On Publishing, Teaching, and Making Design Your Life’s Work with Adrian Shaughnessy

As part of our Bridging Borders program, we had the opportunity to sit and chat with Adrian Shaughnessy, a British graphic designer, writer, publisher, and associate lecturer. Through this program, Grafis Masa Kini is able to foster relationships and collaboration with different graphic design and visual arts cultures around the globe, with this edition’s destination being in London, England.

It was an ever busy morning at White City Underground Station, London, where Adrian so kindly picked us up to head to the RCA White City campus. He co-founded Intro Design Group in 1988 and stayed on as a creative director for 15 years before stepping down in 2004 to pursue writing. His book, How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul (2005), has sold over 80,000 copies to date and has been translated to multiple languages. He went on to co-found the publishing imprint, Unit Editions, with Tony Brook and Patricia Finegan of SPIN. He is now an associate lecturer at the Royal College of Art’s School of Visual Communication.

“Well, I made a bit of a mess of my school days. I won’t go into any details but I left school with no idea what I wanted to do. None whatsoever. I had two interests. One was music. Totally obsessed with the music scene. But I was also interested in visual things.” As a self-taught designer, Adrian’s first foray into the industry began in his days as a proofreader at a now gone UK record company. “So I would check the artwork for spelling mistakes. I looked at this artwork, and this was pre-digital, so, it was traditional, paste up artwork. And I became fascinated with it, and I really connected with it. So I went to the art director one day and I showed him my drawings,” Adrian recalled wryly. “And he said, ‘Hmm okay.’ And a few days later, or maybe a couple of weeks later, he said, ‘There’s a desk at the back of the studio. Why don’t you go and see how it works out?’ So I became a graphic designer and it was just something that, because it was a record company I would be working on record sleeves, album covers, and it just connected. It just clicked. And I became very ambitious and hungry. And that was the beginning. That was how it started. And it was a relief to find the thing that I wanted to do,” Adrian explained.

He worked extensively as a graphic designer, co-founding Intro and taking on the role of creative director for 15 years. During his time there, Intro took on many clients in the music industry including Stereolab and Primal Scream. Although Adrian left Intro to write in 2004, his interest in writing developed well before the departure. With Adrian as creative director, Intro designed and published Sampler, a series of three books documenting and cataloging great album cover art. Adrian also personally wrote Cover Art By: New Music Graphics (2008), a book that delves into the dynamics between record labels and designers and catalogs over 400 examples of sleeve art. But his intrigue in writing in the 90s. “At that time there was a real design discourse,” Adrian explained. “All over the world, people were thinking very hard and writing about what it meant to be a graphic designer. What were the ethical, philosophical, political, and technical and craft, reasons for being a graphic designer? And one of the only ways to join that debate was to write,” Adrian said. 

Although Adrian had no formal training in writing, he did bring something else incredibly valuable to the table—experience. He had real life knowledge of what it meant to be a working graphic designer. “And if you look at design writing, which is a very small world, but if you look at design writing, I think there’s two sorts of design writers; there’s critics, who come from any discipline, and then there’s writers who are, or have been, designers. So they come with that knowledge. And you need both! Because you need people who are not graphic designers, or any sort of designer, to be really objective…I think you can also bring things because you’ve lived that life. So I always value the fact that I had worked for so long as a graphic designer. So when I came to writing, that really informed what I wrote. And I’m also very appreciative of and admire design critics who don’t come from practice. They come from academic disciplines. We need both.”

In 2011, Adrian became a visiting tutor at the Royal College of Art (RCA). “It was sort of, not forced on me, but it was suggested by my friend Neville Brody,” Adrian reminisced. Neville had just been appointed Dean of Communications at RCA in September of 2010. “He called me up and said, ‘I’m going to start this job, do you want to come with me?’ And I said, ‘Neville, I've never done any teaching!’ And he said, ‘Oh, I don’t think that matters. It’d be really valuable to have someone from the practice side.’ When I thought about it I realized although I hadn’t done any teaching, running my studio, I spent a lot of time with young designers. Helping them, advising them, just making sure that they developed. And I realized that that’s a kind of teaching,” Adrian recalled. He explained that while he feels that teaching in the BA context would ill-suit him, in the MA context, he could help students answer the big questions of pursuing a creative practice. “I’m interested in the big picture; what it means to be a graphic designer, how we should function. What are the ethics? What are the dangers? Because you know you can have problems as a designer. You can have your work rejected. What do you do? So, I became interested in all these questions and teaching seemed like a good way to do that,” Adrian explained.

Adrian was quick to explain that teaching at the RCA is often a two-way street. “Another thing that Neville said to me which really, really helped me was,  after I’d been here for about maybe a few months, I said to him, ‘Neville, some of these students, they’re better designers than me. They’ve read books I haven’t read. They know stuff I don’t know.” I said, “Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing.” He said, “Yes, but you’ve got experience.” And I realized that was a big thing. I often talk to designers here, students here and I’ve lived through the problems that they’re telling me about and I don’t have all the answers but I can share my experience. So that was a big turning point for me,” said Adrian. 


The teaching at the RCA is delivered through critique. There is no right or wrong answer. “We just ask the question why. ‘Why have you done that? What do you think that means?’ And I love that aspect of it. I love the idea of critical feedback. And, of course, the students, we encourage them to resist. You know, to have their own views. I had an interesting example of that the other day, a student, I suggested she thinks about another way of doing it. ‘Why don’t you think about this or that?’ And she said, ‘No, I want to do it this way.’ And I said, ‘That’s absolutely fine. Good. I’m pleased that you’re taking this stand, but remember, there is at the end of the year, there’s an assessment. A kind of exam. And at that point, you’re gonna have to explain, very clearly, why you did what you did. And if you can do that, fine. No problem at all.’ So that’s kind of how I see teaching…. I learn from [the students] and I hope I can help them, but I’ve learned a lot from those students and it’s a dialogue. And sometimes, some of our students who come from traditional educational backgrounds which are very hierarchical [where] the teacher’s in charge, the teacher says what’s right and what’s wrong, some of those students take a long time to, well, they all make the change but sometimes they take a while to make the change and realize that they have a voice. That’s why they’re here. This is MA level. So, I love it. It’s great.”

It’s been some time since Adrian began his tenure at the RCA. He is now an associate lecturer and you can see plainly just how passionate he still is about teaching. But with time comes change. The industry has evolved rapidly and it’s natural for design education to evolve with it. The RCA’s visual communications program has grown more structured in comparison to Adrians early days at the college. “When I first came here, it was very free. Maybe too free. Too free for some students. They’re never going to get that sort of rigid structure that you might get in a BA course. But some students need some structure. When I first came here, students could almost do what they wanted and that’s fine for the good students because they were just going to their studio, make the work they want to make. They’d form their friendships and alliances they wanted to make,” Adrian explained. “Basically, when I first came here, you could go to the RCA as a student and really have no contact with tutors. Almost none! …But, it’s more structured [now] and that suits some students right down to the ground because they need that structure. They’re still expected to make their own practice. They’re still expected to become the practitioners they want to be. But I sometimes feel that some of our students would benefit from a much freer [environment]. But you’ve gotta be pretty good to make use of that,” he concluded.

With the responsibility of educating future designers comes preparing them for the challenges they may face as they make their way in the industry. On the challenges currently faced by the industry, Adrian feels that it’s varied. “I think the design industry, certainly in the UK, has become more atomised,” he began. “And by that I mean, there’s still the same amount of work, but it’s been spread over by a larger number of people. I mean, when I had my studio, there was one point where we had 40 people. I mean, unbelievable! And that’s unthinkable now unless you’re a mega studio with offices in New York, and Paris, and Jakarta. You can’t have those sort of numbers. All the studios I know, the good studios are four or five people. Some even two. Some even one. So I think that’s the big change. The idea that you could just join a big studio. I think that’s much harder. I think budgets have come down because of software. Everyone knows that if you’ve got a computer and InDesign, a laptop and InDesign, you can do a lot. So clients pay less which is difficult.”


Adrian also addressed a major concern the industry is still trying to maneuver—AI. “I haven’t seen any effects of that yet. I mean I know lots of designers who are using it, but I’m not aware of any cases, and I‘m sure there are I just don’t know about them, where designers are being replaced by AI,” said Adrian. Like many, Adrian realizes that AI seems to be here to stay. “My feeling about AI is that smart designers will learn to use it to make their work better. I use it. I’m frustrated by it and I will ask one of the AI platforms to do something and it’s never what I want. But there might be an element of it I can use. So that’s my feeling about it. But of course it’s gonna get better, and better, and better, and better. So, it is a threat. I’ve yet to see how that’s impacting people. But even with AI, Adrian is still optimistic.”I heard a good thing the other day, this is not talking about design though I think it applies to design, ‘AI will not take your job, but someone using AI will take your job.’ And I think that’s the way to look at it. That made a lot of sense to me. We’ve just got to learn how to use this. And there was a huge change when the Apple Mac arrived, because everybody had worked manually. Suddenly we had to learn all this software. And it was another big change when the internet came along. We were designing for the internet, not paper. With paper it’s fixed. With the internet, it’s not. People can change their monitor and collapse their screens and all sorts. So, designers always, always had these technological moments when designers have had to rethink what it is they do.” 

With the RCA having a diverse student body, Adrian is also aware that different countries are facing different challenges. “I particularly think of our Chinese students, who come here, they get educated, some of them come and do a BA [in the UK], and then they do an MA at the RCA or one of the other schools, CSM or something, and they go back to China and they can’t do the sort of work they’ve been doing and that’s a problem. But funny enough, that used to happen in [South] Korea. We had a lot of Korean students, they go back to Korea and they couldn’t get the work they wanted. That’s changed now. The Korean design market has really matured and so you can now come do an MA here, go back to Korea, and do the sort of work that you really want to do. So I think that different parts of the world are at different stages and I think, personally I’m really interested in countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand. I see really interesting work coming from these countries. I mean really interesting.”

Prior to the beginning of his tenure at the RCA, Adrian co-founded Unit Editions with Tony Brook and Patricia Finegan from the design company SPIN in 2009. “Well, I co-founded it because I met [Tony] and he’d been doing some self-publishing. And I’d been working with one or two big publishers. I was very frustrated working with the big publishers. And he wanted to expand very much his self-publishing activities and I thought, ‘Why don’t we come together?’ And I’d learned a lot from working with the big publishers. And he’d learned a lot doing self publishing. And we both loved books. So it made lots of sense to do this,” Adrian explained. “So Trish, Tony, and me, we set up Unit Editions. It was just a desire to take control. Not to come to publishing meetings and be told our cover’s not commercial.” Unit Editions emerged at a time where people had concerns around the longevity of books with the emergence of tablets and close friends advised them against the venture. “Everyone was saying ‘Book is dead, everything is gonna be on our iPads. Everything’s gonna be on our phones.’ And we thought, ‘Is that true? Is that really true?’” 


They quickly realized that they couldn’t utilize the conventional commercial book distribution channels. Adrian continued, “So, what did we do? We used the internet to sell direct.” This worked well until Brexit, which meant that import duties now applied to customers in Europe, and the impact of COVID on distribution costs even with the increased demand for books during lockdown. “So, if we get an order from Ecuador or Vietnam, we’d been getting orders from Vietnam. It costs so much to send a book. It costs more than, sometimes, more than the book was worth. So we just thought, ‘We can’t keep going.’ So we’ve done a deal with Thames & Hudson, a really big art book publisher and they now distribute our books. So it’s a very happy relationship.” With this relationship, Unit Editions is able to remain fairly independent which is crucial in maintaining their voice. “I think the big publishers, because they have expensive overheads, employ a lot of people, they can’t take risks. I mean, some of them do and Thames & Hudson for instance are a good example of this. They combine really high-end book design, really interesting subject matter with commercial instinct. Independents can just forget about the commercial side. Just make books that we know people, in our case graphic designers, we just know what graphic designers will like. Because of social media, people can talk, people can tell us, ‘You should do a book about this artist or this designer!’ So, the communication is much better. But I think independents are freer.”

When asked on whether he had any particular favorites from the Unit Editions roster, Adrian exclaimed, “I like them all! Well, yeah I mean funny enough there’s one that I had almost nothing to do with. We did a book on Russian design at the end of communism. and what was happening in Russia was that communism was running the country, but they were looking at America and other countries and seeing that people had fridges and televisions. So Russia thought, “We must design! We must design!” And they set up a design body called ВНИИТЭ (VNIITE) and this was an attempt to make products in communist Russia that people would like. And somebody who had researched this, because this was in the 1960s? 1970s! Came to us with all these amazing pictures and said she would like to make a book and we said yeah… Basically, we would only publish something that we really liked. So Tony and I would have to agree that this was something we were both enthusiastic about. But, if we liked it we’d think, “Right, other people will like it!” So yeah, I pretty much like all our books, there’s a couple that I think could’ve been better.

Closing the interview, we asked Adrian to impart some advice to hopeful young designers who are just embarking on their journey as professionals. “Forget design and train as an accountant! Learn accountancy,” he joked. “Well, something that’s interesting that’s happening, I don’t know if it’s happening in Indonesia, but we’re getting a lot of students who, not just at RCA but at a lot of places, we’re getting a lot of students who are retraining. They come from other disciplines. They’ve done an economic degree or, I’m trying to think of some examples , but they come from non-design disciplines, non-art and design disciplines and I think they’ve looked at that world and realized that, I don’t know, that maybe it’s a restrictive world, corporate world and they think, ‘Ah! Art and design, maybe that’s what I should do.’ So, I would say to people there’s no magic wand. There’s nothing you can do to make your life a brilliant success other than be totally committed. Totally committed. You cannot half do it. You have to give everything and just realize that whatever world you enter, so someone who graduates this year, the world they enter will not be the same in five or ten years' time. So, the way I look at things is that you can never stop learning. You have to adopt a position of, ‘I need to learn constantly. I need to find new ways of engaging with the world.’ So, I think that would be my advice and just to make it your life’s work. I mean you can’t play at it. It’s not something you do as a hobby, it’s got to be your life.”

About the Author

Kireina Masri

Kireina Masri has had her nose stuck in a book since she could remember. Majoring in Illustration, she now writes, in both English and Indonesian, of all things visual—pouring her love of the arts into the written word. She aspires to be her neighborhood's quirky cat lady in her later years.