By Perrin Drumm
“When I was studying, ‘the industry’ felt like a tangible, physical thing that I had to break or find a gap in to access,” says Craig Oldham, designer and author of Oh Sh*t What Now?! (Laurence King). “Once you’re in it, you look out and realize it’s really permeable. There’s such a hypocrisy in how each side of that fence interacts with the other.”
His new book debunks the various myth associated with design practice, and offers hard-won advice for graphic designers at the very beginning of their careers. Oldham takes on everything from job placements, creative process, and career pivots, to avoiding all things “nice,” the “idle-ized” gap year, and not wasting time on work you don’t believe in.
“I definitely identified with [the industry] as a holy grail, and the more I operate within it, the less I want to be associated with it” says Oldham. “Everyone has that Wizard of Oz moment, when they realize ‘the industry’ isn’t that important, it’s just another job—a job that you care about, which is what makes it different, but it’s still a job. If you look at the bigger picture, you realize there’s a lot of work happening outside of ‘the industry’ as we recognize it, and the sooner people are exposed to that, the better. It’ll demystify and enrich it.”
And demystifying is exactly the aim of the book. It stems from Oldham’s experience in education, as both a student and lecturer. “Since graduating from Falmouth University, I’ve lead a split existence—half rice, half chips—as a designer and as a lecturer, trying to share what I learn in real time. When I was studying, we’d have the great and the good visiting us every Friday to give a talk on their practice; you’d see all this amazing work, but have pangs of self-doubt, thinking you could never be as good as them. I decided that if I ever had the privilege of sharing my experience, I’d remove that ‘veil’ and talk about the human experience. I wouldn’t show my work—I get bored of the work. I’d talk about what I’ve learnt.”
For his first lecture, Oldham printed his notes as a broadsheet publication and gave it to his students for free. “I wanted to take into account that people learn differently—some by reading, others by listening—and the idea snowballed into essentially doing publishing for education. I did a few projects like that, and it’s culminated in this book.”
The book is a sort of contradiction in terms. It’s hardbound and weighty, suggesting a level of assurance that Oldham derides, but it’s also bright and bold, set with large, impactful typography printed in neon pink and green. “I wanted the book to be playful. As a person, I’m happy to be wrong, and I was happy for the book to open up questions. Early in my career a friend of mine said, ‘I can’t wait for you to contradict yourself in print,’ and I still hear that ringing in my ears. He’s right: people change, and rather than trying to be a figurehead crusader, why not just say, ‘I don’t know, this is just what I’ve experienced.’ Advice is just a form of nostalgia.”
Although its primary audience is likely to be recent graduates, Oldham was keen to address later crises. “There’s no advice out there for getting your second job. I found it terrifying. You can so easily get tunnel vision and stick to a train track of your own making. Working out what you do next is part of a constant educational cycle, and I really wanted to pull the curtains down on that. You don’t stop learning as soon as you leave university—that’s just the start of everything.”
Not only do you not stop learning as soon as you leave university, but maybe the trick is never fully leaving education. A graphic design practice, like most creative work, is very much an internal process. “As you work, you build up your own tastes and belief system as a designer. When you teach, it forces you to explain it all to someone who isn’t privy to your back-catalogue of references. It forces you to articulate yourself better, evaluate your process, and make you more aware of how and why you do things.”
Keeping a broad frame of reference, and not making self-referential ‘design for designers’ projects is, in Oldham’s opinion, key. “When you see graphic design projects about graphic design, they are so boring. My mum, who appears a lot in the book, doesn’t get any of that. She isn’t interested in Pantone puns. I think it’s a shame when you have a captive audience to just go from A to A. Is that all you’ve got? You’re not going to try to persuade anybody, to enforce your taste in the world, or engage in a debate that’s bigger than yourself?”
Both in the book and in our conversation, Oldham suggests that graphic design, in and of itself, isn’t interesting. “Everything else around it is what’s interesting. You’ve got to draw from other things, disciplines, areas; it’s all got to get in there, because graphic design is a means, not an end. A lot of people forget that, and that’s when you end up with, ‘Look at the white space on that!’”
That doesn’t mean graphic design isn’t complex, though. “You’re not just there to air dress. It’s actually not that visual, most of it is problem-solving. Your task is to pull everything together, to assemble parts that communicate, which are engaging and clear.
“I was always taught that if you get the idea right, how it looks will present itself. I thought if I crack that, no one can argue with how it looks. It takes it away from being an arbitrary, visual discipline, and removes the fight of ‘I don’t like pink.’” But this isn’t to suggest the creation and massaging of a wall of mysticism around the creative process: “People get really romantic when they talk about creativity, and even more romantic when they talk about the power of education. I do as well. Knowledge is key, but you need to be able to apply it, and you’ll probably need to have a degree of commercial practice in order to pay your rent. It’s all well and good being a romantic, experimental creative genius, but if no one’s going to see it or experience it, what’s the point? Even that notion we have of the artist—just doing whatever they want—they still have to be amazing sales people to do that, they still need to have an audience, and fulfil their needs. It’s all the same, and my whole mantra for education is that it offers up a perfect storm in which to find out what version of that you are.”
Essentially, Oldham sees graphic design as a democratic profession. “It’s communication and every human does that, so you’re not special just because you’re a designer. People can find their way into the industry through various routes and learning experiences, with a variety of abilities and desires.” For him, a traditional design education was the right route. “I’d have been nothing without a design education, I just wasn’t confident enough at that age, and I wasn’t aware of the industry enough to know about particular roles. I came from a benign, mining town in the middle of Yorkshire, and I wasn’t exposed to a media-savvy creative city like London.
This, he posits, is where the problem lies. “People hire in their own image instead of hiring people who are better than or different to them” remarks Oldham. “A lot of it is vanity, it’s people believing their own hype and wanting people who flatter rather than challenge them. It flies in in the face of everything people at the helms of design or advertising agencies say about being creative.”
“It’s a systemic problem in the creative industries that those who aren’t party to it’s inner sanctum, or the people occupying it, are often excluded from taking part in creative work, or benefitting from it. Access, whether that be in a professional context, in education or simply as a participant or viewer is limited both consciously and unconsciously by those at the reins.
“The problems we have in diversity—race, gender, class—would all be helped if we stopped considering graphic design education and practice as having single definitions that everyone can subscribe to” says Oldham. “People would be able to find their own way into it much easier, and we’ll be able to attract a richer source to it, from all kinds of backgrounds, because that’s what’s going to make it better. A behavior change of how we operate within the industry is the only way we’ll ever address the issues that have become poisonous. We’re at toxic levels now, and it needs to be addressed. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, but I have a pretty good grasp of what I need to do as an individual. Collectively making a change has to start from individuals doing what they need to do.
“We need to not perpetuate ideas about graphic design being a boys club. We need to get rid of the idea that it’s a middle-class playground—we’re in danger of going back to the dark ages of working class people not being able to go to university in the UK, and it’s just going to be super toffs. And we need to readdress the role of the intern, and get rid of this whole ‘rite of passage’ thing. When we rise up through the industry ranks, we need to clear the way, not build the wall back up. We’ll progress so much further if young people don’t have to deal with all this.”