In December 1990 Mike, our MD, left a relatively well-paid job running the marketing services department of a materials testing company to set up emc design. Mike had worked in publishing before this, first starting at Longman Publishers, Harlow in 1975. So, with a young family, Mike wanted to turn his hand to freelance work whilst getting back into designing books for the educational publishing market. His first freelance job was an ELT Coursebook for HarperCollins and the rest, as they say, is history…
In the first of our special 25 year anniversary blog posts, we interviewed Mike on some of the highlights of the last 25 years, the biggest changes and where he sees design and publishing going in the next 25 years.
1. What captured your interest in editorial design so much that you wanted to go back to it when you went freelance?
I always loved typography, information design and problem solving, and ELT design encompasses all of those and more. In fact, ELT material represents some of the most complex design challenges I’ve encountered in my career. My first book was in ELT, a little by chance, and it has just grown from there so that the company is now very experienced within the field.
2. You’ve grown the company from just yourself to the team we’ve got now, what‘s been the biggest highlight of growing and running the company?
I think the journey itself. When I started I never envisaged ending up the size we now are, I just wanted to be able to support myself as a freelancer. Some of the highlights though have been: employing my first full-time person (John, who is still with us); managing to purchase the Barn in Stevington in 2006 where we were previously – a massive step as we were only 4 staff then; and just creating a company where we strive to be first class in every respect – for clients and staff.
3. We’ve grown significantly over the last 10 years, adding in more skilled people but also increasing our capabilities and service offering. What have been some of the biggest challenges in that time?
That first time I took on staff was scary and a bit of a step into the dark. Also financially managing the first year after moving into the Barn as it was such a step up in terms of running costs. Our service offering has changed over the years, but has always been design led. Our core business of providing great design coupled with the best production capabilities has always been the mainstay of emc. Extending this into the non-print area has been and still is challenging, especially when our clients are experimenting and exploring different ways of delivering digital content. But part of the fun of this is continually evolving and finding new ways to help our clients. Especially as technology is always enabling us to change, designing for new markets and new products.
It is challenging to actually make any money in educational publishing. Our hourly rate, on which we base our scale charges, has not changed for nearly 15 years! Other local studios of comparable size, working in advertising and marketing, have an hourly rate from 3 to 5 times as much as ours. So we can only survive by working as efficiently as possible and to constantly look for the most streamlined ways of doing things.
But the biggest challenge of all has been finding the right staff and keeping them. Recruit, train and retain has been our mantra, recognising that the complexity of ELT design and production needs staff suited to working on it, who need to be nurtured and kept in the business by rewarding and valuing them. Only by doing this can we offer the high level of service that we are able to. So recruitment is a challenge every time.
4. You’ve worked within and around publishing for the last 40 years, so you must have seen quite a lot of change in that time. What do you think ELT publishers in particular have got right in that time and what do you think they’ve got wrong?
Oh yes, the good old days when we did a cast-off on the manuscript to work out the extent and then we pasted up galleys to produce camera-ready artwork. How things have changed!
25 years ago when I started emc there were just a few big ELT publishers. Nowadays there are still the big players, but a lot of smaller niche organisations and ELT content seems to come from every direction, particularly with the internet and mobile delivery. From the perspective of our work, there are so many editorial changes that happen in the course of production. It doesn’t happen as much in trade and also less in schools publishing. But perhaps that is a reflection on the complexity of the material and the potential for curriculum change. It’s certainly one area that publishers might have been able to saved a fortune on over the years – by treating the manuscript as the finished content.
We’ve seen publishers experimenting and dipping their toes in the water in different markets, technologies and other strategies – sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong. But it’s a wide world and our clients are world-wide businesses, and you can’t get it right all of the time. With technology constantly changing, it’s even more difficult to guess what will become the ‘game changer’ in ELT.
One of the areas that ELT publishers definitely do get right is knowing their markets. The publishers we work with spend a huge amount of time talking to their markets trying to understand what products they need and how best to supply them. This has obviously become more difficult as technology has increased the number of delivery platforms. However, with this comes amazing data analytics that will further help publishers identify how their users are learning and what future products they may want and need.
5. In the past 25 years have you seen an increase in the value of design and the skills designers bring to the table?
Yes, all of the time. Right back to the 80s and the development of DTP when designers took control of the ‘repro’ side of production. I remember then, a planner in a repro house had a 5 year apprenticeship and could earn around £35K, which was an extraordinary amount. But then we were paying over £100 per page for 4-colour repro after we had designed, laid out and supplied artwork. It was an expensive business. With DTP designers became much more responsible for the technical side of producing ‘print-ready’ files, taking on-board new skills in the process, and Repro Houses changed or went out of business. But design was and is still of over-riding importance.
In ELT, competing courses sell on how they look as well as their structure and content. Not only with the original design/template, but how they are laid out on the page with deference to the way the material will be used in the classroom and to also add impact to engage readers. Our studio predominantly comprises qualified and experienced designers as we have found this results in the best outputs for clients. But with non-print work, it’s a little bit back to the ‘repro’ days. We aren’t in-depth programmers (although we do understand it and do some programming), like we weren’t qualified ‘repro experts’ back in the 80s, but software is changing that. New solutions are being developed that enable us to export final files with the programming automated which means less cost for publishers and more tools in the hands of designers. We see that as a good thing.
But design has become a commodity too – there are a lot of designers out there. So in addition to providing good design solutions and technical perfection, we also have to meet every deadline, maintain absolute accuracy, communicate fantastically and keep in tune with our clients’ needs. Only then can we say we are providing value for money and give clients a reason to keep on using us.