Unit Editions

Text by Tag Christof
Photography by Yann Faucher
and Unit Editions

April 30 2015

Partnerships of creative genius usually follow one well-trodden path: wide-eyed and ambitious youths meet, work hard, strike it big (and then often fall out spectacularly). Witness The Beatles (and any rock band that’s worth its salt, really), Zuckerberg and Saverin, Lucy and Ricky, and in the design world, the recent bitter battle of typographic kingpins Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones.

Much more rare, though, are unions of already-greats, pairs of stalwart names who might just as easily rest on their laurels, yet nonetheless choose to risk battered egos for the sake of opportune symbiosis. Just over a half-decade ago, Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy forged just such a partnership. The result was Unit Editions, an innovative and agile book imprint that has set out on the singular mission of making beautiful, well-designed and accessible books.

Brook and his esteemed studio, Spin, have become design icons for television, cinema and digital graphics, typography and a long list of enviable blue-chip brand clients. Shaughnessy is himself a distinguished designer, but as an author has become one of today’s leading voices in design—he writes prolifically for both print and web, has headed up seminal conferences and lectures at the Royal College of Art. It is no exaggeration to say that the pair makes an extraordinary team, and that they joined forces in the first place is a testament to that they are both solid pragmatists and right good chaps.

The partnership for Unit Editions has been a fortuitous one, especially in the context of epic battles between a certain e-commerce monolith and traditional publishers—not to mention the persistent notion that the death of print is nigh. The venture has smartly sidestepped the whole messy rigmarole by self-financing, which has allowed them to work to a standard instead of a schedule. The result has been magnificent: critical acclaim for their volumes, a regular selling-out of copies and a resounding affirmation of the vitality of print.

Each release is referred to as a numbered ‘Unit,’ and including the forthcoming Type Plus (a followup to last year’s Type Only), Unit Editions has released an impressive 17 since Unit 01, Studio Culture, was published in 2009. Its heartfelt tome on Herb Lubalin and his quintessential 1970s curvaceousness is already something of a classic, as it seems to have made its way onto every good designer’s bookshelf. Its success has even warranted a second, downsized printing. Other titles so far have included monographs on Ken Garland and Jurriaan Schrofer, as well as deep dives into the Supergraphics movement and Kwadraat Bladen’s “graphic experiments.”

Unit Editions is just hitting its stride and the good lads are in it for the long-haul. In other words, don’t expect a spectacular falling out anytime soon. The partnership has proven brilliantly that quality can still count for everything, and that the most salient innovation sometimes comes from doing something tried and true really, really well.

Why books?

Adrian Shaughnessy: I take the Umberto Eco line on this: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon…”

Tony Brook: They offer a fantastic vehicle for exploring the kind of content we are interested in sharing. We have also taken advantage of other formats, we made an App, posters, papers, we tweet, have a Facebook page, send out newsletters and will be exploring other avenues too. It’s all part of sharing and connecting.

The Hachette vs. Amazon debacle has reignited debate around established vs. disruptive models for distributing content. Where does Unit Editions fit in?

TB: As an independent publisher Amazon tends not to do us any favors.

AS: Definitely anti-Amazon. Our books are not available through them. All institutions and businesses are currently subject to disruption as a result of the Internet. Unit Editions is about bypassing the conventional book trade distribution system. This allows us to work within a completely different financial and time framework. We are self-funding. We publish books when we are ready. The traditional distribution model does not allow this. Sales cycles have to be slotted into, and the delayed payment structure would have necessitated us borrowing large sums of money to support us while we waited for distributors to pay us, or, as often happens… not pay us.   

Why is “good value” an integral element of Unit Editions productions?

AS: Our audience is a discerning one. Unless our books function highly at all levels—exemplary design, high production values, in-depth textual content, and swift delivery—we wouldn’t retain our audience. The idea of ‘good value’ extends to things such as the way we package our books for mailing—on the larger titles we use protective corners to ensure books don’t arrive with crumpled edges. But ultimately, our books stand or fall on the content. If the content—the subject matter—is as good as it can be, then our books will be regarded as ‘good value.’ If we let that drop, then I suspect we would be considered as ‘poor value.’ Also, people also tell us that they greatly value the free worldwide postage.

TB: I think ‘good value’ is vital to our approach, it reflects the effort we put into the design, content and production of our books.

We have a thumb wrestle in the car park. The three-second hold rule applies.

What does having your own imprint give you the freedom to do, both in terms of design and content, that you wouldn’t have done otherwise?

AS: We’ve both worked with mainstream publishers, as authors and designers, and the process is one of continual compromise. For example, covers are always designed with retailers in mind, rather than the actual book readers. The most extreme example of this is the practice (in the UK at least) of having covers for popular fiction titles vetted by the book buyers in supermarkets. We don’t have any of these considerations. Because we only sell via the internet (and a handful of specialist shops) we don’t even need to put the title on the front cover—see our book on Ken Garland.

TB: It allows us to follow our instincts in choosing subjects for our books, and to make the decisions we wouldn’t be allowed to otherwise regarding the creative way we approach design and editorial content.

Any off-the-wall ideas you’d fancy putting into print?

AS: I’d like us to have some books on our list that were not purely graphic design books.

TB: I have lots of on-the-wall ideas I’d like to try! (baddummmtssch)

Give us a rough idea about your design process. Is there an established arrangement and implicit roles or is it more of a case-by-case dynamic?

AS: Tony leads the design process, so best for him to answer this question. However, the design and text are united in one aim: to put all our subjects into a contemporary setting. By this I mean, if we produce a book on an historical subject—Herb Lubalin, Ken Garland or FHK Henrion, for example—we always aim to put them into a contemporary format and design that highlights their relevance to today. Similarly, the texts make a point of establishing contemporary reference points. I hate design books that take an historical subject—say Art Deco—and then design the book in an Art Deco style.

TB: We always begin with research. It is really important our design engages with, and is respectful of, the subject in hand. Having said this we take an overtly contemporary standpoint. Creating a lame pastiche is not an option. We try hard to add a fresh perspective to the material.

How do you overcome creative conflict with one another?

TB: We have a thumb wrestle in the car park. The three-second hold rule applies.

AS: We broadly agree on most things, but inevitably we both have our own tastes and biases. We spend a lot of time discussing different projects but the arguments are always rational.

How far do you imagine the project will go? Will there be a finite number of Units?

TB: There so many books that we’d love to make. Broadening our remit and exploring visual culture in all its aspects is a big ambition for us.

AS: We have perhaps a dozen books lined up for the next 18 months. One or two might fall out of the reckoning, but others are coming onto our radar all the time. We are ambitious for Unit Editions, so we don’t see any lessening of the pace.

We’re excited about upcoming Type Plus, which will be Unit 17. Any chance you might give us a hint about what else is coming down the pipeline?

TB: We have some killer titles coming up. One we can mention is Manuals 2, it is well on its way and is looking great. Exciting times!

AS: We’ve got some great projects in the pipeline, including one or two blockbusters that should open up a new audience for us. Also, one of the criticisms of Unit is that all our monographs to date have featured male designers. Well, that’s about to change.