DA: You're self-taught. If you could do it all again, would you go to design school?
AS: I would definitely go to design school. For years I thought I was a clever bastard by avoiding a design education. I couldn’t see the point of one. I'd been trained in a studio, and almost immediately I was earning a living as a designer and I hadn’t had to spend three or four years studying.
Today, I think the opposite. When I go into design schools -- which I do frequently -- I see that I’ve missed something: I missed having a period of experimentation. I never had that --I had to do commercial work from the get-go. This made me focused and professional, which was a good thing, but I'd be a better designer if I'd had a period of experimentation.
DA: Did you find it harder to take your first steps as a professional designer without formal training?
AS: I found it alarmingly easy. Up until the time I discovered graphic design I'd been on a road to nowhere. I was messed up, and who knows where I’d have ended up. But when I discovered design I knew it was what I wanted to do. I had a purpose. I was like a sponge; I just soaked up everything I could.
When I say I’m self-taught what I really mean is that I did a lot of looking. I educated myself by staring and staring at design –- all kinds of design -– and seeing how it was constructed. I also discovered I had the service gene that all designers need, and I loved pleasing my clients. But eventually I worked out that I needed to find my own voice. I reckon I'd have found my own voice quicker if I’d gone to a good art school.
DA: Do you regard yourself more as a writer and critic these days or a designer?
AS: I think of myself as both a writer and a designer, though I don't do much commercial design, and I’m mostly interested in designing stuff that I have either written or collated. I love writing, and since giving up studio life, I’ve never been without a writing assignment. Sometimes I have four or five writing projects on the go at once. The only problem is that writing is really, really badly paid, so I rely on design work – and some consultancy work – to stop me from starving.
DA: In your work on Varoom (the illustration magazine that Shaughnessy edited until early this year), were you more involved in the design or the writing? Does it become easier or harder to run a title when you're effectively an all-rounder?
AS: My only involvement in the design of Varoom was to appoint Non Format as the magazine’s designers. I made it a condition of accepting the job that they got hired. I’ve known them for a long time, and they are one of the few design groups I know with a real eye for illustration. They combine visual flair with a certain stubbornness that I really admire. I gave them a free hand to design the magazine.
The only thing worse than an interfering client is an interfering client who is also a designer. I always hated having designers as clients, so I made a point of leaving Non Format alone. There are things I'd like to have done differently, but the mag worked well, considering the budget and timeframe we all had to work in.
DA: Which is more exciting to you at the moment, the world of illustration or that of graphic design?
AS: This is a big subject. Graphic design and illustration used to be joined at the hip. Look at design annuals from the 1970s and early 1980s and nearly every piece of work has a drawn image as part of it – there were lots of winged logos back then. But in the 1980s, graphic design became professionalized and went off to be big business’s best friend. And because illustrators didn't do strategy or talk the sort of branding bullshit that clients love, they became sidelined.
Yet if we look at radical graphic design from the past few years, it looks like illustration – and more importantly looks as if it’s been done with an illustrator’s sensibility. I’m thinking of people like Michael C Place at Build, m/m (paris), Marian Bantjes, and Kim Hiorthoy. Even some of Non Format’s work.
None of these people would ever call themselves illustrators, but they operate more like illustrators than graphic designers. Their work is not bogged down in strategy. It’s not over-purposed like most graphic design. I like this new melding of design and illustration.