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The innovative, agitative office of Craig Oldham

Design, to me, is an intellectual discipline not a visual one. Design happens 80% in intangible manners-thinking, talking, debating, more thinking, analysing etc. — and then there’s some visual stuff and some making stuff.

In our new series on Creative Leadership: A New Way of Thinking about Creativity, we explore just what Creative Leadership looks like in today’s culture and modern economy. Speaking to the creative thinkers and practitioners shifting the needle in our perceptions of creativity and its outcomes.

As a creative practitioner, author and educator with a no-nonsense approach to design and indeed, life, Craig Oldham is an antidote to BS. An inimitable style and approach that has led to an array of commercial collaborators — all wanting a dose of acerbic wit, common sense and beautifully bold visuals.

A deeper exploration into culture and its self- defining properties have resulted in severals books and exhibitions. One such example is In Loving Memory of Work: a visual record of the UK miners strikes of 1984-1985. The 156 page hard cover book documents this historic period from narrative, turn of events, to the visual campaigning tools of posters and banners. The comprehensive publication also features a foreword written by film director and social campaigner, Ken Loach in support of the project.

Craig’s published catalogue also includes practical advice in the form of ‘Oh Sh*t… What Now?: Honest Advice for New Graphic Designer’ — a toolkit for recent graduates. His most recent collaboration with Rough Trade Books, however, takes a different direction, delving into the eerily poignant and still relevant message They Live.

A visual compendium of economic, cultural and political discourse, They Live: a visual and cultural awakening unravels the significance of John Carpenter’s 80’s cult film through its influence and ideas; featuring contributions from Shepard Fairey, philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, and activist group Brandalism.

A self-proclaimed agitator, Craig Oldham has followed a path of his own making with the aim of inspiring others along the way. We discover how Craig aligns his commercial practice with personal projects, why IP is important to designers and what makes for a good creative leader.

Q) How would you describe yourself in five words?

Erm. Here goes… Democratic. Compassionate. Curious. Upfront. Daft.

Q) After graduating in Graphic Design from Falmouth, what was your pathway into the creative industry?

I was EXTREMELY lucky really. The course at Falmouth, when I attended at least, was structured in a manner that during your second year part of the criteria of progression was completing industry experience. As in get a placement. I was scared stiff of this but I managed to get two weeks at a place in London — a small packaging agency.

It changed my attitude and approach completely. It was like the lights came on, and I saw that with a bit of belief in myself and then my work I could actually do this as a career. And most crucially I identified, for me personally, that placements were going to be my best route into the industry. So, every break from University then on I made sure I went on placement. Summer, Christmas, Easter breaks in my third year were spent at agencies on placement. So I was really lucky that one of them asked me back when I graduated and that became my first job. There was an incredible amount of luck and circumstance involved.

I wasn’t (and still am not) the best designer, but I got out enough to make sure I got something somewhere. So really my pathway was very similar to many graduates, but I’m grateful for the ways things fell for me still.

Q) What does ‘design’ mean to you and how has it helped shape you / your outlook?

Design, to me, is an intellectual discipline not a visual one. Design happens 80% in intangible manners-thinking, talking, debating, more thinking, analysing etc. — and then there’s some visual stuff and some making stuff. The way I describe it best, is that if a project is like an hour-long tv programme, before it finishes there’s a sort of ad break of type and graphics that happens to finish it all off. In essence it brings it back to problem solving for me. I know that’s an age-old adage, but it rings true for me.

My approach has never been the visual outcome first. If someone asks me for a logo or a website or a book or whatever I first ask them why. Because you have to work out what they want to achieve first, and design identify the best way to achieve it. And then deliver it. That sometimes means you may not end up producing what you were asked to, but by thinking about it properly you may have found the RIGHT response regardless. This has helped me enormously as it becomes a principle in all things you do, not just work.

I wanted to test my own working principals across the whole lifecycle of a project; and I craved both change and urgency.

Q) What encouraged you into making the leap of starting your own business?

Many circumstances that combined together to make me need to change. I think every person, at some point, probably entertains the idea of being their own boss — whether it’s for a minute or an ambition they continuously work towards — and I was no different.

It took me years from having the thought to realising it. But the culmination of things, leading you to some sort of simple answer, was essentially it reached a frustrating point in my agency life; there was no one else I really fancied working for; I wanted to diversify and not just eat graphic design for every meal, every day; and I wanted to test my own working principals across the whole lifecycle of a project; and I craved both change and urgency. I was foolish the way I did it, and would never recommend anyone follow the procedures I did, but it seems to have worked out ok so far.

Q) You’ve worked with many high profile brands and organisations. How do you shape and maintain a commercial practice that also remains inline to your values and interests?

I try to work with people whom share my values and interests. It really is as simple as that. I’ve never really cared about having certain brands on my client list really, I only care about finding the right people and working with them regardless of what they do. I also make sure I have one solid reason-even if it is something as crass as money, for why I take a project on. I think this is mostly why many people get frustrated in the work they have to do, because they are unclear why they have to do it.

Q) Since launching your own practice, what has been your most exciting accomplishment so far and the most challenging?

Every day is challenging. I’m by no means in a comfortable position where I can let the business run and do what I like, I constantly have to tend to it. My self-authored work goes a long way to helping appease my frustrations and desires alongside the business also. I think the achievement that amazes me most is that I can still operate everyday and that I haven’t gone out of business yet, five or so years on.

Self-initiation is a distinguishing and crucial part of our practice. It’s important because it allows us to be an active part in things we want to discover, influence, or change.

Q) You have published several books on diverse subject matter: the 80’s miners’ strike, careers advice for graduates, to your most recent – They Live: A Visual and Cultural Awakening. How important is it in your practice to create your own work and IP?

Crucial, actually. Self-initiation is a distinguishing and crucial part of our practice. It makes us unique because very, very few companies do it, and certainly not at the same scale and influence. It’s important because it allows us to be an active part in things we want to discover, influence, or change.

It helps us learn new things, and do new things. But it isn’t all about ourselves. We involve lots of other people in these projects too, including our clients. We also teach, lecture, write, comment, curate, advise, and generally agitate.

Q) Running a business can be all consuming. How do you keep motivated, or maintain momentum when business is challenging?

I think it’s because I have no alternative, to be honest. I don’t really know how to do anything else, and I don’t know what I would do or whom would want to have me as part of their team if, for whatever reason, my business went away. I try to keep short, mid, and long term ambitions alive so I can feel a sense of achievement as I work daily which really helps.

Q) Thinking the long game (and not at all morbid…), what contribution and / or impact would you like to leave to design?

I really don’t know, and I honestly think that’s for others to decide, not me. I think anyone can only aim to try and solve problems they face and share those solutions to the benefits of others. I like the idea that I have in someway made the industry better for having been in it, maybe made a little room for people from working class backgrounds to get into a middle-class industry. I don’t know. As I say, I think those legacies aren’t made by wanting a legacy to begin with, but by working in a principled and meaningful way and hoping that you lead by example so those following you in years benefit from the process. I guess.

If you have the itch, then scratch it. However you manage to do that, scratch.

Q) What advice would you give other creatives wanting to start their own independent ventures?

If you have the itch, then scratch it. However you manage to do that, scratch. But if you find that it’s not for you, or that you prefer environments or scenarios that came before it, or want to change completely into another profession, career, or job, that too is OK. You haven’t fucked up if it’s not for you, or if you go back. Don’t let anyone call you a failure for trying. It takes so much energy, commitment, and bravery to take those steps, and regardless of what happens you will be better for it. Better for scratching.

When you are a leader, your creativity has little to do with being a leader and everything to do with how you handle the creativity of others.

Q) Are there specific any traits / approaches that you feel make for a good creative leader?

Transparency. Honesty. Dialogue. Being open with those who look to you for guidance, giving them trust and responsibility and actually knowing that people work with you to better themselves and they aren’t there to solely do your bidding. Leadership isn’t always about leading, it’s often about watching other people make their own journeys. When you are a leader, your creativity has little to do with being a leader and everything to do with how you handle the creativity of others. Being aware of that helps, I find.

Q) What current or future culture shifts do you foresee, that will impact our ideas of design (if any)?

Design is so paradoxical and fragmented in the commercial landscape that it doesn’t necessarily behave like many other cultural disciplines. It is also not at the forefront of content — it doesn’t generate content, it gives for to it—and so will never lead the discussion. So that change will probably come from somewhere else… that’s where I’ll be looking anyway, anywhere but design.

Q) What’s on your reading / play list [books / magazines / podcasts / music] etc?

Best film that I saw last year (though it came out in 2017) was You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay and Mandy by Panos Cosmatos. My reading was contaminated a lot last year by research, but I enjoyed a classic The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. But I also enjoyed The Flame by Leonard Cohen, Sundog by Scott Walker. Rival Consoles, Yves Tumor, Caroline Rose were all high on the spin.

Q) What’s next?

Who knows… ha. I’m hoping to continue with the Epiphany Editions with a next release from the series of fictional books from films made real. They Live was the first… next is The Shining.

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