Talking Eds

Question Everything: A Conversation with OK-RM’s Rory McGrath

By Wes Del Val January 26, 2021

Olly Knight and Rory McGrath started their London-based design operation OK-RM in 2008, although they didn't first appear on my radar until 2016 with the first issue of Real Review, a contemporary culture magazine they designed that five years later still feels remarkably fresh and forward-thinking.

Real Review 8, designed by OK-RM, 2019.

Olly and Rory are filled with ideas and a passion to intelligently push design ahead, while recognizing the predecessors' shoulders they're atop, and want to have meaningful conversations with like-minded partners. They bring such spirit and commitment to their commissioned work for clients—they did a seriously impressive book with Virgil Abloh, the MCA Chicago, and Prestel/DelMonico in 2019—but I have to think it's all naturally heightened when they get to produce books under their own publishing imprint, InOtherWords, which they started in 2015—two of which are the lovely books they did with JW Anderson and Magdalene Odundo, respectively, for the Hepworth Wakefield.

Front cover of Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson at The Hepworth Wakefield (InOtherWords, 2017).

Interior pages from Magdalene Odundo, The Journey of Things (InOtherWords, 2019).

I spoke with Rory this past December via Zoom, and I now even more eagerly await seeing whatever comes out of the minds at OK-RM and InOtherWords.

Wes Del Val: I want to start by telling you how much I loved the design of Real Review when I first saw it. How did you arrive at it and/or what was the inspiration?

Rory McGrath: I’m glad you enjoyed it! Real Review was founded by Jack Self and Shumi Bose and is an important project for us. We had been developing a shared conversation for a long time before the first issue, so that by the time it came out we already had a strong collective ideology about the kind of object and project it was and could become. At the time, and I think it still is the same, there were all these magazines that had aspirational production value, in the sense that magazines wanted to be books, but the content was very light, perhaps not appropriate for the form. For us it was about being critical of that and reviving an ephemerality that was lost while responding to the central idea of the magazine’s tagline, “What it means to live today.”

Everything was based on minimums and constraints and was explicitly resourceful. The page space responded to ideas of “real estate” and how to maximize use of space. It was really a critical process. At one point we asked ourselves what would happen if we folded the format: we’d be able to gain four pages for every two! We loved “endorse folding,” which I saw was prevalent in the U.S. with direct mail. When I was there I was collecting a lot of examples, so we started to examine the idea of using the fold so it becomes part of the space. So you get a front and back cover and then you get a unique inside space to work with, which leads to all kinds of new possibilities with form.

Interior pages from Real Review 1, designed by OK-RM, 2016.

WDV: What are some fundamental books in your life, ones that had the most impact in leading you to want careers in design?

RM: My parents are both designers so I was around a lot of books growing up. My dad was really into photography so there were always photography books, some technical, some more generous and expansive. As a family, and it started with my grandparents, we had a whole collection of National Geographics, and I think in some way that consistency of having them was very inspiring to me. I remember an issue from, I think, 1988 that had a holographic globe and it was an incredible object that still resonates with me. So that started my awareness of objects and in a sense started me on the course of wanting to be a designer—obviously everything is intuitive when you’re younger.

Then it was Design as Art by Bruno Munari. I got that before I even knew what it was, and in fact I still have the same copy and go back to it now.

The Book

Design as Art Bruno Munari

There is one part where there’s all these different faces and there’s this sense of structure and play, a bit like with the series of magazines where there are consistent choices and then the choices in flux. I could go on and on.

From Olly and my point of view, when we met at college in Bristol, which was very much an art school, on one hand we were looking at a lot of art books and catalogues, but also a lot of magazines about contemporary culture. We discovered a few books that were critical to that environment and the contrast to that environment, the first being Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann, which helped us understand the kind of designers we wanted to be. We knew we needed that kind of structure or at least some kind of rigor or rationale and conviction in a system to be able to let art exist with clarity. That’s something that’s stayed with us.

The Book

Grid Systems In Graphic Design Josef Müller-Brockmann

There were two other crucial works that we discovered at school: Paul Rand’s essay “Design and the Play Instinct”—his idea of structure and play still informs our conversations today—and Norman Potter’s What is a Designer, which was very important to us on a level of philosophy, this idea of practicing with a strong mentality and belief.

WVD: What does having InOtherWords provide for your design practice that no other outlet does?

RM: The conception of InOtherWords ties into a broader philosophy of OK-RM, one based in the constant questioning of the boundaries of our practice into a propositional position that operates across disciplines and into culture at large. This is not counter to the treasured history and tradition of craft, but is an acknowledgment of the emerging structures and opportunities that our context presents, and an excitement about the potential for design to shape it.

InOtherWords provides us with a very specific inquiry into both the presentation and the representational qualities of our work within a consistent project and a consistent frame. No other book projects we work on have that kind of continuity. Even though it’s not contrived and we’re not thinking, “Ok, what does the body of work need now?”—we try to avoid those questions—at the same time, we use that body of work to understand more about what do we do, where is its evolution, what is our work about—it's about inquiry.

WVD: How important is print to you?

RM: Something that is really important to our practice is that we work with all forms of design and see all forms of design as important. But we have a whole lot of passion for the physicality of the book for many reasons, and I don’t think they’re unique to us. It’s the lasting potential of a book, the permanence of it. We’re collectors of books and know that if we look after a book it’ll be around for a long time. So we don’t make these things just for us really, but for others, and they take them into history. As for the physicality, there’s a lot of craft that goes into making a good book. It’s super codified, it’s hard to learn, you can only really learn through experience, and in that sense we really enjoy the expertise and craft of print. But it’s also the space. Creatively the space is very interesting—you’re faced with a proposition that it’s just as important to look back in order to look forward. In that sense the book is perfect because it always has this connection to the past, and you can use history and rub up against history to make new propositions, and that’s quite unique. It’s hard to do this in other mediums.

WVD: A related question: Is there any appeal for you in doing straight e-books to get to stretch your design chops and do things print might not let you do? And while on the subject of digital, what are your thoughts on the future of print versus e-books?

Selection of books published by Strelka Press, art-directed by OK-RM.

RM: We’ve done this before! We were the art directors of Strelka Press, which came out of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. That started around 2013. It was known as digital-first and the press produced the first e-books in architecture and its connected critical field. It was started by a good friend of ours, Justin McGuirk, and was an important project for us at that time. Now it’s become print as well, but something we noted that Justin always said when often questioned as to why there were only e-books was, “The medium is not the message. E-books are not about bits any more than books are about paper, they’re about narrative and content.” But people were frustrated by the constraints of that, that they couldn’t get a physical copy, so we ended up developing a print-on-demand system. You can still find these POD Strelka books in great bookshops—it’s one of those things where if we had just printed the books in the first place it would have been way more economical [laughs].

You sound optimistic in your question about design opportunity in e-books, but we didn’t have that experience. Maybe it’s different now, but in those days (we were with Strelka from 2013 to 2017) it was full of constraints in a quite uninteresting way. One productive constraint, though, was how you deal with designing the cover for, say, Amazon, where it has to exist super small on a shopping page against the other contexts, like a poster or a postcard, to communicate the book. We always saw the covers as “scaleless.” In that regard some of the constraints led us to solutions we wouldn’t have otherwise had, but it was more to do with the packaging of the e-book and less the e-book itself. Just getting the e-books done and making them functional took all the time we had in terms of budget. In fact, we could have designed the [same] book ten times over. There’s no special interest in getting back into e-books, unless the questions were interesting, in which case we’d see!

WVD: When have you been challenged the most with anything to do with making a book, and what did you learn from it?

Back cover, spine, and front cover of Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago [MCA] and DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2019), designed by OK-RM and PlayLab, Inc. When opened, the front cover lays completely flat and is not attached to the front pages of the book. The binding also intentionally exposes the spine of the bound book and the raw boards used for the case (cover).

RM: Almost all projects are distinct, but our collaboration with Virgil [Abloh] was super interesting in many ways, especially in terms of how to work with and navigate a team. We’ve worked on big book projects, like Manus x Machina with the Met for example, and plenty where there are at least ten people in the meeting, but this was fifteen to twenty people as part of the book team. You have to bear in mind we’re used to having this hybrid role: sometimes we’re the editor, the designer, the publisher, and we’re really one-on-one with the other protagonist, and that’s how we generally make books. So it’s kind of a novelty when you get a team. In this case it was a big team, but Virgil was really clever at how to work with big teams, as that’s what he knows, and he can find his creative space within those structures. We actually found a way of doing that as well amidst the complexity that arose in terms of how do we work out who these parts of the group are and form conversations with each of them. So we had the curatorial team, the publishing team from DelMonico Books/Prestel, the brand, and Virgil’s team, and then you have the design team, which was strange because we were the designers of the book, but there were these other designers who had responsibilities to potentially add something, which we were curious about.

Perforated front cover of Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology, exhibition catalogue designed by OK-RM (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016).

But with the other teams, what we ended up doing and what I’m interested in talking about is how within any problem comes an opportunity. That’s classic. Historically the role of the designer was more craft-oriented and there was the problem of long content or a range of different-sized images, but in our world these problems become larger and more complex. We often refer to this as “Institutional craft,” which is a lot about how to place ourselves closest to where the decisions happen. You have to find the idea in that situation, and in this case it was about the situation—the idea of the book and the “meta-book.” We ended up producing essentially a “book” for each of those individual teams. That gave us a set of books and a meta-book, a book that contains these other books, and in that sense we could form collaborations with each part of the team. Virgil knew this as well, that everyone could work closely together and we could kind of have control of the project because we were the experts. The thing that makes it tricky for a lot of designers is if they can’t find a way to create that position—and it’s not about ego, it’s about expertise—then the book suffers, and that happens all the time. It’s a bureaucratic situation and books can often become driven by the marketing department or maybe the curator if there’s egos there or ideas that don’t fit the needs. It’s important to discuss that because it often isn’t—the architecture of the methodology of the book and how you work with teams.

The second book is Ex Nihilo, with the brand Alyx, artist Daniel Shea, and InOtherWords. We became the art directors of Alyx, and one of our key projects was what we called the “narrative sphere.” In its first iteration this was an image-driven artist collaboration. So we designed a space for that within the brand and the economics and budgets and the way it functioned within the ecosystem of communications. We commissioned Daniel Shea and ended up becoming co-authors of the work. The number of different roles we had in one book and how you navigate that was beautifully challenging. We learned how to navigate the landscape and complexities to create the idea. We could use the “publishing hat” to create an argument against the “artist’s hat” or the “designer’s hat.” You try to find the sweet spot where everything makes sense. It’s a kind of ecosystem.

Ex Nihilo by Daniel Shea and OK-RM (InOtherWords, 2019). The edition comprises a series of printed objects (a book, a set of six posters and a signature of plates) in a high-gloss folder secured with a rubber band. Each of the objects explore distinct formats, materiality and print techniques.

WVD: What are elements not enough designers think about when designing books?

RM: In my opinion not enough designers consider the content of the book, meaning the purpose and the potential of the book in relation to its content. We’re no longer in that era where we have to create cut-and-paste sheets or direct different typesetters and/or processes, which were very laborious. The craft side is quite efficient these days and it leaves time to consider bigger, more philosophical questions, like what’s the relevance of this book, where does it sit? As designers we need to be more able and invited into that space within a book.

On the absolute other side, it’s the physicality and the craft. Too many things are easy to get lost. For example, we need to consider specific materialities for various reasons, for ecological and ethical, and economical reasons. We shouldn’t be supporting big paper companies, we should keep the mills alive. There’s a lot of ethics in the craft. Another example is we need to consider whether a book opens well. We spent time with Richard Hollis and others from that generation and we were always amazed how they take great interest in very specific details like how a book physically opens. For them it’s really important that we don’t lose that. Sometimes it’s a conceptual thing, sometimes you’d don’t want a book to open too much, maybe it’s all about privacy and intimacy. The point is, we need to be in control of these aspects of the work, as well as all of the typography and the margins and the proofing and lithographing techniques, etc. The link between craft and conceptuality and design is super important and that’s where you make something that transcends design and becomes a whole object.

One Language Traveller (InOtherWords, 2015) features the work of Danish artist FOS.

WVD: What formative processes did you experience in your early days of designing that today are always present in your head when you first start thinking about a solution for a book project?

RM: Our first lecture at Bristol was called “Content and Concept,” and it’s where we started to discuss this idea that design was essentially about developing frames for and the content of the work, it wasn’t about being passive. And that’s the way we work, questioning everything is essential for us.

WVD: What non-design things do you most value reading that help keep you at peak levels while in design mode?

RM: We go for a range, but if you’re going to understand context for work then you need to understand context on many levels. Through Real Review we read a lot of contemporary critical works across all fields to figure out what it means to live today, that’s very important. Recently I discovered [E.H.] Gombrich’s books, The Story of Art and A Little History of the World.

The Book

A Little History of the World E. H. (Ernst) Gombrich

I know that they’re generalist and Eurocentric, etc., but they’re useful because they remind you that one thing leads to the next, there’s a sequence of things, and you’re working within a long history. Especially at this point in time because everything is so flat, history and the present, the internet connects everything in our “big flat now.” So it’s interesting when we can start to understand those basics again. I keep returning to a text Sol Lewitt wrote for Artforum in 1967 called “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” which for me is the most clear depiction and description of what it means to be conceptual and how conceptual art functions. On a more ideological level I really enjoy News from Nowhere by William Morris. It’s a reminder about creativity, pleasure, and value—from a design point of view, yes, we bill for our time, yes, we partake in a capitalistic system, but ultimately we also put a lot more into the work than we may be remunerated for, and I think we naturally start to be drawn toward more socialistic values because we exist in groups and we see value in a different way. Morris talks a lot about balance between art, life, and work and it’s a really good argument for another way of living, another value system.

WVD: Can you share times a book has truly wowed you design-wise?

RM: When we first saw the catalogue (in metal) for the Pontus Hultén-curated 1968 MoMa show The Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, we thought it was very impressive. Yes it was a catalogue, and it was a good catalogue—it told you everything you needed to know, but it was also communicating something you couldn’t have known unless you saw the show, which was the conceptual resonance, where the object and idea are in synthesis. From there we looked more deeply into Hultén and we discovered [Swedish graphic designer] John Melin, who always seemed to be involved in these books. Usually the graphic designer in that era wasn’t even named. Maybe the cover would be, but there were very few designers listed in the books, which generally were typeset by craftsmen.

Melin is a legend for us. The Inner and Outer Space, which features Kazimir Malevich, Yves Klein, and Naum Gabo, is the most inspiring book for us—it’s so ahead of its time and could be one of the first examples of the role of an art director of art. The synthesis of content and object and a sense of the book transcending the idea in the same way that art can shows that Pontus Hultén and John Melin together were very aware of the potential of the book, the object and the multiple.

WVD: Who in your field do you always keep your eyes on, and what they do makes you better at what you do?

RM: John Melin! His historical work is really our main inspiration. We found a lot of parallels between his work and ours, in a good way, where you start to feel a cathartic kind of confidence that comes from seeing there are others who worked this same way before.

We try to avoid referencing the contemporary, we see this as more of a conversation that’s inspiring and maybe challenging us through a discourse. We are lucky to have a dynamic group of contemporaries and friends that we actively continue talking to and motivating each other.

WVD: Who are dream clients or contemporary writers, artists, or other creatives you’d like to make a book with?

RM: I think a dream book to make would be one about Pontus Hultén and John Melin. A book about books. Books about books are hard to do, and there are some good examples, but it would be nice to enter that conversation and explore another perspective—to really examine the discourse that surrounds books as well as look at the beautiful craft-oriented aspects.

A bit closer to home, we’ve always appreciated the work of our good friend James Langdon. He’s currently finalizing his Ph.D. and he’s made a lot of interesting projects, alongside writing and curating. Recently he started to work with us on a book “around” our own work, which we’ll also be publishing. What we want to do is make a book about the discourse that surrounds our work, but not just about us but also those whom we’ve come into contact with historically and in contemporary relationships. It’s at an early stage, but it’s a book imagined and constructed through a live conversation; for example the first meeting we had with James will lead to the colophon and every meeting thereafter will form a part of the book. We’ll take trips and we’ll do things we want to do. It will be quite multifaceted and will be an experimental journey. Critically, it’s aimed at students and young designers to give them some of the handles or perspectives that we feel will help contribute to a more open, inclusive, and progressive path.

Images courtesy of OK-RM/InOtherWords.

comments powered by Disqus