James West is a UK designer who earlier this year produced the booklet Fifty Designers’ Current Favourite Typefaces to raise money for people left homeless and starving in Burma in the wake of a devastating cyclone. Fifty of the world’s biggest names in graphic design agreed to take part. To James’ complete surprise, the booklets quickly sold out. Since then, he has very generously given his time to talk to me about a simple idea which caught his imagination before really taking off.
Please take us through how the project evolved, from the moment you came up with the idea of the book.
I was in bed. It was 3am. I had the idea. Just like that ‚Äì fully formed. I got quite excited as this doesn’t happen often. The next day I chose all the designers, some are personal favourites, some whose work I had seen recently and I set about emailing them all.
Had the thought of using your design skills for aid purposes been kicking around in your mind for a while?
I hadn’t given it any specific thought whatsoever. But I always think that design as a medium has lots of wasted potential so I am always open for ways to use it for good purposes. I have found that designers themselves are usually good people who like to help worthy causes, so it felt right to combine all elements: nice design (hopefully), cheap price, 100% to charity.
How easy was it to get the fifty designers on board?
Pretty easy actually. Like everyone else we all get tons of email from all over the place, but after a quick follow up phone call I usually had artwork by the end of that day. Having said that, 50 follow up calls takes time… so it took a couple of weeks to get all the contributions organised and artworked up.
Who else donated their services for this project?
The printing was for free from G&B Printers here in the UK, and the initial batch of paper was from James McNaughton the paper supplier. It wasn’t really a complex operation and so having these people on board meant that there was no costs to cover apart from postage, which the buyers paid for. It was also nice of the two bookshops, Koenig Books and Artwords (both in London) to agree to not make any money from the books, and also agree to sell it without even having seen it… this book didn’t have the standard publishing cycle it was all quite last minute.
What difficulties or unexpected turns did you encounter?
Well there was an ‘issue’ with the printing of the first batch and it was one of those things that wasn’t really anybody’s fault, but it meant a reprint was needed. But then the paper company had already supplied all the paper for free they could, so the printer kindly found some more in the back room somewhere, which wasn’t the stock I wanted but with this kind of project you always have to be open to compromise and remember that it’s about the charity at the end of the day. It made me feel quite pointless worrying about what specific kind of paper would give what impression, when on the news there were the victims of the cyclone who didn’t even have any food.
Then there was the issue of postage and logistics; because I sold so many and wasn’t expecting to I didn’t really have a system in place to handle everything. I assumed that I would just get the order through, pop a book in an envelope and handwrite the address. But because it sold 2,000 copies in two weeks, I had a mini crisis with suddenly having to do things on a mass scale. It’s easy to just say ‘put 2000 books in envelopes with receipts, an address label and a stamp’ but it involves serious manpower. I had to start asking questions like ‘how do I even post 2000 envelopes in one go?’.
How much time did you spend all up on putting the book together? How did this impact on your working time?
It did eat up quite a bit of time, I didn’t keep track exactly as it had to fit around other projects, but from start to finish about a month and a half? Actual physical time spent I couldn’t say, but quite a bit. Lots was done late at night and in snatched moments of time.
The book far outsold your expectations. Are there any more projects like this in the pipeline?
Nothing for the moment but as I say if something pops up then I will definitely go for it. Obviously the factors all have to be right for it to be a success.
What advice would you give to other Graphic Designers interested in using their skills for aid?
Persevere. Remember that just because it’s for charity doesn’t mean you don’t have to try to make something look good too. There will be lots of setbacks and effort involved but what justification is there for not seeing something through? Don’t feel guilty that you aren’t spending every waking second on the project, you have to have other work too. But if you have already made the decision to help the world out then you are already in the right place.
If this interview has inspired you to investigate ways to use your design skills for humanitarian purposes, be sure to come back for my next post which will canvas some avenues for doing this. You can also check out the following:
- James West at CreateReject
- Fifty Designers’ Current Favourite Typefaces
- Donations for Burma are still being accepted by UNICEF