In the early days of book publishing the writer wrote the words and the printer printed and sold the books. The printer took on the role of book designer, too, deciding on the type style and size and organising the page layout. These days that task is in the hands of professional book designers who fulfil a crucial role in the creation of a book, and nowhere more importantly than in the field of children’s books. Liz Attenborough investigates.
To find out what life is like in a busy children’s book design department, I talked to Ken de Silva, the Senior Designer of children’s books at Macmillan.
Ken started his working life as a tax collector, but says, ‘I thought there might be more to life than that.’ His cousin was a book designer in a publishing company, and what Ken saw of his cousin’s work encouraged him to do a two-year HND Design course. On completing his studies Ken started as a freelance, working on anything that came his way through a number of design studios and advertising agencies, and some publishing companies. Through his freelance work he was offered a temporary design job at Penguin Books. ‘I was called in to help with a panic in preparation for a sales conference, and stayed on afterwards as a permanent member of the design team,’ Ken remembers. ‘I worked on both adult and children’s books, on fiction and non-fiction, and dealt with both the covers and the insides. But when the design department split, I was happy to stay with children’s books.’
Ken soon found himself working on texts for novels, page layouts for poetry collections and anthologies, large format picture books and early reading books, and covers for both hardbacks and paperbacks. Early in 1995 he moved to Macmillan to work in a smaller department (four people) on fewer books (around 65 new hardbacks and 135 new paperbacks each year) but with the added interest of novelty books and full-colour non-fiction to work on.
‘The editorial and the design departments work together to decide on the artists they want for particular books,’ says Ken. ‘I might see three or four portfolios a week from new artists who get in touch, plus there are a number of artists’ agents who come in regularly. And of course I have worked with a large number of artists over the years, and like to use the good ones again. I need to have a range of artists to consider for each new project.’ Ken gets a detailed brief about a new book from the editor, and will then take samples of the work of the artist he thinks most suitable to a joint editorial/design meeting. ‘As well as thinking which artist will best suit the text we have to bear in mind the market to which the book is expected to appeal.’
But decisions are not just about which illustrator to use. ‘It’s a balancing act,’ says Ken. ‘We have to bear in mind the age of the intended reader which will have a bearing on the size of type we should be using, but sometimes that is constrained by the number of pages we need to work to in order to keep the costs down. I have to discuss the options with the editor, as there is often a conflict between the length of the text and the desire for a large, clear typeface. The text might need cutting, or we will have to use fewer illustrations than we would like.’
Which Artist to Use?
As well as the artists that come to see Ken, he also visits end of year art college shows. ‘It is important to see artists’ portfolios, particularly college graduates. Sometimes you recognise a “raw talent” and have the chance to get them on the first rung of the ladder with a commission for a first printed work. It can be extremely satisfying later to see how these artists have developed and become successes.’ A children’s design department needs to have contact with artists who can do work that is almost photographic in its realism, as well as artists who can come up with an imaginative response to match, say, a work of fantasy. They also need to have a good range of illustrators who can stylishly illustrate fiction texts with lively line drawings. They keep an eye on what other publishers are doing too as design is in constant change, with styles of typography and illustration coming in and out of vogue.
Interaction with Other Departments
Within the company Ken and his fellow designers’ most crucial liaison is with the editors. ‘But also as a team it is important that we liaise with our marketing and sales colleagues who have the advantage of dealing directly with our customers and can give valuable feedback as to how our design ideas are being received,’ says Ken. Designers also spend a great deal of time talking to the illustrators they have commissioned, discussing the detail of what is required, negotiating a fee for the work (which can sometimes be a one-off sum, or sometimes a royalty per copy sold), and crucially, trying to get the illustrator to stick to the required schedule. ‘For picture books a key response comes from the Book Fairs in Bologna and Frankfurt where early samples are shown (in the hope of attracting co-edition partners), so we have to take the views of potential overseas co-publishers into account too. Everybody has an opinion about covers, but they don’t always have the same opinion!’ Has Ken ever had to go with a cover that would not have been his choice but was thought to be better from a sales point of view? ‘Certainly I’ve had to compromise with ideas, because I have to accept that as publishers, the end result we all want is to sell the books. But it is nice to sometimes break free from traditional designs associated with particular genres and go with something innovative, and find that it worked.’
Easy on the Design
Is good design appreciated? ‘People generally aren’t aware of the typographic subtleties involved in design, which I think are as important to the look of a book as the choice of illustrator. Ideally a design should complement and enhance a book’s illustrations and not overpower them. But I would also contend that design and typography are art forms in themselves and can be appreciated as such.’
I asked Ken how much things had progressed on the technological front since he did his training twelve years ago. Was he designing with computers then? ‘When I started at Penguin we were using scalpels and Cow Gum glue, cutting up bits of type and photocopies of illustrations and making up the page by sticking them down and seeing how it looked. We didn’t have colour xeroxes, let alone computers to work on. Publishers started using computers at the end of the 80s. We’ve all pretty much learned how to use the new technology on the job, and the technology since the early days has changed beyond recognition. When we first started designing on computers it was thought that it would be detrimental to creativity. The programs were fairly basic at the beginning, so there might have been a grain of truth in that then. As the technology increased in sophistication, it freed up our creativity. The design programs we currently use in Macmillan are the most up to date possible, and encourage our creativity to the maximum.’ Now Ken cannot imagine designing without using a computer. ‘It has changed the way we think about design, about what’s possible. We can be illustrative with our use of type, and the speed at which we can try things out is amazing. The job has changed, too, in that we are now doing more of the technical preparation for printing on computer that a printer once did. We can send complete cover art and type electronically down an ISDN line direct into the printer’s machine, so we have to be very accurate in what we’re supplying.’
How Does it Work?
‘Illustrations are scanned electronically so that we can work with the digitized image on our computer screens. We then design on screen using a specific design program, setting the layout of the cover or the pages of the book, and styling the typographic elements to the design. As we are working on computer, we can – if we need to – manipulate images (both illustrative and photographic). For instance, we can change the colours or superimpose one image on to another. We can also manipulate type, stretching or skewing it into different shapes; we can create glowing effects, and much more besides!’
So with all this technological capability, where images can be changed on screen and colours altered, how do we know what the illustrator has done and what has been done by the designer and a machine? Ken agrees that the edges could get blurred, but he does not think the range of illustration styles available from artists would ever mean that in-house designers could replace illustrators’ work. ‘I’m not an illustrator myself, but I’m full of admiration for the creativity of the people I’m lucky enough to work with.’
Are there any books Ken has worked on that he is been particularly proud of? ‘I’ve worked on a very wide range of books, but Collected Poems for Children by Charles Causley with illustrations by John Lawrence, is a beautifully produced book and was very well received, so with hindsight that makes an enjoyable book particularly pleasurable. And the success of the brilliantly paper engineered The Complete Castle (by Nick Denchfield and illustrated by Steve Cox) would put it high on the list. Most recently the work I’ve done on a highly illustrated book of proverbs, Strange and Familiar Proverbs from Far and Wide (to be published in October 1997), where I’ve worked closely with the illustrator Axel Scheffler and the editor Celia Holman has been very enjoyable, and I hope the book will be a big success.’
‘I haven’t really got a best bit to my job – it’s all good, and the variety is exciting. Every project is different.’
Liz Attenborough was formerly Children’s Publisher at Penguin Books. She now works as a children’s book consultant.
Publishing Profiles No. 4 will go behind the scenes in the Sales Department.