We caught up with typographical designer, art director and author Stuart Tolley to find out what he gets up to while plying his trade at Transmission, his Brighton-based studio. He’s got years of experience working on magazines, a passion for minimalism (he even wrote a book about it!) and prefers to do things the old fashioned way. So we asked him all about how he’s adapted to changes in the creative industry since beginning his career, his work, the technology he uses, what keeps him inspired, and his predictions for the future of design.
What have you been working on today?
Today I’ve been working on typographical experiments for the covers of a forthcoming book series. I’ve been picking apart the headline type using Adobe apps to typographically represent complex theories about psychology, sociology, economics and creativity. I mainly use InDesign, which I combine with Photoshop and Illustrator for other parts of the work.
You’ve authored some books of your own; what were they about?
The first one was called Collectors Edition: Innovative Packaging and Graphics, which is about the renaissance of vinyl records and limited edition publications. My second book, MIN: The New Simplicity in Graphic Design, is about the rebirth of minimalism in graphic design.
Could you tell us a bit more about your work on minimalism?
Well, MIN has been out for about a year and is published by Thames & Hudson. There have previously been books about the history of minimalism, but no one has published an up to date book about it, particularly in the last 5 years.
We’ve become accustomed to the stripped back designs of contemporary technology and this is really important to me, as I didn’t want the book to be a historical look at the style. I think people are really aware of minimalism now, particularly with the stripped back user experience and product design of Apple devices – this is all part of a decluttered lifestyle, which is something I wanted to tap into. The reductive nature of the book has informed a lot of my studio projects too, because I like working with quite abstract concepts and then stripping them down to their barest form.
What are the biggest challenges you face in keeping the studio up and running?
The main challenge is balancing all the [on-going] design projects we have coming through the studio. We’re a small studio and I take care of all the creative work – I like to do everything myself as well, which I suppose is a bit controlling.
What technology were you using back in the 90s, at the start of your career?
I graduated from university in 1999. There were a small amount of computers within the university, but at the time I was using the photographic dark rooms to enlarge my negatives and creating a lot of photographic work. We were on really basic versions of editing software back then – I think I might have used Photoshop a handful of times.
The thing is, I was right on that cusp. Magazines were produced using a cut and paste layout system, with lots of rulers and measuring grids. Of course, I missed all of that and started work when Quark was the main publishing tool. Before I left university, I was using the photocopier all the time to print stuff, cutting and pasting, using lots of tape to stick it all down – really hands-on work. Then as soon as I started work people were like “Right, now you need to use QuarkXpress”.
What technology has had the biggest impact on your studio?
I use a lot of Adobe programs. I really am a slave to Apple and Adobe at the minute. A big change was when InDesign overtook Quark, which was the industry standard. I think the biggest change for me personally is how social media and marketing have developed. The internet is now the mainstream form for viewing information, especially since the explosion of smartphones.
There was a period, maybe a decade ago, where I was working on print and magazine projects, but nobody was interested in print at all. Just a constant stream of “nos”; people were demanding apps and stuff for tablets instead. But magazine apps haven’t really taken over as much as people predicted, and instead we’re witnessing a golden era of independent magazine production that’s targeted at very specific audiences.
How did you adapt to the latest trends, whether it was online, video or animation?
I didn’t. The rise of digital design and user experience has exploded really in the last four or five years, all while I was making my books. I was kind of blissfully unaware and then popped out the other side of it. That’s when I realised the design industry had changed quite a bit. But, for me, it’s quite important to just stick to your guns and say, “You know what, this is what I love to do and they’ll be an audience for it.” I think once I realised that, that’s when I decided I didn’t need to be making loads of apps or websites just to keep up, because there are so many people that are doing that anyway.
When did you get your first Mac?
My first Mac was a big old [Power Mac] G4 desktop, which had a great big screen. It was all that was available at the time and I got it almost as soon as I left university and had enough money. I was working at Sleazenation magazine at the time and used it to create freelance work on the side. I now have an iMac with a Retina screen, the highest spec I could get, which I use as my main computer.
So how would you say the G4 you were using compares to the top-spec iMac you have now?
The new iMacs are much more streamlined. What you’ve got now is a screen on a stand, whereas before you’d have your [tower], hard drives and a massive monitor with a deep back to it, wires everywhere. Now it’s all part of the decluttering, minimalistic process. You know, the wireless keyboard and mouse, stuff like that – I just embraced it, it was fantastic.
Do you use any design tablets, like Wacoms?
Some of my friends swear by [Wacoms] but it’s just not something that I’ve ever tried or embraced.
How do your friends use them?
One of them has a huge one; it’s basically just a screen that he draws into. It’s an incredible bit of kit – but as they’re illustrators, they need the ability to draw and work freehand. Whereas I would say my work is more typographical, which I can handle on a mouse.
What Adobe apps do you use the most?
I use InDesign the most, but I do vector-based work in Illustrator too. I use Photoshop for colour correcting, retouching and things like that. I also use Bridge quite a bit for manipulating images in raw mode, but InDesign is definitely the one I use the most – all day, everyday basically.
What upcoming trends are you thinking about for the future?
I’ve just created a book about minimalism, so I’m quite interested in the opposite of that. The whole point of the book was that there have been these very ornate designs around for a long time, then minimalism comes along and it refreshes everything. But there will always be a reaction against a current design trends and you’ll probably see a reaction against minimalism in the next few years.
So what will the reaction to minimalism be then?
I think there will be a point where everyone gets bored of things looking really clean, and minimalism just won’t be doing its job anymore, because everything just looks the same. You see it within the independent magazine industry, which are all currently being produced in a minimalist design style. They’ve all got a little logo, top centre, and they all look exactly the same. There are magazines coming out that are totally different, really energetic, and they’ll stand out because they don’t look like everything else. That will be the biggest change; a style will come along that’s more playful and experimental.
How do you stay productive during busy, stressful times?
I go and sit on the beach. I’ll just take a sketchbook and go and make notes, draw and come up with ideas. It always works. Guaranteed.
What keeps you inspired everyday?
I often change career path and that keeps me inspired. I still work within editorial design, but I’ve shifted quite a lot. I think that’s something that I would like to continue doing, mixing formats and styles. I’ve just been commissioned to work on an exhibition in Brighton this September, so I’m already thinking of ideas for that in the back of my mind. It’s just about doing lots of side projects and changing direction every so often. It’s frightening, but it’s important to do it.
Transmission is a graphic design studio and editorial consultancy, working with clients in the cultural, commercial and charitable industries.
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