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Meet Adrian Shaughnessy, one of the owners of Unit Editions, an independent publisher located in Kennington, together with the famous graphic design studio Spin south of the River Thames in London. We sat down for a talk with Adrian about his passion for making books about graphic design and visual culture, and how to create attention and make people respond to one’s work.
Hello, Adrian! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Walk us through the story of Unit Editions from the beginning till today.
Adrian: Unit Editions started six years ago. Tony Brook, who owns a design studio called Spin, and myself both had a great love of books. I had a studio called Intro, and Spin and Intro were often compared, but I didn´t know Tony at that time. But eventually we meet through a funny route and we both discovered this real interest in books. Not only that, we both discovered that we’d become, in different ways, really frustrated with mainstream publishing. This common frustration led to a real incentive to do something, as Tony was designing books for big publishers and going through all the problems that you do with mainstream publishers. I was writing and art-directing books as well, with a very good publisher whom I’m very fond of, but they were driving me mad. Most of the energy in a book was spent arguing about cover designs and what the content should be.
The problem we both felt was that publishers didn’t really understand designers. They understood publishing; they understood distribution, but they didn’t really understand what designers were interested in and what they were motivated by. Moreover, what used to ultimately frustrate me was that publishers would be more concerned about the book buyers in the chains and Amazon than they were with the people who bought the books. We felt this was a dead end, so we sat down and worked out a plan to do our own books, the books we wanted to see in print and the books that we obviously knew that other designers would like.
Things like the Herb Lubalin book because we’re both collectors and buyers of books. We knew where the gaps were, and there was no book on Herb Lubalin. There is one, but it’s long out of print, outdated and it’s very expensive if you were to buy it now, second-hand. We could see these gaps, so we thought “Right. Let’s do it.” The third part of the equation was Tony’s partner at Spin, Trish Finegan. Trish runs the business side of Spin, so she came on board as the business side of Unit Editions as well.
So to sum up, Unit Editions was born out of a desire to be free from publishers’ commercial considerations, and to make the sort of books that we wanted to see in print and do it in a way that we knew graphic designers would respond to.
Tell us a bit about the process of making a book, from idea to finished publication?
As we are the designers, authors and publishers of our own books, our processes are different from most book-making processes. For a start, we do everything except physically print the books we publish (although we commission and pay for the printing).
The process begins with the desire to publish a book on a particular subject, which will come from Tony or me or, increasingly, it’s coming from outside people, people who’ve seen what we do and they say, “Why don’t you do a book on this?” or “I’ve got an idea,” but, basically, it comes from Tony and me. The decision to proceed is either made instantly or it is made after long discussions and interrogation of the subject between Tony and me, and some things get dropped because we can’t agree on it. But the things that we do agree on, they then go forward.
Once the decision has been taken to proceed, we pursue the necessary permissions and cooperations, and we look into the practical aspects such as is the work in an archive, or is it spread all over the place? Which can be very costly if that’s the case. If the work is in an archive, we are more likely to be able to move forward. For example, historical books, like Lubalin, Henrion or Schrofer come from an archive: one in New York, one in Brighton and the material for Schrofer was found in the Netherlands.
After doing the research, we write or commission texts, we begin the design process and go over the details of format, paper stock, binding, distribution, and promotion.
Do you print all of your books here in the UK?
Adrian: No. In fact, we’ve only printed one in the UK. We started printing in China because it’s two-thirds cheaper. Chinese printing is excellent. There’s no problem with the quality, but there are two problems one has to consider; one is you can’t realistically go and pass it on press. The second thing is it comes back by boat, which takes three months. That means it takes three months from printing to delivery and often, they can’t say what date. Is it Friday, or is it Monday? We haven’t printed in China now for the past five or six books. They’ve all been done in Europe in Italy, Belgium, and Germany. It’s the biggest single cost. It’s a huge amount of money, so we have to be very careful about it. All our books have extras like foil and six colours, so the cost is always the biggest single factor, but printing in Europe seems to work pretty well.
How many copies do you print at a time?
Adrian: It depends, but we print small quantities. Something like Lubalin, is in two editions, and we have probably printed about four thousand on that, but it’s usually about two, three thousand for the other quantities. Theses are small runs because we have to store most of it here, so we can’t hold huge amounts of stock. That’s often where publishers go wrong because they’re holding huge amounts of stock. It costs money, which I’m sure you know, so we print small quantities, and we’re probably not going to change that since I believe it is one of the ways to survive.
I have read in a previous interview that you were into music, but due to a lack of talent you chose to focus on the next best thing – cover art. With that in mind could you please describe the process of creating an eye-catching cover for a publication?
Adrian: 85% of our books are sold online from our website. Small quantities for friendly shops and people we know. We’ve got friends around the world that run bookshops, and they just ring us up and say, “We want twenty copies.” What that means is we don’t have to worry about making the sort of covers that work in bookshops. That goes back to the problems of working with our publishers. They always want very conventional covers because they have to work in bookshops. For instance, our book about Ken Garland has no title, and no mainstream publisher would allow that, but we’re selling online and people don’t respond to the cover, they’re responding to the spreads and the way we talk about it. We don’t have to make covers in the commercial sense, but we have to make them in the creative sense. We make it uncommercial by making it into a visual and tactile experience. The way it sits in your hand, the way the proportions are, they way it opens, the way it lies flat, is as important as making an eye-catching cover. It’s the total experience rather than just obsessing with the cover.
How do you select typography for the layout of your publication – is it based on a gut feeling, design theory or a combination of both?
Adrian: I leave that to Tony. We split our duties. I’m more interested in the text, and he’s obviously more interested in the visuals, but we both know that they have to come together. The typeface is usually Tony or one of the design team’s decisions, but it comes out of a basic philosophy that we have, which is that a lot of our books are about historical subjects. One of the things that we think publishers often tend to get wrong is that when working with historical subjects, the design has to be retro, which is something we don´t believe in. At Unit Editions, we always frame our historical subjects in a contemporary setting. Most often we would always use a contemporary typeface, a contemporary layout, and one has to be very respectful and not swamp the content.
What inspires you?
Adrian: I am personally inspired by almost everything. By nature, I’m a curious person, and I don’t like to take anything at its surface value – I dig down into anything that catches my attention. This could be the books I read or the films I watch. The books I collect or the music I listen to. Recently, as a newcomer to education (I teach at the Royal College of Art in London), I have come to find inspiration in the students I teach – in truth, I probably get more from them than they get from me.
Has writing made you a better graphic designer?
Adrian: Probably not, because I do much less graphic design than I used to, which has been a natural development due to a lack of interest and a new focus on writing. But I would say that writing has definitely given me a much better understanding of the subject matter. I feel I have a much deeper understanding of what graphic design is, what it means and its impact, which is very useful to have in mind in the process of creating a publication.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects about being a book publisher in a digital age?
Adrian: Publishing books on graphic design and visual culture in the digital age presents us with a particular problem. Our audience can see almost everything in our books free online – they will have to hunt around and probably visit many sites to do this, but they can do it. The difference with our books is that everything is in one place. And most – though not all – online presentations of visual work are context free. I’m thinking of all the blogs that show work, where the viewer rarely is given any context. This has led, in my view, to a hunger for more information and a deeper understanding of what is being looked at. And it’s this hunger that our books cater for. We provide book design that is inventive and shows the work with a greater flexibility than is possible online. We back this up with texts that cut to the core of what the work is about. And then we put text and images together in a way that unites everything in a considered whole.
One of your main publishing areas at Unit Editions is visual culture. In which way do you think the Internet and use of social media have affected the visual culture in the UK?
Adrian: Hugely, but I think in an odd way, actually. I think what it did when things like blogs and social media appeared, it suddenly meant you could see everything. Absolutely everything. I would say that everything in our books is probably, with one or two exceptions, available online. It’s not all in one place, but if you’re prepared to go look for it, you can find it all.
What the Internet and, particularly, visual blogs, Tumblr sites, and Pinterest, did was it gave everybody this huge avalanche of stuff to explore. A lot of people are critical of that, but I think it’s great. Let’s have all this stuff explored because what’s happened is most people have developed a hunger for a deeper understanding and more places to explore and get inspired. That deeper interest in exploring what is out there, I think, has actually grown an interest in the context of design, and is why we’re able to survive as a niche publisher of graphic design and visual culture.
Which market and sales channels do you use at Unit Editions to reach out to your audience?
Adrian: As I mentioned earlier, we sell 85% of our books online – direct from our website. This means that we are almost entirely dependent on social media to speak to our audience. Through social media, we can have a dialogue with the people who buy our books, and I would say that the use of social media is probably the only reason we survive. It allows us to have a very intimate, friendly discussion with the people who buy our books, who are interested in them. The way to think about it is without it, we’d have to spend money on advertising, and there is no money to spend on advertising. We would have to be sitting quietly, hoping that people would read about our work in interviews, and hoping someone reviews it. With social medias, we can communicate directly with our audience. Also, for instance, the way I use social media is I can talk about other people’s books. I don’t just talk about our books. I tell people about other books that I’ve seen or bought. I see it as part of like sitting with friends, chatting about the new books or the new music you’ve got. It’s just a way of doing it to a much bigger audience.
Further, one of the most successful devices we use is a weekly newsletter. It has the most amazing impact. We try and make it visually interesting and put some interesting material in it, as well. For instance, we give away excerpts from our books and interviews. It’s a way of sharing. It’s a bit of a cliché, but we wouldn’t be here without it.
And finally, where do you see books and technology in the future?
Adrian: Art and design books have not been bettered by ebooks or apps, and certainly not by template-based inflexible blog and websites. That is not to say that this will not change in the future, but at the moment, books are a better medium for art and design subjects. This is not the case with novels and other books with continuous text. For example, I prefer to read novels and text-only books on my iPad. But art and design is better served by the printed book with its ability to marry text and image in a fluid and expressive way.
Photo Credit – Unit Editions
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go visit: uniteditions.com