Creative Lives — Creative director, studio founder and lecturer Craig Oldham: “It’s not enough to just make things look good”

Posted 25 April 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

Craig Oldham can pinpoint the exact moment when his career took a sharp turn for the better. Following a deflating exchange with his nan, he realised that laying out other people’s ideas simply wasn’t going to cut it. Now operating out of his own Manchester-based studio, his practice has expanded beyond the realm of traditional graphic design to encompass teaching, curating and writing. In an environment that actively encourages learning, experimentation and “messing about”, the studio balances client work with self-initiated projects, including Craig’s much acclaimed book In Loving Memory of Work, documenting the UK Miners' strike. We caught up with Craig to discuss his multidisciplinary approach and the influences that have shaped his path so far.

Craig Oldham

Job Title

Creative director and founder of The Office Of Craig Oldham
Lecturer at Falmouth University

Based

Manchester

Clients

People’s History Museum, Digital Cinema Media, Sheffield Museums and Galleries, Brandalism, D&AD, British Ceramic Biennial, Laurence King, Do The Green Thing

Previous Employment

Senior Creative, Music (2009–2013)
Designer, The Chase (2007–2009)
Designer, The Partners (2006–2007)

Education

BA Graphic Design, Falmouth University (2003–2006)

Website
Social Media

Craig

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I head up the studio [The Office Of Craig Oldham] as a director. It’s my studio, so I’m creative director and founder, if you want to be official. Essentially we’re a full-service creative studio. We have a really rich and varied diet of work, and that’s why I wanted to set up on my own. I had this really good grounding in classic, traditional forms of graphic design from working with The Partners, The Chase, Music – problem solving where the idea rolled out as branding, print and digital, but I wanted to explore other things.

I don’t see design as pushing type, image and content around on the medium. I see it as an intellectual discipline, and I think that can be applied to anything. If you get the solution right, the outcome could be a chair, writing a play, a poster or a brand. That’s what we try and do as a studio, to mix our practice, and push our skills into other places – which has led us into campaigning, publishing our own work, writing and lecturing, filmmaking, and we’ve curated and designed exhibitions. 

What does a typical working day look like?
It changes every day, that’s the thing I love about it. Because we are a studio, obviously our hours are dictated by our clients’. Generally the phone rings from 9am until 6pm, but we’re in before and after that. Today for example, I was with a manufacturer talking through some drawings, this afternoon I’m going to be writing a proposal, then I’m going to be installing an exhibition, and seeing stuff getting printed on weird material, so it really varies. 

A lot of the time you can be in front of a computer because that’s our industry-standard tool, but we place a lot of emphasis not just on how you design things, but how you actually make and produce them. We spend a lot of time talking, out and about seeing other things, messing around with stuff, seeing how other people practice. It’s certainly not just turn up to the office, do your work, and then go home and never leave other than lunchtime. 

“I had this really good grounding in classic, traditional forms of graphic design, but I wanted to explore other things.”

In Loving Memory of Work, 2015

In Loving Memory of Work, 2015

In Loving Memory of Work, 2015

In Loving Memory of Work, 2015

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How does your work come about?
It’s not an exact science, it’s a real mysterious dark art, getting work in. You can try all sorts of stuff; word of mouth, new-business pushes, you could send something to someone, or networking. I guess I try to do all of those things and follow things up. When we work with someone they generally recommend us to someone else. We get a lot of work from referrals.

I think the thing that stands us apart from other studios is our self-initiated work. I published a book [In Loving Memory of Work] on the miner’s strike a few years ago, and through press, and people seeing and buying it, the studio has had so much interest, and so much work off the back of it. I work with people that really want to work with me, and I really want to work with them. If we get on, we can challenge each other, push each other, understand each other, and that’s where good work comes from. It doesn’t come from chasing a brand – that doesn’t generate good work, good relationships do.

How collaborative is your work?
I collaborate every day with people in my studio. People generally see collaborators as an external thing, but I think the whole thing is a collaboration. As a student, designer or professional, I don’t think you can switch off to that – you’ve always got to be open minded. If you don’t collaborate with people, you don’t get different points of view, it’s just one-way traffic. That’s not creative, is it? Creativity is about combining elements in new ways, it’s not a solitary practice. Inevitably someone will have the idea, but it’s always a collaborative thing because they have to get there, standing on the shoulders of someone else.

We once printed with coal dust, and it was like “Who on earth is going to put a combustible material in a hot machine?” But if you have a relationship and they get what you’re trying to do, then they go “Okay, we don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’ll try.” Collaboration is key to new stuff happening, because you can’t do it on your own, it’s impossible.

“My mum used to work as a sister on an intensive-care ward. I can’t compete with that. The closest I get to that is teaching, sharing what I’ve learnt and my experiences.”

Posters created in collaboration with marbling artist Jemma Lewis while working at Music, for the inaugural Leeds Print Festival

Posters created in collaboration with marbling artist Jemma Lewis while working at Music, for the inaugural Leeds Print Festival

Posters created in collaboration with marbling artist Jemma Lewis while working at Music, for the inaugural Leeds Print Festival

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What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your work? 
I love working with really interesting people. It’s worthwhile because it’s relative, and what I’ve always wanted to do. There’s a real joy in that. To be honest, more than my design career, I feel honoured to be able to teach. To sit in front of people who are so passionate about what they do, so ambitious, challenging and enthusiastic is incredibly rewarding. My mum used to work for the NHS, she was a sister on an intensive-care ward. I can’t compete with that, I’m really proud of her. The closest I get to feeling like that is by helping people through teaching them, by sharing what I’ve learnt and my experiences.

The worst thing is that it can be hard when people kick the shit out of your ideas. It’s part of the job and it’s hard work, but it’s really rewarding if you love it. I feel fortunate that I still do.

What has been the most exciting project of the past twelve months?
Probably the books. We did a second edition of the miner’s strike book, which has been life changing for me. It was so personal – my dad, my mum, my extended family were all involved and helped make it. I don’t think I’m ever going to eclipse that. I’m not saying that the commercial work we’ve done hasn’t been great, but when you can pour a bit of yourself into the work you do, it’s incredible.

I also really enjoyed working with Naresh Ramchandani at Pentagram and his charity Do the Green Thing over the last six months, plus we just did a couple of posters and illustrations for his charity about going vegetarian at festivals and the impacts of meat on the climate. Again that was just from Knowing Naresh, and getting on with him. I’m really proud of it.

“As an industry, we’re always banging the drum of knowing what we’re doing, but being creative is about experimenting. It’s falling off your bike and getting up again.”

What skills that are essential to your work?
I think, above anything else, a designer has to have empathy. It’s about experiencing something. Bob Gill always says if you’re doing something for a launderette, go and actually sit in the launderette. You have to understand your client, what they do, what their audience is, does, or needs. You’re only going to get that by actually experiencing it. I think that above everything else is paramount.

Then from there, curiosity. Just like any muscle you’ve got in your body, you can practice being curious by looking at stuff, switching on, soaking the world up. That can be with sketchbooks, photos on your phone, notes, or just training your head to retain stuff.

I describe my practice much more as curating than designing. It’s important to have a value system, knowing what is good and why you think it’s good. On a job you’ve got to know what’s right, and why it needs a bit more or less of something, and curating that. It’s not enough to just make things look good.

The Democratic Lecture, 2012

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
At like 12, 13 years old I had a teacher called Chris Green – I still keep in touch with him – and I remember for the first lesson he taught us he started telling us about typography, including the really anal details. From there he used film posters, and games packaging (stuff we were into) and he told us this has been made by a graphic designer. That was the hook for me, I just put my energy into it – I feel lucky that I knew that at an early age. I always say, if you really enjoy being creative and coming up with stuff, graphic design is just a really easy way into the creative industry. You might end up doing filmmaking, or fashion, because all these skills are transferrable. Graphic design can be your entry point into anything.

Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development? 
It wasn’t necessarily a project, it was a reaction to a project, and I remember it so vividly because I can identify the point when my thinking changed. I’d made a book on football poetry while I was at The Chase. It was a long project that you could really get your teeth into, and I loved it. I carried [the book] around, and I would show anyone who was not even interested in looking at it.

I remember showing it to my nan, and she was like “Oh, you wrote this?” I was like “No”. She said, “Oh right, have you taken all these lovely photos?” “No Nan”. She was like, “Oh have you done these illustrations then?” “No.” “What did you do?” I began to explain, but before I even started she interrupted “Do you want a cup of tea, love?” That was it, the conversation was over, and I remember thinking, I can’t let this happen again. I can’t be this vessel for other people’s stuff. That really taught me that the content is the thing I should be more interested in.

“Chasing a brand doesn’t generate good work, good relationships do.”

Graphic design is a necessary part of stuff; it’s a means, not an end. It can be really powerful, meaningful, but it’s nothing without the content. That lesson, sat with my nan – and her just not giving a shit about the design at all – that was the key point where I thought, I’m focusing far too much on the inward design, when I should be thinking about communicating other people’s ideas, and being a platform for that. Equally opening up the opportunity for me to have my own ideas. That was the light switch moment. It wasn’t a gradual change, it was literally on or off.

Have there been particular challenges or mistakes you learnt from?
I make mistakes on an hourly basis, but I encourage that. Mistakes are stigmatised as being unprofessional. As an industry, we’re always banging the drum of knowing what we’re doing, but being creative is about experimenting and doing stuff to see what happens. It’s falling off your bike and getting up again. You’ve got to be honest; it’s about saying “I’m not sure if this is going to work, but I’ve tried it.” How boring would the world be if you knew the outcome of every single thing you were going to try?

The Handwritten Letter Project, 2012, which began in 2007 and invited designers and creatives to literally pen their thoughts on the handwritten letter

The Handwritten Letter Project, 2012, which began in 2007 and invited designers and creatives to literally pen their thoughts on the handwritten letter

The Handwritten Letter Project, 2012, which began in 2007 and invited designers and creatives to literally pen their thoughts on the handwritten letter

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
I want to try different things and different mediums. At the moment I’m interested in breaking down that wall. I genuinely believe that pure creativity comes from anyone and everyone, especially when a lot of people get together because they’re really pissed off about something. That is proper creativity that can actually make a difference. I think design can learn from that.

I’m really interested in celebrating that working-class, ordinary creativity that everyone has. The everyday kitchen table kind of creativity. It doesn’t come with a polished industry veneer but it’s pure problem solving, like when you see someone make their own no-parking sign. I think my head is going more towards looking at the work of others, and showing graphic designers the rich rewards that can come from that, how that can influence their work and thinking.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Have a belief in what you do, the confidence to back that up, and the work ethic to get things out there. I think bravery is so much rarer than talent. Talent is everywhere, but not everyone is prepared to push and apply it, work really hard at it and be brave with their ideas. Anyone could give a talk or make a book, but they just have to believe in it enough to get off their ass and do it. It’s just about finding what you want to do and going for it.

Posted 25 April 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Publishing, Design
Mentions: Music, The Chase, The Partners
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