Book review

Oh sh*t, what now?

Notebook: 28 March 2018 | BOOK REVIEW

Oh Sh*t, What Now? Honest Advice for New Graphic Designers by Craig Oldham. Published by Laurence King April 2018

What a great book. It’s full of advice for young designers just setting out into the world of graphic design with words of wisdom on topics such as, education, internships, portfolios, landing your first job, personal development, risk-taking and plenty more.

It’s written by Craig Oldham who describes himself variously as a designer, teacher, writer, publisher, campaigner and Yorkshireman. He has an energy and passion for life that comes across in his writing – and if he can inspire a grumpy designer like myself, who is old enough to be his dad, then he’ll certainly inspire younger people. Yes, I like Craig Oldham. He seems like a good bloke and he drinks lots of tea.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see Craig talk or you’ve watched a clip of him on YouTube, you’ll know that he is very engaging and has a natural talent for telling a story and delivering his message – and that he also doesn’t mince his words. He swears a lot, “because, sometimes working in design is shit. This book will offer advice on what to do if things get hard or if you fuck up”. But I don’t mind his strong language – designers often need a release when their macs crash mid-flow or worse still, when a client asks for unfathomable changes to a design. It shows that they care about what they do.

The book is very readable and I’ve listed some of my favourites tips here (with paraphrasing):

Craig on Gap Years. Avoid them. They might broaden your mind, but as a young designer you are in danger of losing the powerful momentum and enthusiasm that you have for design when you graduate. (I have first-hand experience of this. A four month break in the USA after uni’ left me distracted and empty of the passion I’d had for design just a few months earlier.)

Craig on Interviews. It’s all very well having a great looking portfolio but your interviewer will also be making a judgement on how well you might fit into their team so be enthusiastic – interested and interesting. Know your work inside out (and do your homework on your prospective employer). Relax and always be yourself – don’t try to be anyone else. 

Craig on Andy. Craig tells a good story about his university friend Andy who was very talented and one of the best students in his year group, but when he left, he just couldn’t get a job in graphics – and when he finally did, a year of unemployment had drained him of his interest in design and he bombed out and became a chef. Andy was just unlucky – wrong place at the wrong time. Craig offers advice on how to approach the problem of being unable to secure that first job offer, by taking a variety of novel approaches.

Craig on ideas. Be open to influence – embrace existing great ideas, learn from them, and transfer the relevant ones into your own work – it’s not where you get the idea from, it’s where you go with it.

Clients. As Craig says, look after them! They pay your bills so treat them well. Some of them may well be a pain in the arse but make sure that you still deliver them great work, on time. (I worked for many years at a contract publishing agency with a lovely colleague called Chris who was the client services director and whenever clients visited he always insisted on getting out the ‘posh’ chocolate biscuits and the best china. All the clients loved Chris!)

Craig on The Brief. As designers our job is to solve problems and the brief will define that problem. So question the brief, interrogate it and make sure you understand it (and the problem that is held therein and that needs solving). Ignore a brief at your peril. As a magazine designer I have often had clients who’ve asked for a redesign without stating why they think their magazine needs redesigning or listing what the problems might be with the old mag so sometimes it is down to the designer to tease out this information and to construct their own brief. Craig also reminds us that if we are struggling for ideas for a design solution then we may be looking in the wrong place and that we should go back and re-read the brief. The idea will always be there right under your nose in the brief just waiting to be prised out.

Craig on Communicating. The designer who can speak powerfully and persuasively in front of listeners will outstrip others every time. The gift-of-the gab isn’t about bullshitting, it’s about understanding what you need to say and saying it with passion.

Craig Oldham’s book contains many other pearls of wisdom – all written in his engaging, funny and honest way. The only advice that seems to be missing from the book is any tips for students on the best way of presenting their work in their degree shows – although often this is out of their control anyway, and in the hands of their tutors. I’ve taken the liberty of including a few of my own tips on this at the end of this post.

The book has a striking design with bold typography and delicious pink and green fluorescent inks and many of the pages are printed on a thick and very tactile ‘beermat’ board (although this does make the book difficult to cradle in your hands and to flick through). There are a couple of production issues with page numbers missing on some of the pages plus some of the fine ‘white-out’ serif type is filling in. But none of this stops it from being a great read and a valuable source of tips and inspiration for design graduates (and even older designers like myself).

Now, if you want to find out how Craig makes a dog drink, you’ll just have to buy a copy of the book…

More here from the publisher Laurence King and here is a good interview with Craig Oldham talking about the book to Form Fifty Five. And here’s a brilliant, very funny and very moving talk by Craig for Nicer Tuesdays about one of his previous books, In Loving Memory of Work about the Miners’ Strike in 1984 (Craig’s father was a miner who was arrested on the picket line). Craig runs a design company called The Office of Craig Oldham.

My tips for students on the best ways to present their work in their final-year degree show.
• Make it easy for visitors to digest the work on display. Friends and family may struggle to understand the work and prospective employers may be pushed for time –  so ideally every design needs to have a simple caption that quickly explains the work.
• Prospective employers need students’ contact details and these are best provided by a show guide or brochure as well as a website (if the course has organised these), rather than business cards which can quickly run out.
• Employers like to see a range of work, rather than just one piece on display, so have additional work available to view on a show website, or better still in a portfolio or book of extra work tucked to one side.
• Ideally the work needs to be a mix of projects that demonstrate more experimental creative thinking alongside designs that show that a student is ‘industry ready’.
• Some shows chose to split up students’ work and this can help the visitor make a comparison between project types – but then it’s important that tutors/exhibition organisers make sure that it’s easy for the visitor to locate the rest of a student’s work.
• Go easy on presentation gimmicks such as bull-dog clips, particle board or heaven forbid… rubber plants.
• Remember it’s the one big moment to show off the culmination of three years studying at university so plan it well, make sure the production qualities are 100% and select only your best work.