Second thoughts: Craig Oldham

We return from the summer break with number 18 in our Second Thoughts, Craig Oldham.

It follows on from our interviews with Andy Altmann, Simon Waterfall, Nicolas Roope, Michael Bierut, Dick Powell, Rosie Arnold, Michael Wolff, Mike Dempsey, Bruce Duckworth, Erik Spiekermann, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Tony Brook, Adrian Shaughnessy, Steff Geissbuhler, Sean Adams and Daniel Eatock.

In case you missed why we’re doing this, the same series of questions are asked to well-known design and creative people.

Craig works across numerous disciplines, creating brands, books, websites, films, exhibitions, and objects. He also teaches, writes, curates and consults. His work has been recognised by Art Directors Club, D&AD, Design Week Awards, Creative Review, New York Festivals, Type Directors Club, as well as national and international press coverage and exhibitions.

How old were you when you first suspected you could become a designer? Very young I think. I have quite vivid memories of looking at ‘graphic’ things which in retrospect probably qualify as designs, but at the time I thought were simply curious. I remember always wanting to hoard film posters for their graphic nature. I was too young for the 12-inch vinyl recruitment drive in design so I guess I have to make something else up, but overall I think it was more of a bricolage of encouragement: numerous small elements coming together to feed me into it. I also had a bloody great secondary school teacher, Chris Green, who at age 12 abandoned all curriculums of what was called ‘design products’ (essentially packaging) and taught us baselines, x-heights, cap-heights and such. He was one of those teachers that are now seen as clichés because they made the difference and put a student on a path, but in my case it was true and sincere. He still supports me now and is a good friend.

Design by Milton Glaser

Did you see or experience something early in your life that was a significant influence? I remember seeing Milton Glaser’s work when I was 15 and wanting to end my life (in a more dramatic, Picasso on seeing the caves at Lascaux, sense). And still Milton is a big influence. I was lucky enough to have had the absolute pleasure of speaking with him a few times and I come away, every time, without question, feeling inspired and enlightened. It’s an almost spiritual experience with Milton… and that “don’t meet your heroes” biz, couldn’t be more false for me.

Who were your early heroes (and what do you think of them now, in retrospect)? Well, the aforementioned. But also, Johan Cryuff. David Ginola (I can’t explain that one). Neil Redfearn (You Reds!). Mum. Dad. Grandad. Jeremy Deller. Bas Jan Ader. Ronnie Barker. Robert Brownjohn. Alan Fletcher. So many. But I still love and look to them now. Their work (even the footballers) stands up. It passes the test. For example, one of the best statements I have ever heard belongs to the Dutch Master, Cryuff… “If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.” Try that one with a client. Or maybe it’s the answer to the next question…

What’s your recurring dream (or nightmare)? Like everyone else, that I don’t know what I’m doing and I’ll be exposed — maybe this will do it — but then again, I’m not really that bothered, and quite open about the fact when I haven’t the fucking faintest idea of what I’m doing. As sometimes, that’s the best place to be. At least it will be unexpected, or real, and at the very least you’ll learn something. I think not wanting to learn or getting too comfortable scares me. Some would say that I’m destined never to perfect anything (when combining this fear with my impatience in certain aspects) but I see it more that I don’t really have any clue or interest in where I’m headed, but I’m happy to be moving.

Describe the worst boss or client you’ve ever had. I’ve been graced with very few shit bosses or clients. I certainly don’t recall one that I would rather die than work with again. There once was a senior designer, above me at the time, whom made my life feel like Hell. Nothing was ever good enough, everything I did was wrong, shit, useless… I didn’t feel like I was being schooled, that the person in question was aware of my level, or cared, and it was demeaning. And for a long time it bludgeoned the desire to do this out of me. I’m still sensitive to it now, and I hope that in myself I never make another designer, regardless of their level feel that way. And it scares me to think that what I find to be a majorly generous and supportive industry, can have these kinds of people in it. There’s absolutely no need. It’s pointless. But I’ve never been that precious about the client thing, I just see it as them wanting things to be right… and that it’s my job to get them there whilst achieving my goals along the way. A happy medium, but a hard one sometimes.

What’s your worst Apple-z moment? Too many to list. But you learn from them. I don’t really have any juicy “Oh fuck” moments that I can recall. I think I’m too much of a freak for stuff like that. But I have some belting Christmas party / too much booze stories.

One of the hand written letters, from Michael Bierut

What do most people cite as your best/most well known piece of work? I think many would say the Hand.Written.Letter.Project as my most well known piece… that or the BRIT Awards trophy (which I worked on whilst at Music). But to be honest, I’m not really that bothered as I think it’s more about a body of work over a period of time. No one remembers a footballer for that same reason… it’s about the career, not that one goal they leathered into the top corner of the onion bag from 80 yards. Unless you’re Beckham, of course. Which I am not. Thankfully. Ish. I wouldn’t mind his fame, looks, money… oh fuck.

From In Loving Memory of Work

What do you think is your best piece of work? Why? Well, I don’t personally look at work in that way either to be honest. I don’t really have a ranking system as everything exists within, and is counted by it’s own set of contexts and relatives really. Sure some is better than others (Milton’s ‘Art Is Work’ comes to mind) but for me personally there’s a massive part of me not really being able to stand the sight of a project once it’s done… I’ve never been that reflective really. Do you very best , then onto the next thing. But if you were to ask of the work I’m most proud that would be a recent project, In Loving Memory of Work. It felt more real than anything I’d ever done. Like this thing we call Graphic Design could actually make a difference, or in this case at least raise the volume a touch for a moment of time. We bang that drum a lot as designers — perpetuating our own myth to an extent — but I think if we were honest enough we all know the harsh reality, that on the day to day we rarely make a dent. The world would survive without our logo, poster, copy, ad, typeface, or book, or whatever—not that I’m saying they don’t have a role though. But this truly didn’t feel that way to me personally… could just be me as it’s a pretty personal project. Sod knows.

What font would you choose for your gravestone? Firstly, I think the best send-off I’ve ever heard of was a chap who requested an eco-burial (in a cardboard coffin effectively) with a massive sticker on the casket reading “return to sender”. Secondly, I want one of those gravestones that lie horizontal on the ground rather than those that look like the plant identifiers at B&Q. And thirdly, I don’t care much for the font, but I know what I want typesetting… “Fuck this. I’m off.”

What wins, ideas or style? Ideas. No contest. If you’re interested in style be a fucking hairdresser.

People have different ways to stay enthused, excited and interested in what they do for a living? What’s yours? Always looking for the next thing. I’m one of those people that likes to have a few plates spinning at once (insert multi-tasking analogy here — or play Sabre Dance) so if I find that something is kicking my arse, I can think about something else and pretend that it didn’t really matter (rather than the truth of my not being able to do it!). I’m a big believer in being interested in lots of different things, and having many passions to fuel your process… or widen your spectrum. So it’s lots of things.

When and where do you have your best ideas? I honestly think I think better when I’m on the move (and apologies to the grammar Nazis out there for that). Walking, cycling, on a train, in a car, wherever. I don’t know if that’s something psychological, you know, a distance or separational/environmental kinda thing, but it just seems to come easier. Jim Sutherland, a good mate of mine, says he loves getting the train to places as he “gets loads of work done” and I think it’s a similar thing… that freedom to just crack something and then back in the office focus on doing it rather than thinking about it. I think many designers will probably say that they don’t have every idea in the 9-5, sat at their desks in-front of the mac. For me that’s a much later stage.

Seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, tasting. You have to give up two. Which ones? I’d give up taste, as, to be honest, I’d eat a buttered-brick when it comes down to it. Plus if it’s wet and I’m thirsty, it’s going down red lane, so that’s an easier one to strike off. After that, it gets more tricky. Possibly taste’s close cousin, smell. I’d miss those foody staples of smell… those simple but jaw-droppingly good ones… cheese being grilled, onions being cooked, and coffee brewing (as well as the more personal and peculiar of freshly cut grass [football], fanning quickly through a book [designer], and petrol [weirdo]). I couldn’t possibly give up the others.

If you could travel back in time, just once, and give yourself a few words of advice, what would they be (and when would you say them)? Take the blue pill. OK, no… I would tell myself at University that what matters is what I want to achieve, not what I’m being told to, or supposed to. That’s not a problem with my University, just the mindset that I think as students we, they, and I approach University. Some of the wisest words I recall when thinking of my answer (and this— ;) — is for you Ian) were from Ian Anderson (tDR) when I spoke to him years ago over about 14 pints and a durty-kebab, about moving on from my current position and my feelings at the time. He said that what he’d come to realise over the years (bearing in mind that he studied philosophy not design, just to scene-set) is that failure, when it’s on your own terms is not failure at all. But success when you’re being dictated terms, is a form of failure. Take that for what it is, but it still resonates with me and there’s a lot to be said about the implications and responsibilities of not only freedom, but integrity and confidence. And I think I’d like to hear that as a young-un. But I wouldn’t change anything in my life one bit, we learn from our pain more than our pleasure after all.

Do you still draw or has the computer taken over? I’ve never been a big drawer. Or a good one for that matter. But I’ve always been fascinated with that nature of drawing and that primal function of it, that every child will draw and it’s one of the earliest forms of representation of our life and existence, personally and as a mammal. And with equal majority, it leaves almost all of us. I drew as a child and became pretty good at it (by the standards of Class 5 at Burton Road Primary School, Barnsley) but words became the form to which I manifested my ideas and still is. When I’m thinking about something, playing with an idea, or seeing how far it could go, I generally write that process out opposed to drawing it. It’s presumably the same process all designers go through, but I never doodle, or draw an idea really. So in answer to the question, nothing has really taken over my drawing as it was never really there anyway. (NOTE: Although I say I don’t draw, there are may whom have worked with me down the years who can testify to the illustrative command I have over the exercise-book-style penis. Many a stray diary has been ‘illustrated’ by my hand. I guess every rule has an exception.)

What’s the worst design crime you’ve seen? Christ, where to start. I always try to explain this to students, to warn them really… that they’ve no idea how much this stuff will take over their life. It upsets you. The amount of times you see the biggest pile of dog shit where there was an obvious opportunity to be had… it’s heart breaking.

You can only watch one film, read one book, listen to one album and eat one type of biscuit. What would they be? The film would be John Carpenter’s The Thing. Fucking unbelievable (Jeff). It’s got the lot and it gets better every time I see it (and from the nerd point of view, I just love how they made the titles with effectively a bin liner in a fish tank!) As far as books go, it’s more difficult. Thinking about how to qualify some of these things you’d probably award points to the books you’ve read the most, or that made the biggest impression, etc., as surely that must count for something… so that for me is The Twits by Roald Dahl. And given it’s anti-beard starting point, it may contain hipster repellant, which is a plus. Strangely, the album’s a bit easier, although I don’t know why… it’d be Scott 4 by Scott Walker. I can’t really explain why as I still find it ambiguous, intriguing, and mad. In fact, that’s exactly why I’d choose it. And as for the biscuit I adore those chocolate rounds from M&S (see above). They’re teeth-shatteringly hard, chunky as chuff, and I only really have them at Christmas when I steal them from my mum, but by-George are they good.

Let’s say it all goes pear-shaped. What’s your back-up plan? Come and work for johnson banks. Only kidding. There is no back-up. I’ve always been somewhat all or nothing.

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