The world of publishing has been through many transformations over the past couple of decades, prompted by technology, reading habits, social change and the economy. For a while, more efficient printing and production methods prompted a boom in picture books and the shops that sold them. Volumes about art, photography, fashion and design showed high-resolution pictures in colour and lavish detail that mid-century publishers could only dream of. Moreover, companies such as Phaidon, Taschen, Thames & Hudson, Chronicle, Rizzoli and Corraini still make illustrated books that sell at all ends of the book market.
Technology doesn’t sleep, however. The internet has provided new means for readers to enjoy words and pictures; the screens of laptops and tablets have become bigger, brighter and show images at ever higher resolutions, while the heavy discounting of online services has challenged the business models of high street bookshops. Book publishers have accordingly felt the pressure to constantly adapt to a brave new world in which little remains the same for long.
Within this publishing environment, a number of smaller enterprises have found new ways to make books and reach a readership. Crowd-funding services have taken the risk out of such publishing ventures as Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note and More Letters of Note (through Unbound) and Wallace Henning’s forthcoming British Rail Manual (via Kickstarter) by raising the funds upfront.
Against this new landscape of visual culture book publishing, Unit Editions have taken an intriguing middle route. Founded by designers Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, Unit has created an impressive list of substantial books about design and visual culture. Brook and Shaughnessy have similar backgrounds and complementary skills. Both are London-based members of the elite design organisation AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). Brook is the principal of Spin, founded in 1992, while Shaughnessy co-founded Intro in 1989. The latter left Intro in 2004 to work as an independent consultant and writer; he also teaches at London’s RCA (Royal College of Art) and hosts an occasional series of radio shows on Resonance FM: Graphic Design on the Radio.
Unit’s back catalogue includes substantial monographs of F. H. K. Henrion, Herb Lubalin, Ken Garland, Total Design and Brook’s own practice Spin, and books with more general themes: Supergraphics, Manuals, Type Only and Scratching The Surface, a collection of Shaughnessy’s design writing originally commissioned for magazines such as Eye, Creative Review and Design Observer.
When I spoke to Brook and production manager Sam Stevenson at Unit’s South London HQ, they were cautiously optimistic about the state of design publishing.