Talking Eds

Talking Eds: A Conversation with Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy of Unit Editions

By Steve Kroeter August 15, 2013
Publisher Tony Brook
View Tony Brook’s Profile
Publisher Adrian Shaughnessy
View Adrian Shaughnessy’s Profile

For its first installment of “Talking Eds,” a new series focusing on personalities in the design-book publishing world, Designers & Books talks with Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, the two graphic designers who founded Unit Editions in London, a publisher of high-quality, affordable books on graphic design and visual culture. In this conversation they trade stories on how Unit got started, some of their biggest sellers—including Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey and Herb Lubalin, Designers & Books Notable Design Books of 2011 and 2012, respectively—and getting a first library card at the age of two.

Designers & Books: Let’s start with the start of Unit Editions. How and why did you launch it? And can you explain the idea behind your tag line: “Books for designers by designers”?

Tony Brook: For me it was a combination of several factors coming together. We had been making a number of self-initiated projects over a period of years that had influenced the way Spin developed as a studio, but these were all inward facing and I was looking for an opportunity to do something that was more outward looking. The Spin papers were a result of conversations we had internally. I know Mark Holt and Hamish Muir well, and had talked to them both about Octavo, the typography magazine produced by 8vo, and was keen to do something similar. So when Dave McFarline, who was working at Spin at the time, mentioned the idea of a newspaper I jumped at it. I had no expectations at all and was amazed when it sold well.

Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook of Unit Editions

At the same point, we were working on a couple of books for well-known art and design publishers and I found the whole process suffocating and archaic. Publishers, in my experience, tend to be controlling, deeply conservative, and risk-averse with no real empathy for, or understanding of, design. I thought I could do a better job.

The first two purchases of Spin papers off the Spin website were from Argentina and Sweden and it was this that pointed the way forward. It would be impossible for Unit to succeed without the Internet and it has formed a key part of our approach from the get-go. So much for killing print!

Adrian Shaughnessy: Separately we’d both had unsatisfactory experiences with traditional publishing. Even the good ones are trapped in an outdated distribution and retail system that is no longer viable. The dominance of Amazon and the powerful book chains has meant that publishers care more about what the buyers in the retail chains think rather than what the book buying public might want. This formulates their attitudes toward cover design, layouts, formats, even subject matter. I knew there had to be an alternative, so when I met Tony and we realized that we both shared the same views, we set about building an alternative—one that didn't depend on the conventional book trade, and one that made full use of the Internet. Our books are only available through our website and a handful of shops we have personal relations with. We are autonomous and self-sufficient. That was why we used the tag “Books for designers by designers.” We wanted to make it clear that we were making a clean break from the old publishing model.

British graphic designer Ken Garland signing copies of the first complete monograph to be published of his work, 2013 (Unit Editions)

D&B: How does Unit Editions fit with what the two of you have done, respectively, at Spin and ShaughnessyWorks? Is Unit somehow the book publishing manifestation of those businesses? Or no relation?

TB: We have a lot of experience designing books, art monographs, and magazines at Spin. I would say that it is our experience of making books for artists that has had the most profound and direct effect on Unit. The mindset is very different working for artists and art galleries, as opposed to commercial publishers; the requirement is to make a beautiful object that is conceptually sympathetic to the subject. These are skills that are directly transferable to Unit.

Unit Editions studio

AS: Books are one of the great achievements of world culture. I’ve been a reader, a buyer, a hoarder—a paper, ink, and glue junkie—all my life. I own more books than I could read if I lived to be 150. Prior to setting up Unit Editions, I wrote and art-directed a number of books. I worked with a conventional publisher who was incredibly supportive and in many ways a model for publishing excellence. But it was always a battle to get my ideas accepted. ShaughnessyWorks is an umbrella name for all my activities—art direction, writing, editing, teaching, lecturing, and consultancy—which in turn feeds into what we do at Unit Editions.

D&B: The description on your website includes phases like “book as a highly designed artifact” and “impeccable design and production standards” that seem perhaps more associated with the idea of pages rather than pixels. With the exception of your Wim Crouwel digital catalogue, all your books are printed. Do you see Unit Editions ultimately operating seriously in both print and digitally—and how would you see that working?

Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey—Digital Catalogue for iPad 2012 (Unit Editions)

TB: Spin was a relatively early adopter of digital design, I believe I’m right in saying that we won one of the first D&AD Yellow Pencils for “new media” with a 55DSL CD-Rom. I get as excited by pixels as I do by paper. Graphic design looks fabulous on a hi-res flat screen and I believe design for screen can be as beautifully considered as it is for print. My enthusiasm for publishing digitally is slightly tempered by the fact that the market for digital formats is still in its infancy and the costs of developing are, for Unit, prohibitive right now. There is no doubt that the audience for digital content will grow. We need to be thoughtful about how we engage with new formats rather than just jumping in for the sake of it.

AS: I’m an iPad addict. I try to read all text-only books as e-books. But I wouldn’t want to read an illustrated art, photography, or design book as an e-book. And I don’t think we are anywhere close to the book becoming redundant. The book is still the best technology to deliver the material we publish—complex mixes of text and image. Of course this may change, but at the moment we know that many people (mostly designers) are attracted to our books because of their design and production values. They value the book as a designed artifact.

D&B: Were books a big presence in your homes when you each were growing up—Tony in West Yorkshire, and Adrian in Glasgow? And when was your first inkling that books might end up playing a large role in your lives?

TB: Thanks to my mother, I had a library card at the age of two and it was love at first sight. We had no books in the house at all but because of that early introduction I have always loved books as objects and enjoyed reading. I started collecting Penguin paperback books around the age of 12.

AS: I grew up in a house with books. Both my parents were readers. I started reading from an early age. And books have been an obsession ever since. I didn't go to art school, and came to graphic design through an interest in music—album covers, the usual thing. With music I now find I have nearly gone completely digital—I like the new immaterial world of downloadable music. But with books, I find the opposite is true. Apart from reading text-only ebooks, I now value the printed book more than ever.

Jurriaan Schrofer: (1926–90) Restless Typographer, 2013 (Unit Editions). Cover and open printed spine.
Interior pages from Jurriaan Schrofer: (1926–90) Restless Typographer

D&B: What were the circumstances of the two of you first meeting up? And how long did it take before the idea occurred to you of going into business together?

AS: Oddly we didn't meet until shortly before forming Unit Editions. I say oddly because my old studio (Intro) was often bracketed with Tony’s studio, Spin. We started our studios at roughly the same time, and worked in broadly similar areas. I was aware of Tony and his work, and people always told me that I’d like him, but we never met. A few years ago, I had a radio show in London called Graphic Design on the Radio (GDOTR), and I invited Tony to be a guest. Afterward we went for a drink, and discovered our mutual publishing ambitions.

TB: After GDOTR we very quickly found that we had similar ideas on what was wrong with publishing and what was required to put it right. It was a no-brainer, really.

D&B: Over the course of the four years you’ve been in business, you’ve published twelve books. Did you find the books or did the books find you?

AS: As our reputation has grown, we’ve found that people now approach us. We are getting some major design-world figures knocking on our door. We also get offered a lot of books that we simply say no to: these are usually books that any mainstream publisher could produce. Our definition of a good book for Unit is one that no one else would think to publish. The Herb Lubalin book is a good example of this—anyone could have done it, but no one did. The other criterion is that we both have to believe in a book; we would never publish anything that we didn't want to put on our own shelves.

Herb Lubalin, 2012 (Unit Editions)
Interior pages from Herb Lubalin, 2012

TB: A combination of both, we’ve been approached, and we’ve decided what subjects we’d like to explore. Deciding what we are going to make next is a fluid, creative, and enjoyable process. We know our subject and most of the time we have a good feeling for what is right for Unit. The books are often born out of our passions and interests, if we get excited enough by a subject then we try to make a book.

D&B: Do you think of yourselves as serious book collectors? What are your libraries like?

AS: Tony is a bona fide collector. I’m obsessed with finding bargains, so I mostly buy books from charity shops and secondhand stores. Not many charity shops have woken up to the fact that graphic design books are worth anything, so I still find bargains. I have some valuable books, but I’ve never bought them for their value—only because I want them. I’ve recently had to hire space in a storage facility for all my excess books and magazines.

TB: It is a strange feeling to turn round after many years collecting to find that I have a “serious collection”; I’m an enthusiast and my passions have taken me to some odd and unlikely places. I have a healthy collection of signed first editions, modern poetry, and novels (I could afford them pre-kids). I have some nice books on photography and art, but the main part of my collection is graphic design. My collecting isn’t ordered or academic in any way, I’m always on the lookout for things that float my boat. I have rare examples by Josef Müller-Brockmann, Wim Crouwel, Herb Lubalin, Jurriaan Schrofer, Jan van Toorn, Karl Gerstner, and Otl Aicher. My collection of graphic ephemera is growing steadily. Collecting is a buzz, an obsession, and if I think about it, I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember.

D&B: You have your own well-developed ideas about how not to follow the well-worn path of traditional publishing. Which companies, or in which countries, do you find innovative kindred spirits?

TB: There are some wonderfully innovative publishers, some current and some in the past that I find inspiring: Neue Grafik magazine (the original “by designers for designers publication”); Idea magazine from Japan; Eye magazine; Lars Müller Publishers; JRP Ringier; Hyphen Press; Hansjörg Mayer; Ralph Ginzburg, and Herb Lubalin (obviously).

Interior pages from Neue Grafik magazine, no. 4, 1959. Photo: Courtesy of Modernism 101
Cover of special edition of Idea magazine, Typography Today, 1980, edited and designed by Helmut Schmid. Published by Seibundo Shinkosha, Tokyo. It contains reprints of important 20th-century typography texts and examples of work by 65 designers from 12 countries including Jan Tschichold, Piet Zwart, Herb Lubalin, Herbert Bayer, Karl Gerstner, and others. 

AS: I look mainly to Holland and the UK, and maybe France, for interesting small-press books. The UK scene is particularly strong: I’m constantly struck by the number of good books emerging from the DIY publishing movement. I like what Sara de Bondt is doing at Occasional Papers. Her book on British poet and artist Dom Sylvester Houédard—Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter—is one of my books of the year for 2012. I also like Hyphen Press and Fuel Publishing—both major inspirations for me. Visual Editions is breaking new ground too; I like the way it is rethinking the book. In France, I’d mention Editions B42. In Holland, the new pairing of NAi and O1O looks interesting. And of course, Lars Müller in Switzerland. In the e-book realm, I’d mention Strelka Press, and Outcast Editions—a new architectural e-book publisher run by Hamish Muir.

Cover of Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, edited by Nicola Simpson, 2012 (Occasional Papers)

D&B: When looking at design book publishing in the U.S., do you see it being different from, or similar to, what’s happening in the UK?

AS: A visit to Printed Matter in New York was always the high point of a trip to the U.S. Last time I was there, Hurricane Sandy got in the way of my usual visit, so I’m a bit out of touch with developments in U.S. avant-garde and small-press publishing. As regards the mainstream, I don't really have a view, except that it seems to be following a similar path to Europe—and of course, Amazon exerts a huge and mostly destructive influence on publishing. One nice U.S. book I received recently was The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, on the British science-fiction screenwriter. It was published as a Risograph edition, and designed by Rob Carmichael at Seen Studio.

TB: I have no idea what other publishers are doing in any depth. Occasionally I do the rounds of the websites but I’m really not that interested right now—we are too busy forging our own way; maybe I should take a little time out to have a proper look.

D&B: 2013 marks the fourth anniversary of Unit Editions. And over that period you’ve worked with some of the world’s most esteemed designers. Are there any anecdotes you can share that stand out for you?

TB: That can’t be right, four years!? Feels like four minutes. I remember sitting with Wim Crouwel to talk to him about the possibility of a book for his exhibition at the Design Museum and expecting a long drawn-out conversation about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. It went ME: “Wim, we’d love to publish a catalogue for your exhibition.” WIM: “No problem.” End of story. Or when we visited the Lubalin Center about publishing a book on “The Herb” (as I now call him). We were all convinced they would say no, possibly followed by laughter and ridicule, but again we were met by unabashed enthusiasm. It still makes me glow.

Cover of The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, edited by S.S. Sandhu, 2012 (Seen Studio)

AS: Is it really our fourth anniversary? Feels like we only started yesterday. Putting the books together is a lot of hard work. We all have to fit it in around other work—the pressure is on constantly. So it is important to stay cheerful and enjoy the long hours. As regards anecdotes—well, there are a few but perhaps not all for public consumption. Certainly for me, working on the Herb Lubalin book was a revelation. I met some amazing people from Herb’s past: his widow, Rhoda, and his son Peter; Faye Barrows, his assistant at Sudler & Hennessey in the 1950s and '60s; and people like George Lois, Alan Peckolick, and Bernie Zlotnick—all figures who had been part of one of the most amazing periods in the history of American graphic design. I felt privileged to touch the hem of greatness.

D&B: Can you give us a preview of a title or two that you have coming up?

AS: Just published in May is a book of my collected design writing, Essays: Scratching the Surface. I’ve been writing about design now since 1995 and this is a collection of my essays and journalism. Vanity publishing? Well, as a publisher if you can’t publish your own work, what can you do? This will be followed at the end of August by a book on contemporary typography: Type Only. It’s a survey of around 100 designers from all over the world using typography without the support of illustration or photography. The introductory essay is written by Mark Sinclair, deputy editor of Creative Review, and provides an overview of how typography has evolved from the early “type only” experiments of the Dadaists and Futurists, via modernism and postmodernism, to today’s radical typographic trends, digitally made and shared instantly on the Internet.

Interior pages from Type Only, forthcoming August 2013 (Unit Editions)

Around October, we will publish a large-scale monograph on the British (though German-born) graphic designer F.H.K. Henrion. Having worked on this last project for most of the past year, I’m convinced that he is in many ways the most interesting and important graphic designer to have practiced in Britain. One of his greatest admirers was Saul Bass, who wrote a very touching obituary of Henrion (who died in 1990). This is a major book—probably bigger than the Lubalin volume. And then we're hoping to get another title out before Christmas, which is still under wraps. We hope to announce it soon..

Spin 2, 2006

D&B: It turns out that we share with you an interest in book lists from designers. For your Spin 2 issue in 2006, Tony, you asked 50 graphic designers for the top ten books they believed designers should read. Your introduction began: “The great thing about books—besides the way they look, smell and feel—is that they can set off sparks in your mind and fires in your heart.” That paragraph concludes by saying that the submissions you received “moved, inspired, educated and possibly changed the lives of their readers. Let’s hope they have a similar effect on you.” For you, Tony, seven years later, what lingers about having done that project?

TB: I tried to access designers that had markedly different approaches, I wanted the reader to be surprised and challenged by the choices. Unfortunately quite a few didn’t reply so the scope wasn’t as broad as I’d hoped, but from the feedback I’ve received and the sales it has had it seems like a genuinely worthwhile thing to have done.

D&B: Which are a few of the books that have “set off sparks in your mind and fires in your hearts”—and how or why?

The three books in the “Danzig Trilogy” by Günter Grass, with original English-language covers: The Dog Years (1959), Cat and Mouse (1961), and The Tin Drum (1963). Originally published in German. Photo: Courtesy of Fine Editions Ltd (books available for purchase)

TB: The “Danzig Trilogy” by Günter Grass is a creative tour de force—extraordinary stories and, in the first editions, staggeringly powerful covers. Printed Matter by Karel Martens for the marriage of content, layout, and the physical make-up of the book. The complete works of Bernard Shaw (the Shavian Society is the only organization I’ve ever joined outside of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and D&AD).

AS: It would be difficult to keep the list to 300, so to name a few is nearly impossible. But here goes: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce; Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Underworld by Don DeLillo. I actually don't read much fiction—but I go back to those three books every few years. They are astonishing works of art, and each one feels like they are part of what makes me, me.

Cover of Printed Matter (3rd edition) by Karel Martens with Jaap van Triest and Robin Kinross, 2010, now out of print (Hyphen Press; distributed by Princeton Architectural Press)

D&B: Before they disappear, can you each recommend a bookstore that you feel a special attachment to?

AS: I’m going to make myself unpopular here, but I gave up on bookshops—or should I say, book chains—a long time ago. I actually prefer hunting for books on the Internet. I know this is heresy, but it’s how I feel. I went into a branch of one of the UK’s biggest book chains the other day and it felt like I was attending a funeral. All those tables full of books paid for by publishers, filled me with gloom. Of course, there are good bookshops, and I still like secondhand shops (though they are disappearing) and charity shops. In London we have a few specialist design and art bookstores, which are still a joy to visit—but the truth is, the Internet is better. And you don't even have to go near Amazon for that to be true.

TB: There was a bookshop in Taunton—a small town in the west of England—when I was a student that was straight out of Harry Potter, and one in the Piece Hall in Halifax that was incredibly musty and chaotic that I loved. Nowadays I pop into Charing Cross Road (traditional area for secondhand book shops in London) every now and again, but sadly I, too, am a screen-based hunter.

D&B: As part of kicking off our “Talking Eds” series with publishing personalities, we would like to begin the tradition of having each interviewee pick a book that we will have a drawing for—to give away to a Designers & Books website visitor. Which book are you each choosing—that perhaps will end up “moving, inspiring, educating, and possibly changing the life” of the lucky winner?

TB: Printed Matter by Karel Martens, published by Hyphen Press. Beautiful size, paper stocks, binding, content, layout, smell. It has it all.

Interior pages from Printed Matter by Karen Martens with Jaap van Triest and Robin Kinross, 3rd edition, 2010, out of print (Hyphen Press)

Interior pages from Printed Matter

AS: I’d like to propose Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, edited by Nicola Simpson and published by Occasional Papers. This is a book I've been waiting for since I first discovered the magical work of Houédard. Everything about this book is perfect: its design and format is exemplary, and the writing from a variety of experts, adds to our understanding of Houédard, one of the giants of concrete poetry.

Left (p. 58): 69, 1964, typed page, 33 x 20.3 cm. Courtesy of Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. Right (p. 59): George, 1964, typed page, 17.2 x 12.7 cm. Courtesy of  Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. From Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, edited by Nicola Simpson, 2012 (Occasional Papers)

Left (p. 64): the divinely bladed thunder bride, 1969, typed page, 16 x 19.1 cm. Courtesy of Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. Right (p. 65): flowers, c. 1969, typed page. Courtesy of Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. From Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard


All images courtesy of Unit Editions unless otherwise noted.

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