We had a chat with friend of FFF Craig Oldham to hear about the latest print title he’s been involved with, this time as a publisher via his Common Practises – ME & EU: Postcards from Post-EU Britain – which is available now. Filled with over 100 anti-Brexit postcards, free to send all over Europe!
Your career has included a few zig zags, can you give us a potted history and an update of what you spend your time doing these days, and what irons are in the fire?
I think I’ve always had the gift and the curse of impatience to be honest. The up-side makes you constantly want to get on with new, different things and also makes you get things done. The down-side is you’re almost always feeling frustrated, and don’t stick to one thing. But I always taper that with my Dad’s words: “variety is the spice of life” and having a rich and varied diet of work and vocations was always something I wanted to achieve and retain when I started up alone. So, though every designer does have a relatively every-day-is-different kinda thing, I think mine is a notch up on that. The days are spent designing, managing, researching, testing, trialling, teaching, reading, writing, talking, across a variety of projects. I think the thing I enjoy the most about having a variety of projects on the go is making sure that they’re all at different stages. If they all started at the same time and were due at the same time, I’d be knackered. And all that to a soundtrack of existential, dark, synth… much to the annoyance of the studio!
I’ve known you to be politically engaged, passionate and vocal for as long as I’ve known you, continuing the mantle of the likes of Malcom Garrett, Ken Garland and (dare I say) Tibor Kalman. What drives this? – how do you keep it sustainable? – and (why) should designers care?
Wow, to be mentioned alongside those names is quite a thing for me. Not sure I’m up to their level. But, I would consider myself a principled person yes. As for why, well all I know is that it’s not really one singular thing. A lot of it has to do with both my upbringing and my social milieu—growing up around direct, honest, and passionate people (mostly women) who instilled a clear sense in me that if I didn’t have cares or concerns, opinions or outlooks, then what did I have, really? These were people who, to a certain extent, defined themselves through their vocation and what that in turn did both for their community, society, and their family. All I’m doing is trying to continue that in my line of work: I want what I do to benefit my community and society, and my family. It’s not always easy, but I do believe that it’s achievable to a degree in every undertaking. You can always know why you do a project, what you want from it, and what you want for it. These are things that really define work and it’s impact. And I believe it makes it better too, for all involved: the audience gets better work, as does the client, and you feel more enriched as you’ve achieved a goal, so to speak.
And designers should care. As I said, without principles what are you really? A mercenary that’s what. Without a point of view, a principle, or knowing where the line is in all instances you become a vacuous vessel for the words, opinions, ideas, and principles of others. All that change with every job or project. As my Mum might say: “Are you still waiting for your spine donor?”.
On a less ethereal note, having principles and deploying them, in my experiences, takes away, or at least reduces, that taste issue. When people are confronted or engage with your work, and they know the principle behind it, how it might look and the likes is almost transcended because it comes from a genuine place. It goes above like/dislike into appreciation/respect. They might not like it, but they might respect it. etcetera. I’m yet to find anything else that can do that, and it’s such a powerful thing when it comes to design which is more often that not seen as a surface-level discipline.
Tell us about Me+Eu, how it came about, who was involved, and what your role is/was?
In general I was the publisher, and I advised on the book as an extension of the project and helped out in the design and production, but in the main it was down to the two editors. ME & EU was initiated by two young designers Nathan Smith and Sam T Smith (no relation). I knew Nathan as a student at Falmouth and he was the first placement I ever took on in my own studio and so always kept in touch. Both Nathan and Sam then ended up at GBH and after EU Referendum result, initiated the project. They wanted to do something positive in a negative climate and also do something that was outward looking at a time when everyone was looking at Britain as making many inward moves. They reached out to all kinds of creatives in the UK to design a postcard and they intended to send them across the EU member states when we triggered article 50. So ME & EU documented that, but, as I mentioned, the book is more of an extension to the project.
The political and personal nature of the project is what makes it so unique, vibrant and interesting. As practitioners working in the creative industries, there’s a general reluctance to express political views openly and publicly, for many reasons, but Brexit elicited such a strong and passionate reaction. And I think it’s this which separates ME & EU from a lot of the designer “sewing-circle” projects out there. And what interested me as a publisher. But to express them onto postcards is a profound touch. They’re an almost perfect technology. They afforded the creatives the opportunity to make eye-catching, enticing, thought-provoking images on the front, with a personal framework on the back. Throw into the mix the political storm of Brexit, and that becomes a really exciting thing. There’s also a really warming feeling of solidarity you get from the book. Over 100 individual cards expressing over 100 individual views, of course. But collectively they’re a unified and formidable force. And that gives me hope for the industry.
We’ve been fans of your publishing endeavours for years, from the humour of ’TEN Penneth’ to the considered quality of ‘In loving memory of work’ – this book is another pivot in terms of physicality, can you talk through its form? (why its a postcard book and not pull-out posters for instance)
Thank you, very kind. Well, here’s another curse of having principles: if you’re going to do something you have to do it right. That was particularly sharp in this instance. What we wanted from the book was for it to be both a testament to the postcards themselves, but also want people to use them and keep the debates going. So that really did dictate the format to an extent. I think that comes from my teaching, that if you solve the problem and get the idea, the form will present itself. Looking back at the book now, though there are minor permutations that could be made, it couldn’t really exist any other way or form. Plus I really like the idea that the book itself makes a statement when you you get a huge anti-Brexit thud as you drop it on the desk.
I think books, as a physical technology, need to be produced with physical merit. Most people and publishers concentrate on the conceptual merit of their titles, and then shit them out onto any old paper and size. And I think that’s a crying shame. Production is amazingly important and can in some cases—most definitely in the case of ME & EU—become the concept for the book.
Any particular favourite contributions you can recall, or curveballs?
Oh, wow, it’s full of them. I love Malcolm Garrett’s Ono/Lennon riff… I love Patrick Thomas’ (it’s his fingerprint and that of a German student)… I love the Europe Final Countdown album as it’s just the idea it it’s purest form… Or Simon Griffin’s poem, an assembled and collaged poem from the front page of the Daily Mail the day after the result, which constructs something new and hopeful… all of them, honestly. Each has a story and that’s what makes the book so rich.