With books on the likes of FHK Henrion, Lance Wyman, and Total Design, as well as graphic stamps, corporate manuals, and punk records under its belt, independent publisher Unit Editions has established itself as the go-to source for cultivated and rigorous books on design. Formed in 2010 by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, both graphic designers who were equally disillusioned by the mechanisms of the mainstream, Unit Editions quickly became proof of what can be achieved when you do things differently.
Now, with the release of Impact 1.0, a double edition about historic magazine covers, we caught up with Shaughnessy to talk collaboration, compromise, context, and Paula Scher’s opinions on social media.
How did you start publishing as Unit Editions?
Unit Editions came out of a frustration that I shared with my publishing partner Tony Brook. We’d both worked with mainstream publishers on books about design and we felt that there must be a better way than this traditional model. So we pooled our skills with the intention of setting up an independent publishing imprint, which would enable us to take ownership of the entire publishing process. In other words, we would be our own clients and publish the books we wanted to see in print, and do them in the way we wanted to.
Setting up Unit Editions also tied in with something that I’m personally interested in—how graphic designers can go beyond service-based design work and become originators of self-directed projects.
“We wanted to have that purity of purpose for Unit Editions. We would never publish a book we didn’t believe in.”
Would you say that Unit Editions is focused on an audience of designers, rather than design fans or the wider public?
It’s definitely qualitative over quantitative. There are books we publish that we know will have a specific audience, and even when we know that audience is small, that’s okay with us. Setting up Unit Editions made me think a lot about the work I used to do with record companies. My favorite labels were the ones that had a single-minded integrity. There was a type of music they wanted to send out into the world and they wouldn’t release anything that wasn’t part of that ethos.
Manuals 1 is an interesting example of a book that seems like it’d have a small audience, but it flew off the shelves. I think it struck a chord because it stands as a counterpoint to the ongoing digitization of design. Brand manuals are now PDFs; the whole process of implementing a brand identity has become templated—you don’t have to think too much, just follow the rules. But in the pre-digital era, you had to follow a printed manual. This required a level of interpretation that has been removed from the digital implementation process. The printed manuals themselves are miracle of compressed information; they are actually wonderful examples of information design.
Tell me about your Archive Series.
So far we’ve published two in the series, Graphic Stamps and Action Time Vision. People approach us with their personal collections, and we’re also discovering archives that have wonderful collections of graphic artifacts. The Archive Series is a platform to capture and acknowledge the role of archives and personal collections in contemporary graphic design.
Action Time Vision, for example, is Tony’s collection of 7” punk singles. Graphic Stamps is the personal collections of Blair Thompson and Iain Follett, two acknowledged collectors (and scholars!) of postage stamps from a graphic design perspective. Archives and personal collections are also vital for our philosophy of always showing objects. We try never to show flat, cropped images. Nearly everything in our books is photographed. And if there is a crease or tear in the original, it stays in.
“In order to really understand a graphic artifact, how it looks and feels, you need to see the object. This means getting ahold of actual specimens and expertly photographing them—not relying on scans.”
You often publish books that consider graphic design in its expanded field. How do you think it’s shifting?
I think the discipline of graphic design now is really complex. We’re having this conversation a lot at the Royal College of Art, where I teach, about what graphic design is, what it can be, and investigating new ways of shaping the practice. And in a way Unit Editions is putting that into effect.
“I’m interested in the idea of publishing as an artistic practice. For me, rather than being a mechanistic process, it’s much closer to curation. Designers are natural curators.”
The same could be said for the designer as writer, where you’re seeking a balance between complexity and clarity.
Clarity is what we aim for in design and text. Most of our books are historical, and when we’re working with historical material we apply two criteria: the design is always contemporary, and we have to feel that the subject matter has contemporary relevance. Two examples would be our books on FHK Henrion and Ken Garland. Ken is in his 80s and Henrion died in the 1980s, but they are absolutely relevant to designers today. They were both mavericks, Ken still is, and both are absolute blueprints for a certain sort of designer’s practice today.
You’ve published a lot on and around Total Design. Why do you think they are so influential?
Total Design for us is a brilliant example of a mid-20th century, forward-thinking, and visionary design group, who, thanks to their multidisciplinary approach, are “totally” relevant today. They were graphic designers, furniture designers, exhibition designers… a model for the contemporary scene. Their work has the visual fire to make them completely compelling, they were super-intelligent, and probably the first European multidisciplinary studio. They were interested in art and culture and politics and so on, but they had fights and fallings out, yet even that is instructive.
How about your working relationship with Tony Brook?
We sometimes disagree on details, but never on fundamentals. Fundamentally we agree that books have to have integrity. Tony looks after the visuals and I look after text. It’s a good functioning relationship. We collaborate most closely on the initial concept, the framing of the subject, and the format. Those conversations are always multi-layered, everything is connected, which goes back to the idea of publishing as a creative practice: you can’t ignore any aspect of the process.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Our next books are Impact 1.0 and Impact 2.0, these are two books on design magazine covers. Impact 1.0 starts in 1923 and comes up to the 1970s; Impact 2.0 starts in the ’70s and comes bang up to date. Almost by default the books have emerged as a timeline of the most innovative, fluid, and attention-grabbing graphic design. It’s a fantastic history lesson in the stylistic twists of graphic design from the past (nearly) 100 years. But ultimately it’s a celebration, an homage, to the role of printed design journals in the evolution of graphic design. It’s also timely as design journals are under such pressure now, and this is a way of showing what they did and why they matter.
The biggest thing we’re working on currently is a Paula Scher monograph. The book is subject-led and congregates around her big projects, which are mostly identity projects. One of the things that emerges really strongly with Paula is how often she sees opportunities that her clients fail to see to make something bigger and better than their initial expectations. Hearing her talk about that process is great. I often hear designers say, “Oh I have a great idea but it got rejected.” But she doesn’t think like that. She is very politically skilled when it comes to dealing with clients of all kinds, committees, powerful individuals, public bodies, and she doesn’t get sidetracked easily. Time and again, she turns a modest brief into a multilayered project. Paula is un-stereotypical. She’s ultra contemporary but also has a wonderful grasp of history. She’s also very funny—she dismisses Facebook as being “the new suburbia.” She has opinions and she’s not afraid to say what she thinks.