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Adrian Shaughnessy

Publishing in the Age of the Internet

Unit: Design/Research 01

It is routine to hear tutors and studio heads bemoaning the amount of time students and designers spend gorging on the numberless websites and blogs devoted to the visual archaeology of graphic design. If you dig deep enough online, you can pretty much guarantee you'll find every significant piece of graphic design ever made. If it's not on Flickr, ffffound, Grain Edit, or one of a thousand other sites, it will be soon. 

This super-abundance of visual material floating untethered in the frictionless wastes of the internet has had two profound side effects. The first is on the sales of graphic design books. I recently interviewed Marc Valli, the astute co-founder of Magma Books, the mini-chain of UK bookstores known intimately to all British designers. He told me that there is a sardonic mantra regularly exchanged by book buyers: “5 is the new 50.” Where once a buyer would take fifty copies of a title, they now take a paltry five. “Do not believe anyone who tells you that people are buying the same amount of books,” says Valli. “They're kidding themselves — or they're lying.”

The second effect of all this promiscuous gazing is that it encourages the view that design and visual communication exists without context. When we gulp down the gorgeous images online, and devour the websites of hip designers, we are encouraged to take the view that design exist in an airless vacuum where its only responsibility is to itself and to the aesthetics of the period in which it was created.

Most people deal with this comfortably enough, and are inspired to discover the factors that determine the way a message or visual artefact is shaped. But others develop a lopsided view of design. They are seduced by the notion that great design “just happens”, which affects their own approach to design. It’s a phenomenon that Saul Bass commented on as far back as 1983. In an interview republished in Essays on Design: 1 AGI’s Designers of Influence he said: “One of the difficulties that students and young designers have to deal with is a perceptual one. They look at the exceptional work that’s being done. What they see is the end product. They are not privy to process. They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer.”

It is into this brave new world of super-abundance and declining book sales that — in partnership with the designer Tony Brook — I have launched a publishing company. Unit Editions is dedicated to producing books on design and visual culture. Alongside two or three “proper” books each year, we also aim to publish a series of low-cost, fast-turnaround, tabloid-format “research papers” covering the neglected and hidden corners of graphic design. These papers – 64 pages printed on good quality newsprint – will contain essays, interviews, critical writing, and carefully curated visuals assembled with appropriate commentaries.

Inevitably these papers will contain material that can be found online, but as one designer said to me: “Sure, you can see everything online — but you can’t always find it again.” By making our papers collectable, we hope to offer a more enduring format than the internet.

To date, we have published two papers. The first is devoted to the woefully neglected American “folk modernist” Ronald Clyne. Clyne designed over 500 album covers for the venerable Folkways label. His distinctive use of two-color printing on matte paper in tandem with his deft use of modernist design strategies created a body of work that wrapped Folkways recordings in a distinctive aroma of integrity and purity. Yet despite his towering achievement at Folkways, Clyne rarely appears in the textbooks or literature of graphic design.

The second paper is devoted to Form, a quarterly magazine published in Great Britain between 1966 and 1969. It ran for ten issues, and is one of the lost artefacts of British graphic design. What makes it remarkable is that it designed in the high-modernist style at a time when Britain had been invaded by Pop Art and the Psychedelic style.

The paper features a long interview with Philip Steadman, Form’s co-editor, publisher and designer. Professor Steadman trained as an architect, and is the author of several books on geometry in architecture and computer-aided design. He is untrained as a graphic designer, but acquired a love of printing and typography while at school.
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Comments (12)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>


For some reason I thought the "Observatory" was pretty much editorial. I didn't realize that Design Observer used "Observatory" to sell and promote the Contributors ventures.

With that said, I do like the direction that Mr. Shaughnessy is headed in terms of codifying multiple resources as it relates to Graphic Design.
08.03.10 at 02:12

Yes, this piece does promote Adrian Shaughnessy's new publishing venture, Unit Editions. Beyond the fact that Adrian is a friend and long-time contributing writer to Design Observer, we thought our readers would appreciate his approach and thinking around publishing design-related material in 2010. Plus, we are happy to share this slideshow with amazing work from Folkways records and Form magazine.
William Drenttel
08.03.10 at 03:31

I'm genuinely excited by Unit Editions and Mr. Shaughnessy's analysis of the "super-abundance" of design in contemporary life. I applaud him for highlighting a forgotten designer. I even plan on purchasing a copy. However, I'm disappointed to see this post fall into the same model that Mr. Shaughnessy is trying to fight against. While this post isn't without context, the slide show accompanying it strips the images of a more educational background, replicating the same visual gluttony as ffffound, Flickr, etc.

Perhaps, if we didn't treat the internet as one big picture book we wouldn't continue to poison the well for "students and young designers." Is the best arena for this fight offline? I don't think so.
Tim Belonax
08.03.10 at 03:51

"Where once a buyer would take fifty copies of a title, they now take a paltry five." -- You mean to tell me people buy multiple copies of the same book?!

* * *

This article manages to touch some good points in such a short space: (1) Design devoid of context (2) Design porn / Aesthetics over communication; I think the mere keywords in this article caused the ideas floating around my head to coagulate -- nihilistic, self-referential, meta design.

Another article I read today from Frank Chimero reverberates with the idea -- the bulk of ffffound & co. is pointless design; the stuff that Frank describes as 'meta-content' in his article:

Sure books focusing on design porn are losing ground. They need to be more than curated-ish collections of design artifacts; they need to be enlightening. They need to provide the context, the insight, the stuff that's really missing from the Internet.

08.03.10 at 05:56

@ Tim

I really enjoyed the slideshow. It was not at all without context. If you were only moved enough by the cover designs to simply type the artist/album into google, or at a stretch click on the 'Ronald Clyne' link, you would've found you were provided with bulk context.
"Visual gluttony" as you so eloquently put it, is not born out of the way content is presented to us but rather, the way we consume it.
08.04.10 at 06:47

Every Folkways record sleeve designed by Ronald Clyne, and many others not designed by him, can be enjoyed here

Also, here’s a link to a filmed interview with Clyne
Adrian Shaughnessy
08.04.10 at 01:11

Thank you for focusing on Ronald Clyne Mr. Shaughnessy. You might find this entry by Robin Kinross interesting:

I think that maybe the late Mr. Clyne could fit well into this group or ism.
Scott Allison
08.06.10 at 01:43

Glad to see Ronald Clyne is getting some recognition, albeit a few years too late. It is truly amazing how fast he turned these designs around considering the care and attention put into each. Never does it seem like he is just going through the motions, running things through the 'Clyne' filter. One of my favorite designers regardless of my partiality to Folkways releases.

Plug forgiven. Booklet purchased.
David Castillo
08.10.10 at 11:02

I applaud the effort to contextualize the "untethered" visual material floating around the web. The cavalier treatment of context (and I would add authorship) to the online presentation of graphic design reinforces the perception that the things we make are nothing more than disposable ephemera.

Just one question: Since the issue is with the *online* presentation of design, why not publish the unedited booklets... online? Lots of printed books already attempt to contextualize and canonize the work of our practice (albeit imperfectly). Now if we could only figure out how to bring this sort of context, quality, and thoroughness to the web...
Christopher Morabito
08.12.10 at 02:54

I think designs serves more than one purpose. To a designer, their work may derive from an idea with great thought behind it. The designer may also try to deliver a message through its piece whether in an obvious or subliminal manner. How it’s received is left up to the viewer. The viewer may be intrigued enough to discover more than the surface of the design or according to the article, “inspired to discover the factors that determine the way a message or visual artifact is shaped.”

Meanwhile some viewers may look at a design, just for what it is… a design, whether they are intrigued or not. The “develop a lopsided view of design.” I like how Bass says “They look at the exceptional work that’s being done. What they see is the end product.” And I can understand why he points to young designers. For young desginers it may take time and experience to appreciate the significance of design.
Erica Taylor
08.16.10 at 07:11

Grateful if you can send me ATTENTION AGE OF INTERNET.

Regards, tunde Y.
tunde yusuf
10.05.10 at 09:39

"The second effect of all this promiscuous gazing is that it encourages the view that design and visual communication exists without context."

I agree and disagree with this analysis. Because most of the printed design history books I have (or was forced to buy as an undergrad) are style-based, chronological slide shows without critical commentary or context. Obviously, this is a problem not unique to the online world. So why outright reject online digital image publishing? could definitely be improved, but what it has going for it is user-generated content with open access for viewers.
02.21.11 at 03:37

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A slideshow featureing a selection of Folkways sleeves designed by Ronald Clyne. All images © Folkways Records & Service Corp., courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.

Also featured are all 10 front covers of Form, a quarterly magazine of the arts (1966—1969).

These images are from two seprate issues of Design/Research published by Unit Editions.
View Slideshow >>


Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer and writer based in London. In 1989 he co-founded the design company Intro. Today he runs ShaughnessyWorks, a consultancy combining design and editorial direction. He is a founding partner in Unit Editions, a publishing company producing books on design and visual culture.
More Bio >>


BOOKS BY Adrian Shaughnessy

Unit Editions, 2010

Studio Culture: The Secret Life of a Graphic Design Studio
Unit Editions, 2009

Look at This: Contemporary Brochures, Catalogues & Documents
Laurence King Publishing, 2006

Graphic Design: A User's Manual
Laurence King Publishing, 2009

Cover Art By: New Music Graphics
Laurence King Publishing, 2008

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