In 2013 Craig Oldham produced In Loving Memory of Work, a hard-hitting account of the 1984-5 miner’s strike in Yorkshire, England. As one of the most divisive moments in Britain’s industrial and political history it was a brave subject for a young designer to take on, but Oldham’s approach both to the editorial and design resulted in a vital piece of historical journalism and book arts, deemed to be one of the 50 best books produced in the world that year.
Oldham is the first to admit that he hasn’t always possessed such a keen knack for conjuring beautiful objects from paper, and an early—not to mention unlikely—book of soccer poetry taught him much about the value of paying attention to production. He elaborates:
“I honestly can’t really remember the first thing I ever designed—and I mean the first, first thing, as in, the first thing ever. But I can remember the ‘first’ things I’ve designed in the context of certain parameters—at such-and-such an agency, the first poster, first website or book-thing. And so, with the latter in mind, I invite you to put on your walking boots and join me for a stroll down memory lane.
“The first book I was involved in designing was at revered creative agency The Chase, and it was about football and poetry. Saved: An Anthology of Football Verse from Homer to Gazza was a selection of poems, writings, musings, notes, and verse written throughout history by everyone from poet laureates to players themselves—all curated from the archive of legendary soccer collector Harry Langton.
“Now, I want to state up-front that this is not necessarily a job I’m ashamed of. Actually, quite the opposite—I’m proud to have been involved in such a book. But looking back there are certainly a whole host of things I’d probably have interjected to change, maybe even waged war on. The overriding thing however is the value and importance of production in design, the making and not just the doing, an the lack of it in this book.
“See, designers (myself included) and everyone who would call themselves creative, want to be regarded as original. They want to innovate, create the new, and show off their thinking every time they design. But in the rush to get that idea right (which I concede is the right thing to do) so many fail to leave enough time, resource, and energy for the making part (which is the wrong thing to do). It’s a mistake I made with Saved.
“To be clear, by making I don’t mean designing. I mean the real work: production. We didn’t give Saved enough love when it came to making it. By the time we’d hurdled all the creative doing bits—the curating, writing, thinking and designing—we were so spent we didn’t set aside enough time to really think, ‘OK, now how do we want this book to feel? How weighty should we make it? What should it smell like, feel like, even sound like in the hand?’
“Production is more important than you would necessarily think, because it’s the one thing you can’t truly evaluate with intellectual critique. The reaction to how something is produced, how something is made—its quality, methods, materials, processes, and formation—are all sensory and emotional reactions. They come from your gut, and you can’t really argue intellectually about why something feels good or bad in your hands—it just does. And when something feels good, oh baby you know it.
“I believe that production is the factor that makes an average piece better and a good piece great. It not only betters a creative thought by adding to it, but sometimes by becoming the idea itself. It’s a notion I put into practice when designing later books, like In Loving Memory of Work, where we printed with coal dust, and that printing process really became the central idea of the design.
“Production shows craft, understanding, humility, insight and empathy for the person using your design. It’s a user-focussed approach, not just the final box to tick-off in a long (sometimes arduous) process, but an extension of that original thinking for which all designers should strive.”