Of all the men you’d consider to be insecure, Craig Oldham is not one of them. Having graduated just under a decade ago, he boasts not only an impressive CV, but a joyfully formed reputation for being the most forthright, potty-mouthed speakers around, with the well-informed opinions to back it up. Politically and socially engaged—in 2013 he produced In Loving Memory of Work, a hard-hitting account of the 1984-5 miner’s strike in Yorkshire, England—and never afraid to pull punches, there’s a lot of adjectives we could use to describe him; insecure is not one of them. But the man himself would argue otherwise, and does, as we sit in an unremarkable pub in central London’s Fitzrovia to discuss his new book, suitably and swearily titled Oh Shit, What Now?
The book is a chunky little thing, printed partly on beermat board, partly on thinner paper, meaning it sits open at any page with pleasing ease, and creates a disorientating yet comforting experience for the reader. That’s a good thing, of course, when you consider its self-help leanings: its tagline is “honest advice for new graphic designers,” and it serves as just that—a conversational, sweetly delivered “how to” for breaking into what’s referred to throughout as The Industry™.
Oldham is not a man who holds back, and in discussing Oh Shit, What Now? we overturn not just the genesis and design of the book itself, but also musings on everything from lucky breaks to the current state design, the limitations of graphic design as self-expression, and a hell of a lot more.
So we’ve decided to publish a pretty thorough rundown of that conversation, edited for brevity and deftly cutting out a few nice moments about Nans, and whether our collective mothers will ever really understand what graphic design is.
What made you decide to write Oh Shit, What Now?
I’ve grown increasingly frustrated is one way of saying it, tired is another. I spend a lot of time with students and people in the industry already who are young and ambitious and hungry and want to make their own way, but there seems to be no meaningful discussion or pool they can draw from. For whatever reason, some designers don’t commit to being completely honest when someone asks them a question, so we end up with all these fucking platitudes about working hard and being nice to people.
That’s fine, but everybody thinks they’re nice; everybody feels they work hard. But they might not compared to someone else—these are all relative terms. Give me some fucking meaningful information on “how do I do this, how do I solve an immediate problem,” or “what was your experience” and I’ll take from that what I need or that I feel is relevant to me.
I’ve also always been really reflective as a designer, mainly because I’m unbelievably insecure.
No it’s true! I think everybody has that kind of slight insecurity that they get over, or they pretend they have. That “someone’s going to find out I’m shit at this” kind of thing. I’m wildly insecure so I’m quite reflective; I always try to sort of gather and reflect on things, asking “why am I doing this? Why do I want to do this?” Just to find out what the fuck’s going on.
Isn’t that an inherent part of being a designer, having to interrogate or explain every decision you make?
It might sound stupid or arrogant to say, but I think good designers do it—I don’t think all designers do it, but I also don’t think it’s a necessity to be a good designer. There’s always an interrogative nature but sometimes that looking glass can only be trained on the work, and not always on the person who’s doing the work.
Why is the book in that format, with the heavy beermat board pages interspersed with thinner paper?
The driving force for me is about seeing the book as a physical object—as an artifact and something that isn’t just a house for the content, but actually part and parcel of it and expresses it, or is part of absorbing it. I like the idea that it’s a book that sort of fucks with you a little bit: just as your hand gets used to turning thick beermat board it turns to paper and vice versa. If you’re getting tired of reading it, that wakes you up a little bit.
It’s a dense thing, but hopefully not a labor to read. The format helps you to really ask questions about yourself and what you want to do—it’s poking you all the way through, and sometimes you need breaks from that. One of my favorite bits is where there’s a couple of blank pages and it asks you to just stop and think.
Tell me a bit more about the typeface and why you’ve used type instead of imagery.
The typeface is Timmons NY by Matt Willey; he made it for a project, and the money from buying it goes to Cancer Research. In pushing and pulling a lot of stuff around with the book it became obvious I needed a really compact, condensed thing as I’m so verbose as a writer. I wanted it to be quite graphic and striking.
Why the fluoro colors?
They punctuate it, but I’ve also always had a sort of personal navel gazing relationship with neon. Growing up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire [in Northern England], it was a mining town that became a market town, with all the big fluoro signs, and the poetry of all these people shouting different things and different rhythms—it was just fluoro and hand-drawn type everywhere.
So I think subliminally I’ve always wanted to use fluoro: it’s kind of part of the book—I really want people to not run away from who they are, and instead embrace it because there’s a lot of “oh fuck I’ve got to fit in” around.
Do you mean if you’re studying or working in design, or just generally?
I think in the industry—whether people like it or not there are definite camps where you feel you have to be and think and act in a certain way. There’s definite cliques, and they have prescribed and loosely defined ideas of what a designer is, does, says, talks like, or whatever, and some people can feel really alienated by that. I feel alienated by that, I feel frustrated, and now I’ve got an opportunity with the book to talk about that.
Are there any things you’ve realized about your own career when you were writing the book?
When I was at Music, I joined when there was like three of them in a flat and me and we grew that to about 25 or 26 in three years. One night I was just like “fuck this,” and after a really shit meeting I handed in my notice. It gets better: I left my girlfriend and my flat in that same month. I had no savings, no money, nothing; I was absolutely shitting myself. It was horrible and it was painful, but in hindsight it was probably the best thing I did as it forced me to do everything I wanted to do. I was so comfortable in a sort of roll of luxury where I could cherry pick projects and they let me do whatever I wanted, I could still lecture or whatever, and it paid enough money. It was fine, everything was hunky dory, but I was too comfortable and I thought “I’m not going to achieve what I want to achieve.”
So what do you wish you’d known when you were younger that you know now?
What I wish I’d known was in those initial few years where I bit my tongue a little bit or kept my likes and dislikes in the cupboard because I thought they didn’t fit—and particularly when I was in London, I felt like “fucking hell I’d better go and buy some black T-shirts and Howies jeans or something because everyone wears them, and Converse”… They really fucked my feet, they’re horrible, but everyone was wearing them. I’d be wasting my time, I [should have been] thinking “come on Craig just be yourself and it’ll work out in the end.”
I was really lucky in that my timing through the industry seemed to work, I’ve not achieved anything because of my ability or anything like that, it’s always been persistence.
Don’t be daft.
No honestly, it’s persistence really and just a bit of luck.
Do you think it’s harder for young designers coming out of school now than it was when you graduated?
It’s hard to say. I’m not so far along, but I’m nine years down the line and it must be a completely different landscape. I don’t know if there are more or less jobs or what, but for me the difference in the playing field is the way people work, or the way it’s become acceptable for people to work has changed. The whole idea of rocking up in here [gestures round pub] and getting your laptop out has kind of become a social norm, and it really wasn’t at all when I was younger.
It’s much easier now to do your own thing and find your own way straight away than it is to fuck around for 10 years and then do your own thing. I think that’s still down to personal preference, but it’s easier: people are more confident now, and they don’t need as much of an outlay financially to make those things happen. The other sharp side of that sword is that it’s ridiculously expensive to get premises. You can work from home I guess if you’ve got that luxury; and you don’t have to be in London, so I think it’s become a lot more fragmented.
The agency thing as well is getting much more polar opposite: you’re either really small or really fucking big, the middle ground has sort of dissolved. The people that feed that industry—the clients or whatever you want to call them—I think they’ve changed as well, and they either want the whole all-singing all-dancing one-stop-shop massive agency that’ll cater for everything or they want to sort of graze and want the right people for the right job, so the middle ground is not necessarily required. People are also taking more things in-house so clients just don’t need that kind of sustained work load that they did before, they can get an agency to start something and then pass it on to a designer in-house.
Do you think that’s because clients have become more design literate?
I don’t think they’re more literate as I don’t think the standard has gone up, but I think they’re more aware of what design is.
One thing I wanted to ask about in the book is where you say “training in graphic design gives you an entry point into almost every kind of creative discipline.” Why do you think that?
Because I think it’s a necessary part of everything else. I’ve always seen it as an intellectual discipline: it happens in the head. There’s the bit at the end where you fuck around with type, image, color, and illustration, but you’re essentially making visual a lot of problem solving and stuff that’s happening in your head and with discussions and whatever else. Your job is to decide what the best thing is, so sometimes that might be a film, sometimes it might be a play, sometimes it might be nothing at all, sometimes it might be a poster or a book or whatever. Designers now more than ever should be being more confident with the fact that we can have influence on those other things—not necessarily take over them and be a complete auteur—but we can certainly be exposed to them.
“Design is an intellectual discipline: it happens in the head”
Graphic design is a really good way to be exposed to other disciplines, because you will have to be every now and again: you might end up working for a fashion designer, seeing how they handle the things you do and you might be really interested in that and you’ll see that overlap between the two worlds. Every other part of the creative industry has got a bit of graphic design as a necessary part of them doing what they have to do: buildings need signage or branding or whatever else, so do fashion designers; films need titles and someone needs to handle type, and now more than ever special effects. There’s all these little points of entry and it’s just a good way in.
Another point I’m interested to ask you about is where you say “graphic design is not a medium for self expression.” What did you mean by that?
It’s not, it’s a means to an end, because it is not the end in itself. You can’t have graphic design without something else. It’s sort of blurry, but let’s start with if you do “purely” graphic things, is that graphic design or is that image-making or illustration or art? As soon as you start writing a book and designing it, that’s not graphic design, that’s me writing a book and then me designing the book; they’re separate things. Graphic design is just the part where you translate it to form, so it’s the means, not the end. When designers start to use design as the sort of source material and the output, you just end up with fucking Pantone colors and in-jokes, really cliched shit.
So can a piece of graphic design never really be art, for you?
I come at it from a point of view of the content as the starting point, then there’s the visual bit, then there’s the outcome. So in that kind of organization, art is the output and whether it’s design or art is not necessarily the point. The end bit is for the person who originates the content to decide. Ed Ruscha or Lawrence Weiner for instance; would you say they’re a typographer or an artist? Dan Flavin, would you call him an electrician? It’s just what they’re using to convey their content.
Like I said before I don’t think the discipline of graphic design is visual, but the output tends to be. We’re pretty limited on the things we can draw from: the image can be drawn from the creator themselves, but that’s not what we do 99% of the time—it’s using photography or illustration or whatever. Type design you could argue is probably the purest form of graphic design because that is all us—it’s our content, our manifestation, our output. But I prefer to see graphic design more as editing and curating, we pull shit together and we tell that story by how we assemble it.
“When designers start to use design as the sort of source material and the output, you just end up with fucking Pantone colors and in-jokes, really cliched shit.”
Ultimately, what do you hope people will get from reading your book?
The only thing I ever wanted to achieve by doing this was just to offer a different perspective on the things we’re told a lot, and that might mean different things for different people. I’m so sensitive to that part of your life, being young—it’s really unsettling. You move somewhere for three or four years to this new place where you’re making new friends and you’re all over the place, you’ve got no fucking money and you’re learning how to live and you’re growing—it’s a really formative time of your life at 18, 19. Then suddenly it all fucking flips again and you have to find a job and all that pressure starts again. I just genuinely want to share my experiences and hopefully some of them will stick and be helpful.
How much is the design of the book a lesson for people in good design? Sorry, that’s a mean question.
I think that’s for people to judge. That’s a really dodgy answer. It’s a book I’ve enjoyed making, it’s a book I enjoy holding, and I like the weight of it. The characteristics I would judge a book on, I have judged this by: I smell it a lot and I tap it and it makes a nice noise and it looks heavier than it actually is so there’s a bit of surprise in it. I’m not claiming it’s the best book design in the world—it isn’t, but it feels like it’s the right solution for what the content needs. It’s bright and a bit flippant and it’s open. Hopefully it poses a question that everybody has more than once in their career: fucking hell, what do I do next?