionally mysterious subject, the studio has been further complicated by this general trend towards the indefinite. How then, does one go about writing a book on such an obscure concept?

Unit Editions addresses this question (and many more) in their publishing debut, Studio Culture: The secret life of the graphic design studio. Disillusioned with the way conventional publishers were approaching graphic design, Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brooks founded Unit with the intention of publishing intelligent, detailed books made for and by graphic designers.

The end product of their first collaborative effort is an investigation into the pre-history and day-to-day dealings of 28 of the world’s most innovative graphic design studios. Structured around interviews with studio founders, the book is supplemented by a perceptive foreword by Ben Bos, an extensive essay and a substantial ‘Intelligence’ section.

The interviews provide revealing portraits of the unique circumstances that allowed each studio to come into existence. Everything from administration practicalities to more abstract topics such as the virtues of a clean kitchen are covered with a candid honesty that makes you feel as if you are eavesdropping onto an intimate conversation between colleagues.

There’s also something innately readable about the book, as if it were designed with sticky notes and highlighters in mind. It feels as if it should be stuffed in your back pocket, but also works as an attractive design object. This delicate balance between presentation, utility and content gives the impression that Studio Culture could only have been produced by the likes of Shaughnessy and Brooks. And yet, somehow they miss the mark in terms of crafting a truly definitive guide to their subject. It’s as if the absence of a publisher’s scrutiny resulted in a lack of objectivity. Unit Edition’s bias towards London is to be expected, but becomes a bit peculiar when Shaughnessy and Brooks interview themselves, apparently by email. The imagery also leaves much to the imagination. Floorplans of each studio and photographs larger than thumbnails could have improved the book’s practical value.

Aside from these small blips, Studio Culture is an impressive work of design journalism and print innovation. And as more and more recent graduates leave design school only to face unemployment in an over-saturated market, the ability to run an independent business will be integral to survival. Beyond being a good read and an example of how print can thrive in the post-ffffound.com era, Unit Editions has produced an informative guide that will prove indispensable for any start-up studio project.

First published in Eye no. 74 vol. 19 2009


EYE74

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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