Write your own commission

Adrian Shaughnessy talks to creatives who have developed their own ideas, nurturing the growing popular interest in graphic design.

Adrian Shaughnessy talks to creatives who have developed their own ideas, nurturing the growing popular interest in graphic design

Clients. We love them. Yet sometimes they can become just too burdensome, too consuming, and we start to dream of being our own client. No more pitching; no more arguing over points of principle; no more moaning about rejected ideas. How much easier it would be if we only had ourselves to please.

And yet, as graphic designers, what alternative is there to being at the mercy of our clients? We can consider a career change, but, if we want to continue working in graphic design, we appear to have little choice, other than to service our clients. After all, we can’t ‘sell’ graphic design like a painter sells a painting. We need a client to commission it.

But that’s changing. Today, there’s a growing interest in graphic design. Take the vast number of books and magazines on the subject; think of all the cool T-shirts, posters and badges you can buy: think of Magma, a mini chain of three shops selling, well, graphic design. Plus, there’s been a vast increase in the number of students studying the subject, and this is creating a robust demand for consumable graphic design in its many guises. So, perhaps an opportunity exists for graphic designers who want to sell their work to other graphic designers and interested parties. Perhaps there is a way of stepping off the treadmill, but still remaining a graphic designer.

Marc Valli runs Magma. He has shops in London and Manchester selling books, magazines and graphic design-related products. He sees a natural progression for designers who want to use their skills for their own ends. ‘I suppose I see graphic design as a powerful tool to intrigue and communicate, and I think it is inevitable that, after selling this tool to their clients, designers will end up using it themselves,’ he says.

Valli gives some examples: ‘One of our main publishers is Die Gestalten Verlag, from Berlin. It is a graphic design studio, but the book side of its business has become its main source of revenue. Toy company Amos was set up by Russell Waterman (founder of Silas) and illustrator James Jarvis, to sell Jarvis’ toys, and they are publishing his latest comic, Vortigern’s Machine. I’d also mention Benrik, the London design duo behind This Diary Will Save Your Life and The Couple’s Book. The group’s main business is its own books and products. They also sell T-shirts and are planning to produce a toy.’

Mark Blamire offers another example of a designer catering for the ‘graphic design market’. After working at music industry design house, Stylorouge, Blamire now runs his own studio, Neue. ‘If I’m quiet at work,’ he explains, ‘I don’t switch off. Instead, I look for other ways of working with graphic design. I wanted something that would be creatively rewarding and which would generate work in my spare time.’ Out of this urge was born Blanka, a website that sells original, limited-edition design, art and photography.

‘I’m lucky,’ notes Blamire, ‘because my two businesses complement each other. Blanka is a new start for me. It’s liberating and refreshing to try something new, without it being a complete career jump.’

Blanka has its own exclusive poster range. Michael Place of Build has produced the first, and Sea Design and Madethought are producing the next two. ‘The Build poster,’ enthuses Blamire, ‘is a glow-in-the dark design, screen-printed with phosphorescent inks on Dark Grey Colorplan. We sold nearly half the print run within the first week. We are definitely making back our start-up costs.’

London design group Airside runs a successful on-line outlet, selling products bearing its distinctive illustrative style. Airside’s link to the band Lemon Jelly (partner Fred Deakin is also a member of the dreamy electronicists) is no hindrance here. A sizeable international cult surrounds the band, and this has transferred to the designers of the group’s album covers, videos, and merchandise. The Airside Shop has become an important part of the consultancy’s commercial activities; a place where it can experiment, away from the watchful gaze of clients – and, at the same time, make some money.

It remains to be seen whether there will emerge a market of sufficient strength for certain graphic designers to abandon their client-based existences and live by catering to this demand alone. Many would find this anathema, but, for others, it offers an alternative to commission-based graphic design and a dependency on clients.

Adrian Shaughnessy is creative director of This is Real Art


Branch out, make a name for yourself and make a few bob by applying your design talents to products such as:

• T-shirts, clothing

• CDs, records, MP3s, music downloads

• Toys

• Mobile ringtones, handsets

• Posters, stickers, badges

• Calendars

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