A Graphic Design User’s Manual: Q&A With Adrian Shaughnessy

Graphic designer Adrian Shaughnessy lives and works in London where for 15 years he was creative director of Intro then a consulting creative director of This is Real Art.


Graphic designer Adrian Shaughnessy lives and works in London where for 15 years he was creative director of Intro then a consulting creative director of This is Real Art. He now splits his time between design and editorial direction, writing several books about design, including How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul which has become somewhat of a bible for young designers, and Cover Art By: about radical music graphics. He is also a contributor to Design Observer, where last week he wrote a (traffic record-breaking) post, “Ten Graphic Design Paradoxes” (which, in a true paradox, includes 11 things). Shaughnessy took a moment to answer some of our questions about his new book on the “non-designing” parts of design, which it turns out are every bit as important as the real design work.


AW: I like that you say your new book is about the “soft stuff–the stuff that we deal with every day and tend to take for granted.” Why did you decide that a book needed to be written about that stuff?

AS: Michael Bierut has written the foreword to the book, and he came up with better terminology than me. He said it’s a book about “the non-designing bit.” In other words, because a large part of what designers do is not design, it isn’t enough just to be a good designer. The ability to talk about our work, the ability to collaborate, the ability to negotiate fees–these skills are as important as the ability to create compelling visual communication. My book is an attempt to look at those non-designing bits–the stuff that seems to get neglected in graphic design commentary. I’ve got an entry on Envy for example. Designers often feel envious of other designer’s work–I do–but it’s never discussed or analyzed. Is it a good thing? Does it spur us on to do better work, or does it rot the soul?

AW: How was writing this book different from exploring the “soul-selling” of the one that preceded it?

AS: Well, this is a much more practical book, and deals with a far wider range of subjects. It covers similar terrain to How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, but I also have entries on some of my pet subjects such as Japanese Design, Green design and my favorite typefaces. It’s called Graphic Design: A User’s Manual, and it will be published in the U.S. in October 2009. Scarily, it is currently lying on my desk as paper run-outs. It has to go to the printer in the next few days. Gulp.


AW: I love paradox #2, become a client. I don’t think any designer thinks about this as a way to become a better designer. Is it the process of giving direction to someone else that helps you learn how to take direction?


AS: By becoming a client we discover that as designers we have a pretty one-sided view of the design process. I can’t deny that in the case of certain strong willed designers this singularity can produce wonderful results. But it is also dangerous, and can lead to conflict and misunderstandings. Personally I prefer the notion of an equal designer/client partnership. Yet this doesn’t happen naturally. It has to be worked at. And it was only when I become a paying client that I realized how best to achieve this. As I say in the Design Observer post, being a client taught me more about being a designer than anything else I’ve ever done.

AW: I’m equally in love with #10: “In fact, standing up for what we believe in–ethics, morality, professional standards, even aesthetic preferences–is the only way to produce meaningful work.” Why you think designers have a hard time with those things?

AS: As one of the commentators to the original blogpost pointed out, my list of paradoxes runs the risk of putting all designers in the same “box.” It’s a fair accusation. Certainly there are lots of designers who don’t need to be told to have “integrity.” In fact, when you come across a really good designer, they nearly always have the sort of admirable qualities that I’m talking about: integrity, vision, objectivity. But my point was when the rest of us forget about the importance of these things, we often have to suffer dire consequences.


AW: You mention that when you hear designers say “educating our clients” it makes you break out in hives, and designers need to remove jargon from their vocabulary. What are some other horrid things you’ve heard designers say that they need to stop saying?

AS: Many of us are guilty of these formulaic utterances. But if we want to avoid spiraling down into bitterness and rancor, we’d better realize that some of these old chestnuts need to be chucked out. I’m wary of anything that passes the buck of responsibility.


AW: In all your spare time, you also host and produce a radio show, Graphic Design on the Radio. Any upcoming guests or themes in the works?

AS: The radio show is having a break. I haven’t called the nice people at Resonance about a new on-air date (and interestingly, they haven’t called me, either). But at some time, I’m sure it will come back. A one hour slot chatting to affable and articulate graphic designers and playing a few records actually takes a surprising amount of time to organize, so it will only come back when I’ve got more free time. My main focus at the moment is a publishing venture that I’ve started with Tony Brook of Spin. We’ve set up an imprint called Unit Editions. Our first book is out later this year. It’s called Studio Culture, and it’s an investigation of another neglected topic–the design studio. Design history is written from the perspective of individual designers–but the studio, a place for collaboration and communal effort, is just as important.

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato