Week 10 – Case Studies Exploring Trends and Outputs of Influential Studios

Guest lecture with Craig Oldham

I really enjoyed this lecture with Craig Oldham. He articulated some of the points I’ve been working on lately about the nature of design. He starts off strong by saying he isn’t a designer at all –

“I actually don’t believe it is graphic design.I guess what I mean by that is that when I instigate projects for myself and when I take things upon me to start projects that I’m interested in, that I want to do, that I want to put out into the world, I don’t see that as a graphic designer instigating that. I think it’s much more complex, and I think to call it just graphic design would be perhaps a disservice to the ambitions of the project, to the ideas of what I’m trying to do.”

Craig Oldham

He goes on to clarify that he believes graphic design is a service, that “graphic design is for other people to other people. What I mean by that is you as a designer are in the middle of, I’m really oversimplifying this by the way, but graphic designers are in the middle of a three-pointed diagram. If you imagine a line with three points on it, the designer is the middlepoint of three points.” (Oldham 2021)

This is very much my experience in my professional practice. Some clients don’t even think of me as an autonomous person, but merely a faceless service doing something they could easily do if they had the “right buttons to press”. Luckily most of my clients are much more pleasant! But my work is very service oriented, I’m helping to facilitate communication between my client and their audience, whoever that may be. Designing with an authorial voice is an altogether different kettle of fish.

Photo by John Madere

Paula Scher gave a fantastic interview to It’s Nice That promoting her Netflix episode of Abstract: The Art of Design in which she spoke about her stance on working for free. “It is actually common of designers from a previous generation. I mean this is a thing I know about, you invest yourself in personal projects for a variety of options.” By working for free, Paula argues, offers you a certain freedom. “It could be because it changes the way you work, it could be to experiment, it could be because you liked the cause, they’re all the reasons I’m talking about,” she says. “In the States, young designers have been kind of forced fed this thing of ‘all work has value, you should always be paid.’ As a result, they find themselves with the inability to change what they have made, because if they’re working for somebody else that’s all they do. They’re not figuring out that you can go outside that box by finding a cause, or volunteering services, or making a relationship… It’s becoming more and more rare and I find it really troubling. It means that it takes the profession and sort of turns it into a pure business, instead of a craft or a calling that you’re working to improve.” (Bourton 2017)

Working in this manner, or on personal projects, changes the relationship from a transactional, client to service provider, to a more empowered working relationship. Self directed projects are the most empowered of all, given no oversight, no direction or demands from outside of yourself. This can also be intimidating, but by taking the opportunity and being brave, you can produce truly satisfying work.

Workshop Challenge

Find two examples of designers who demonstrate authorial / making expertise in the delivery of a component of their practice. Is it their sole output, are they passion projects or are they opportunities where they saw a gap in the market?

Generate 10 ideas for discussion, upload to the Ideas Wall and elaborate further on the blog. Please note, this is the first step of you considering one idea that will be researched and potentially launched as an authorised artefact through the last part of this module.

The two designers that jumped out at me when I thought of the task this week are Leia Bell and Gabrielle Blair.  Both started as designers/or artists and have transitioned to something  different. 

Leia Bell had a background in fine art printmaking, and started making gig posters for Kilby Court, a small venue in Salt Lake.  Her posters have a cult following and I’ve loved them since I was a teenager. She became very well known on the gig poster circuit after deciding to attend a con on a whim. The interesting thing is that she burned out on making posters and has organically transitioned to other things.  First setting up a small gallery space, and now running a successful framing business.  I think it is really important to remember that you don’t have to define yourself by your career, and sometimes you need to grow in a completely different direction.  Leia’s posters are still fantastic, and there is a great interview with her where she talks about her career here

Gabrielle Blair was a designer and art director working in New York.  After the birth of her fifth child, she started blogging, and hit the sweet spot of the heyday of mommy blogging.  She wasn’t just a mommy blogger, she’s transitioned to building an entire brand, spotlighting great design, real life interior design, has written books, and is one of the founders of the Alt Summit.  
I think it is really important not to pigeonhole yourself.  I find myself thinking that “graphic designer” is my identity, but it shouldn’t be.  I shouldn’t hold myself back because I’m subconsciously cramming myself into a “print designer” space!

I also love Annie Atkins’ work! It might not fit the authorial part of this week’s challenge, but it definitely fits the making portion.  She designs graphic props for films and has a rule for herself that if something would have been made by hand, she will make it by hand, if it was made by machine, you can use machines, but still try to be as period accurate as possible.  Wonderful typography and she’s made a book I’ve added to my wishlist.

My ten ideas

1. Research and design a book about my great grandmother – I have copies of her journals and travel diaries, but I’d love to travel to Sweden and take photos of all of the places she lived and put it all together properly.
2. A papercut silhouette pop up book about the mermaid of Zennor -this follows on from a project from the last module
3. Magnetic paper dolls
4. Letterpress octopus stationery
5. An art book about… something
6. Buttons, buttons, buttons
7. Treasure candles
8. Make the check in boards from week 8
9. Paper toys  
10. Screenprinted posters

I posted my ten ideas on the ideas wall and was surprised that most people responded positively to my first idea. I had thought it would not be a suitable project for this brief as it had little commercial appeal.

My main struggle this brief has been with engaging with the capitalistic bent that normally accompanies entrepreneurship, and after a tutorial with Harriet I felt encouraged to engage with the project on my own terms. Rather than develop a product or service for sale, I am going to focus on a more personal and collaborative endeavour.


ARTISTIC ALLIES. 2019. “Interview with Printmaker + Custom Frame Shop Owner Leia Bell.” Artistic Allies [online]. Available at: https://artisticallies.com/interview-printmaker-leia-bell/ [accessed 20 Aug 2021].

ATKINS, ANNIE. 2021. “ANNIE ATKINS.” ANNIE ATKINS [online]. Available at: https://www.annieatkins.com/ [accessed 20 Aug 2021].

BLAIR, Gabrielle. 2021. “Design Mom.” Design Mom [online]. Available at: https://designmom.com/ [accessed 20 Aug 2021].

BOURTON, Lucy. 2017. “One Step Ahead: We Meet Paula Scher, the Trailblazing Pentagram Partner.” Itsnicethat.com [online]. Available at: https://www.itsnicethat.com/features/paula-scher-graphic-design-151117 [accessed 10 Aug 2021].

OLDHAM, Craig. 2021. Week 10  [lecture]. GDE710 for MA Graphic Design. Falmouth: Falmouth University 2020 [Accessed 1 August 2021]

THE GREAT DISCONTENT. 2013. “Paula Scher on the Great Discontent (TGD).” The Great Discontent [online]. Available at: http://thegreatdiscontent.com/interview/paula-scher [accessed 15 Aug 2021].

VICKI. 2018. “I Went to Alt Summit Alone and I’ll Carry What I Learned Forever -.” Handmadejungle.com [online]. Available at: https://www.handmadejungle.com/2018/03/07/i-went-to-alt-summit-alone-and-ill-carry-what-i-learned-forever/ [accessed 15 Aug 2021].