Callin Mackintosh on editorial design, finding clients and the influence of the 90s on his practice
Having worked across a plethora of industries, genres and mediums for over a decade, London-based designer Callin Mackintosh has certainly had his fair share of industry experience and creative exploration – from working on brands for start-ups and international film festivals to diaristic compendiums and compilations of artistic studies. It was launching his independent practice, however, that cemented his passion and understanding of editorial design, leading him down a path of remarkable print and publications. Speaking to Mackintosh, we delved into his editorial expertise, discussing how to perfect a book cover, the reality of finding new clients and the 90s visual overload that he counts as inspiration.
PT Hi Callin! How’s everything going?
CM All good thanks. Coffee in hand, headphones on, can’t complain.
PT In a nutshell, how’s 2022 been for you?
CM Yeah, it’s been a good one, but seems to have gone very quickly. I’ve worked with some amazing new clients, re-discovered my love of card tricks (through one of those clients, The Neat Review), oh, and I got married! 2020-2021 threw up a lot of tricky challenges for obvious reasons but 2022 has felt much more calm and enjoyable in that respect.
You have to want to work and feel proud of the work you’re creating.
PT What led you to go fully independent with your practice?
CM As with a lot of designers I think it’s always been in the back of my mind. It was more about when and getting the confidence to take the leap. I've learnt a lot in the 10 years spent working in studios but I don’t think you’ll ever feel 100% ready, you just have to go for it. Unfortunately, I think the design world can be tricky and a little toxic at times, and I felt it was time for a change of scene and a fresh start.
A big draw for me was the idea of freedom to be a little more selective over the projects I work on and bring more of my own personality to my work. Finding projects and clients that I share interests or passions with is so important in keeping motivated. We all need money to survive, but I personally don’t think it should be the main driving force behind your work, you have to want to work and feel proud of the work you’re creating.
PT How have you found it so far, compared to your time working at established London studios?
CM Yeah it has had its ups and downs, but that’s expected in the beginning, particularly when starting out a week before the first lockdown in 2020. It took a little bit of time to find my feet and work out exactly what it was I wanted to do. I’m really enjoying working predominantly in the arts and cultural sectors these days. Just before I went solo I had just worked on the Sundance Film Festival 2020 identity, this really helped to propel my solo career, it’s a great name to have under my belt and a project I’m really proud of. Shout out to Luis (ex-Sundance CD) for his belief and support on that one.
The biggest change from the studio world is the admin. Working in a studio all the ‘non-design’ stuff is done for you. Going solo you are trying to tackle the responsibilities of everyone in the studio. You become not only the designer but the project manager, studio manager, accountant, creative director, art worker and so on. This was a steep learning curve and I still have a lot to learn, but it’s very rewarding. Trying to get the perfect balance of admin and creative work is an art in itself.
One thing I really miss from my early studio years is the interactions with other designers on a project, bouncing ideas off the whole team is usually when all the best ideas happen. You can really get stuck trying to do this on your own. I find sharing ideas with friends in the industry helps with this if I ever get in a rut. Often it’s just the reassurance that your initial idea was the right one.
Overall I am much happier with where I am now, I’m really proud of what I have achieved so far. It has been a great journey and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me next.
A lot of the time I was buying books because of the design, rather than necessarily the content.
PT Would you ever return to full-time agency work?
CM Sure, if the right position came along I’d certainly consider it. I think I’m still trying to work out what that position would be, something in the arts and publishing world I guess but who knows? Having learnt from previous experiences I'd go with my gut this time around.
PT How do you tend to find new clients?
CM It’s a real mix, to be honest. Some have come through connections I made earlier in my career whether that’s past clients or people in the industry. Often it’s through recommendations from clients or friends, or some contact me directly from seeing my work online. Sometimes it’s even as simple as me just emailing someone I’d love to work with! Initially, this was my biggest fear about going solo, where does the work come from? But honestly, once you get those first couple of projects in things just start to fall in place, it’s amazing the way it works itself out.
PT What initially got you into editorial design?
CM I’ve never really thought about it. I think it probably comes from collecting. I’ve always had a passion for collecting since I was young. A lot of us probably did without even noticing. For me, the 90s felt like it was full of kids collecting stuff. A lot of my early memories focus around things I collected. Pogs, football stickers, Tazos, SNES games, skateboarding magazines, Mighty Max, it was a real 90s visual overload. Years later when I started studying graphic design the buzz came back, I started collecting art and design books and from there my passion for books was really born. A lot of the time I was buying books because of the design, rather than necessarily the content. So perhaps an interesting binding technique was used or unusual typographic layouts. So much so that I’d say about half the books I own aren’t in English and I can’t read them. I guess it’s a form of ‘Tsundoku’ that a lot of designers are guilty of, the art of buying books and never actually reading them.
There’s something beautiful about the physicality of a printed book that you just don’t get in digital design. Being able to physically hold the object, feel the materials and texture and smell the fresh ink. That moment the final printed book comes back from the press is such a special feeling. Seeing all the individual elements from months of hard work come together in harmony, it really can’t be matched.
PT How do you typically start a new editorial project?
CM First I will always try to get a full understanding of the project as a whole. I’ll usually have a call then send a list of questions to the client asking if there’s anything set in place already, page counts, dimensions etc, and then if they have any design direction at all that they’d want to be explored. Once we have chatted through things and the brief is in place, it always starts with research. Yeah, it’s a cliché to say you always have to start with the research, but it’s true. This is usually one of the most interesting parts of an editorial project as well. It could be a book about a contemporary artist, a computer game or classic card tricks, it's always so interesting to read and research the topic before starting on the design. There always seems to be that one little element you find early on that just sticks with you and drives the rest of the project.
PT What do you think makes a successful cover design?
CM The cover needs to give you a sense of the subject of the book. This doesn’t always have to be as literal as the title or an image. This can be achieved through colours, textures, materials, binding and so on. For example, if the book is on an artist who uses natural materials and colours in their work, then it always interests me to see how this be achieved without just using an image of their work. Instead exploring production methods, textures and finishes. Whenever I get started on a new publication project I always remember a great quote from Mevis & Van Deursen, “we always do the cover last.” I try to follow this logic as much as I can.
PT What project would you say encapsulates your interests as a creative?
CM Wow, that’s a tough one. I wouldn’t say there is one specific project but usually, it's something I have a connection with. That connection can come in numerous ways, as long as I feel motivated towards it. It could be an artist whose work I really admire, or a subject that’s totally new to me which has the excitement of learning something from the beginning.
A great example was one of the first projects I worked on as a fully independent designer in 2020, ‘Like a Hurricane: An Unofficial Oral History of Street Fighter II.’ I would never have thought this would be a book I would ever be working on or even something I would have sought out, but when the email came through from Darren at Read Only Memory, I don’t think I could have been more excited. The little 90s kid in me was buzzing, this game has a huge place in my childhood so there was an instant connection. Then when I found out it was going to be a text-only book telling the stories of the making of the game this sparked even more interest as I knew there would be so much to learn. I already knew the SFII visuals and gameplay etc but to learn about the process of making such an iconic game from the people who were there was going to be totally new to me. Two years later and the 480-page tome has finally started landing on people’s desks.
You can learn so so much in just an hour with an experienced creative director.
PT Out of everyone you’ve worked with, who has inspired or influenced you the most?
CM I have worked with some amazing people in my career so far but one period stands out. Being a young designer who had just left Dundee (Scotland) for the first time, moving to London was terrifying. Not only the worry of how I was ever going to afford to live in London with no financial backup plan but also how intimidating and competitive the London design scene felt. And it was, back-to-back interviews for (if you were lucky) very low-paying internships weren’t easy on your confidence and mental well-being.
However, I always remember my first days working at Bibliothèque and being blown away by the studio environment the three partners had created. A perfect balance of hardcore passion for their craft, and their want to teach and educate but without being afraid to let their guard down and have a bit of fun. Mason tended to take the junior designers under his wing and show them the ropes. I owe him so much for what he taught me even in the relatively short period of time I was there. I remember him taking stacks of books I’d never seen or heard of, placing them on my desk and talking me through them one by one. What was also eye-opening compared to university was they weren’t all graphic design books, there were references from art, history, fashion, architecture, everything really.
Mason’s encyclopaedic knowledge of art, design and culture was so inspiring. I remember watching and listening as he would take a project from research and sketches through to final concepts and being amazed at how simple he made it look but how much sense it all made. It’s so important to young designers to have creative directors spend a bit of time working 1-on-1 with them and really taking them through the process. You can learn so so much in just an hour with an experienced creative director compared to just being told ‘go research this’ for a day. Too many interns/juniors get left to their own devices in studios which can be detrimental to the learning process. So big shout-out to Mason, Tim and Jon and the Bibliothèque crew, much love!
PT Thinking ahead to next year, is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to?
CM Yeah I have a couple of exciting things coming up next year. I’m in the process of working on a collaboration with an amazing artist for a show next year, and an identity for a bar in New York which should probably be finished early next year. I have a couple of new books lined up as well. Nothing I can really mention too much on at this moment but I’m looking forward to seeing where things take me.