Many graphic designers create amazing work but wouldn't know where to start in explaining what makes that work so good. Adrian Shaughnessy isn't one of those designers.
Instead, the founder of studio Intro is one of the industry's best-known theorists and critics. Shaughnessy is the go-to guy when the media needs an insider opinion on a prominent new logo or high-profile magazine redesign. He's also one of the few designers to have successfully crossed the fence into writing about design: having left Intro in 2003 to change his focus, he's the author of How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, as well as writing and co-authoring several books on record sleeve design and music graphics, and other subjects.
That's aside from his radio show, Graphic Design on the Radio, and his work as a graphic design consultant. We caught up with the prolific (and very busy) Shaughnessy to find out what drives him.
DA: What was the first piece of graphic design that made an impact on you? Who was it by and why did it impress you?
AS: It was a sign that read DEAD SLOW CHILDREN. I grew up in the country and some neighbours had the sign made by an architect friend to warn drivers who went past their house: I remember it vividly. There was something about its high-Modernist design that alerted me to the power of lettering. It was done in a thin sans serif font, immaculately rendered in black and red on a white background. All three words were stacked one on top of the other and all justified to the same width.
I didn’t appreciate any of this at the time but later, when I discovered typography, my mind went back to that sign. I went to a talk given by my friend Jonathan Ellery recently and he said that his earliest experience of design was a sign painted by his dad; it said SHUT THE GATE. This might be an interesting subject for a student thesis: graphic designers and the influence of domestic signage.
DA: You've mentioned in the past that at times graphic design and you have fallen out, that your passion for it has waned and then recovered. Are you currently in love with graphic design?
AS: It’s not so much graphic design as the business of graphic design that I’ve fallen in and out of love with. I used to relish the intellectual battle with clients -- I loved difficult clients. I was always disappointed when clients said, that’s great, we love it.
I much preferred a battle. For me, being a designer is like being a barrister. Making a case for your work is an important part of being a designer. I think lots of ideas fail because they are badly presented, not because they are bad ideas. Any designer who thinks their work will be accepted without them having a solid rationale for every part of it is mistaken. It's incredibly rare for a client to accept a piece of work without asking questions.
Having said all that, I’ve just reached a point in my life where I’ve lost the appetite for the battle, and I’m really only interested in work where I’m in control of the content. I must stress that this is not a very healthy state of mind for a graphic designer; it means that I’ve lost the service-gene that is essential if you want to be a designer.