Creative Lives — “Design isn’t magic, it’s a process” shares graphic designer, lecturer and Textbook co-founder Vicky Carr

Posted 18 April 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

Looking back on her teenage years spent editing colours and fonts in Microsoft Word and applying “crude html” to her MySpace page, it was clear that Vicky Carr was always destined to become a graphic designer. Soon after graduating she founded Textbook, a design studio specialising in print projects, alongside fellow designers John Newton and Chris Shearston. Working out of Manchester’s highly collaborative shared workspace The Engine House, Textbook have built a reputation for work that employs handmade and low-fi techniques, with clients ranging from a local brewery to a socially focused research group. We caught up with Vicky on the experimentation that has come to define her work, and finding the balance with her part-time role as a lecturer at the University of Salford.

Vicky Carr

Job Title

Graphic Designer and Co-founder of Textbook Studio

Location

Manchester

Clients

Cloudwater Brew Co, Sounds From The Other City Festival, Islington Mill, A Place Called Common, Video Jam, Graphic Design Educators’ Network, Manchester Art Gallery, The Pilcrow Pub, The International 3

Previous Employment

Lost in the Forest Institute (2010–2011)

Education

BA Design & Visual Arts: Graphic Design, Stockport College and Liverpool John Moores University (2007–2010)

Website
Social Media

Vicky

Inside The Engine House

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m a graphic designer, and I run my own design studio with two friends. We’ve been working together for nearly six years now. I also teach one day a week, currently at University of Salford, and I lecture and give workshops regularly at various educational institutions.

As Textbook, I often lead on design projects, and tend to project manage for the studio as well. I deal with suppliers and student emails. I’m also co-founder of a Risograph print collective called Mono which I helped set up in 2013.

How do projects usually come about?
Our clients are mostly from arts and culture backgrounds, or people who run independent businesses, but we also work with councils and community groups. Our clients tend to be based locally or in the North, as we feel having a face-to-face relationship is important. Primarily we enjoy print or publication design with a little bit of commercial stuff or branding. We use the Risograph printer a lot in our work and tend to incorporate handmade and low-fi techniques.

What does a typical working day look like?
We work 9am to 5-ish, but if a project is nearing a deadline, it’s likely we will pull a few early starts, late nights or weekends. It takes me about 45 minutes to get to Salford from Stockport, where I live. I really like the walk through the city because it clears my head.

If I’m in the studio, I will spend quite a bit of time behind the computer. Otherwise I might be printmaking, photographing work, mocking something up. I tend to work on one project for a bit and swap to another when I run out of steam or if feel myself getting bored.

Salford University is across the road from the studio, and if I’m over there my day will be much busier. I’ll spend most of the day running about answering questions and talking about student projects. It’s quite intense, and I worry constantly about whether what I am teaching is useful or just waffle, but I love it.


“[Teaching] is quite intense, and I worry constantly about whether what I am teaching is useful or just waffle, but I love it.”

How do projects usually come about? 
All of our work comes from word of mouth. Getting work from a recommendation is really interesting and useful, because it means we hardly ever end up working with people we don’t get along with.

How collaborative is your work? 
Between us we regularly swap files or computers and take it in turns to crit each other’s work. One of the greatest things about working in The Engine House for the last year is the surge in collaboration, across disciplines too. It’s super-fun and we are really supportive of each other’s work, so collaboration often happens by accident or starts out as a joke or casual chat.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love getting things back from the printers, seeing clients happy with what I’ve done, or just feeling excited about what I’m working on. Least favourite is probably amends or admin, dealing with tricky suppliers or fussy clients.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve recently finished a publication called Fruitful Futures for the LiFE (Living in Future Ecologies) Research Group based at Manchester Metropolitan University. The project was in response to the impending loss of a much-loved piece of scrubland known locally as Pomona Island, due to be purchased by a much-loathed local development company to build luxury flats on the site.

Fabrizio Cocchiarella (head of the LiFE group, senior lecturer in Spatial Design at MMU and one half of Graphic Object) invited us to design a publication reflecting Pomona at that moment before its development. It was tricky to organise, but they were up for experimenting and gave us complete creative control. I’m really proud of the end product. It’s now available in Waterstones, Home Mcr, RIBA, Blackwells, Cornerhouse Books and the Architectural Association.

“As the cliché goes, we’ve made as many mistakes as you could probably make. The hardest ones have cost us money.”

What skills are essential to your job?

Having a high tolerance for stressful situations. Improvisation. Being able to laugh at things sometimes. And being very organised.

Would you say your work allows for a good life-work balance?
It’s cheesy, but I’ve realised that work and play are intertwined for me. I really enjoy my job and the lifestyle that goes along with it. Quite often clients are friends or become friends. Quality of life is really important to us. When people ask what it’s like, I usually say that the best thing about being self employed is that there is no boss, and the worst thing about being self employed is that there is no boss.

What tools do you use most for your work? 
We’ve been collecting bits and bobs for years, so it’s quite a list: A 
HP5200 A3 laser printer, a Panasonic Lumix GF2 Digital camera, vintage photography lights and tripod, Ideal 4305 A3 Guillotine, Risograph RZ-370, a Duplo DC8-Mini A3 collator, a TaoTronic hand scanner, a HP A3 Colour laser printer, a very crappy low-fi booklet maker, souped-up iMacs with extra ram and SSDs, we also have old Apple cinema screens turned sideways (portrait). Plus drills, saws, sanders, hammers, scalpels, bone folders, long-arm staplers.

In terms of programs, we use Adobe Creative Cloud, FontExplorer X Pro, Slack for communication and sharing projects. Google Docs and multiple shared iCal is integral to the studio. I use Leuchtturm notebooks, with lots of post-it notes sticking out. I keep a backlog so I can keep tabs on old info I’ve found like printers or interesting projects.

A Risographed materials pack for A Fine Line

A Risographed materials pack for A Fine Line

A Risographed materials pack for A Fine Line

A Risographed materials pack for A Fine Line

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?

I’ve always been good at writing and art, so I knew I’d end up doing one of those. I’ve always felt the need to be in control of the way things look or are written, obsessively editing essays and changing colours and fonts in Microsoft Word, or learning crude html to customise my MySpace page as a teenager. Pretty obviously a graphic designer, really.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?


I studied graphic design, and still often work using skills I learnt at university. It was a very small art school in a scruffy ’60s tower block, but the attitude of the place and the staff was what attracted me. It taught me to be aware of the industry but not to be afraid of operating outside of it. It also taught me how to learn, be hardworking and inquisitive, and, as we were subject to some experimental teaching practice, it sparked my interest in education.

What were your first jobs?
I did a few internships while studying and shortly after graduating, but I realised by process of elimination I didn’t really like any of them. I worked at a letterpress studio, a few design studios, a big advertising agency. I love Sheffield’s design scene and very nearly moved there to try and get a job, but a few months after graduating I was offered a job at an experimental new design agency within my old uni. It was low pay, 50/50 design work and teaching school-aged kids (with no prior experience) so it was a steep learning curve.

We got involved in the established design world and had a lot of fun – we met Ken Garland, Jonathan Barnbrook, Adrian Shaughnessy, and organised a lecture by Greg Quinton for D&AD North. Chris and John were also employed there and we realised that if we wanted to carry on doing this kind of job, we’d have to invent it and start a studio.

Was there anything in particular that helped you the most at the start of your career? 

Meeting Dan Russell was really fortunate for us. We met at just the right time, at a student event in Leeds that we were asked to speak at. He gave an improvised, calm, yet completely radical lecture about making your own job instead of waiting around for one and invited us into a community he was part of. This led to getting our first studio space in a near-derelict Victorian mill. We worked there rent free, but when it rained, it rained indoors, and there were gaps between the floorboards the size of pound coins.

“Collaboration often happens by accident or starts out as a joke or casual chat.”

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?

The first project we did was a self-initiated one about urban foraging, something John (Newton) was interested in. We were awarded £1,000 funding from Ideas Tap and split it in half to pay for the research and design, and production of a short run of handmade books. We got a load of greyboard from the empty ex-litho printers for the covers and letterpressed them, then screen-printed the inside pages. We had a mini launch in a local coffee shop. That got us our first few good jobs, which in hindsight was pivotal to our development.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
Mainly mundane but satisfying admin skills, and streamlining my design process. Dealing with humans (both in and out of the studio) is something I’m still trying to get better at. I go to ceramics class one night a week because it’s good to do something that isn’t design.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
As the cliché goes, we’ve made as many mistakes as you could probably make. The hardest ones have cost us money. We’re past being a fledgling studio now, and at some point you look around and wonder what ‘grown up’ studios are supposed to be doing. Constantly redefining ourselves and not being afraid to grow and change is tricky, for example changing the type of work we want to do or clients we want to work with. I’m the one that does all the writing for the studio, and writing about myself or my own work never stops being challenging and uncomfortable.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
I never envisioned working without a boss, or teaching. Graphic design is more or less what I thought it would be. In the early stages, we weren’t sure if it would work, but design isn’t magic, it’s a process, a learned skill, and you need other people to help you do it. The realisation that we didn’t have to know everything straight away gave us confidence. Also, I was warned frequently as a student that design is usually 10% of your time, the rest is dull-but-necessary stuff. This is right, but it’s actually pretty useful and satisfying sometimes.

“Design isn’t magic, it’s a process, a learned skill, and you need other people to help you do it. The realisation that we didn’t have to know everything straight away gave us confidence.”

A letter-pressed and screen-printed pocket guide to urban foraging

A letter-pressed and screen-printed pocket guide to urban foraging

A letter-pressed and screen-printed pocket guide to urban foraging

A letter-pressed and screen-printed pocket guide to urban foraging

A letter-pressed and screen-printed pocket guide to urban foraging

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Thinking Ahead

Could you do this job forever?

I certainly hope to.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Probably to take on bigger jobs and more people.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give someone wanting to found their own design studio?
Find a community of like-minded people who will support you, who you can ask for help and advice, and vice versa. Don’t worry if your parents and friends don’t get what you’re doing at first. You’ll be a bit skint at times, but just keep making stuff and things will snowball.


This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on The Engine House.

Posted 18 April 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Photography: Charlie Hitchen
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Publishing, Design
Mentions: The Engine House, Vicky Carr, Textbook
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