1. Not everyone understands that books need to be designed
When I meet new people and they ask what I do for a living, they are often perplexed when I answer, ‘I’m a book designer’. This is mostly followed by a puzzled look (you can see their brains ticking away) and the next question is, ‘Oh, do you design the covers and stuff?’ Yet, I can see that they don’t really understand.
I guess it’s just something that the general public never thinks about— almost everyone reads books, but they just don’t ponder how they come into being. And design is something that is only really noticed when it’s either extraordinary or extremely bad. ‘Good’ design is invisible.
I have now taken to answering, ‘I’m a graphic designer who designs books’, and this seems to make more sense to people.
2. A book designer is not necessarily an illustrator or a photographer
After having the above discussion, people still have trouble comprehending what a designer actually does. No, a designer does not have to be an illustrator or a photographer (although, those who can do everything are amazing!). A designer takes a manuscript that comes as a Word document and transforms it into a saleable object, which hopefully makes people want to covet it.
We get a brief from the publisher, which can at times be very sparse, and try to choose a mood or an image (or a collection of them) to best represent the feeling of the pages condensed into one small rectangular space.
We will commission and brief illustrators and photographers if need be, or we will search for countless hours to find that perfect existing image, then painstakingly put all the elements together, and eventually prepare files ready for the printer.
Sometimes we will do press-checks at the printer, sometimes we will art-direct photoshoots, and sometimes we will get crafty and do something like submerging hand-lettered type into water to make it ‘bleed’.
The shower, the car, and the most mundane places are where we will do our thinking and get the most brilliant ideas.
3. You have to have a tough skin
Unfortunately, unlike a job such as accounting, design is something everyone can look at and have an opinion of. There is no ‘right’ answer. Therefore, designers need to have very thick skins, or we are liable to end up a quivering mess, rocking in the foetal position (I may have done this once or twice). The author’s next-door neighbour has an opinion, the junior office assistant has an opinion; even the restaurant’s sommelier has an opinion of their cookbook design.
At times I count on those opinions to pull me into line. It can be very isolating being a freelance designer, and sometimes hard to know whether I’m creating the ‘emperor’s new clothes, or something truly excellent. I need the critique to elevate an average design into something amazing. It’s just when we start talking about making type on a cover half a point size larger, and moving something two millimetres to the right, that my head begins to throb!
I guess at the end of the day, though, we do have to remember that we are getting paid for our work, and our job is to satisfy our clients. A prima donna designer won’t last long unless they have a reputation for extraordinary results.
4. A book designer doesn’t necessarily read every manuscript
Truth be told, it would be wonderful to read everything I work on, but there’s just not time. And actually, with non-fiction books, it’s just not necessary (e.g. A celebrity autobiography, with a photo of the author on the front, does not have to be read for a designer to understand the pitch and the market).
But, I certainly try to read fiction manuscripts. A fantastic brief from a publisher or an editor would come with a full synopsis, page references and full character descriptions, but this rarely happens! I more often than not find myself scouring the manuscript for scenes and objects that will spark an idea, taking notes as I go. Sometimes I will read through to the end, other times I just need to get started, and the majority of the time what I read is not completely edited and the finished book can vary quite a bit (yet, there seems never to be time to read the printed book when it’s done).
And, there have even been occasions where I have designed a cover for a book that hasn’t even been written! (Did someone say Bryce Courtenay?!)
5. It’s wonderful to create something lasting
Back when I got my degree in Graphic Design at Swinburne University, the course was the same no matter what sort of designer you wanted to be. There were no electives. And, I had always gone through the course thinking I wanted to work in advertising, after a childhood dream of wanting to be like Darrin Stephens in the TV show Bewitched.
Yet, a year’s long work placement at a publisher introduced me to the possibility of a style of graphic design I’d never thought of before. This led me to my career in book design, and I don’t believe I’ll ever deviate. How wonderful it is to help bring writer’s work to the public and make something that can last a lifetime!
When people think of their favourite books, that thought often comes with the cover it wears. So many forms of graphic design are disposable (think pamphlets, magazines, packaging) and it’s my privilege to create an object that can be someone’s prized possession and be displayed lovingly in their home, while wrapping their favourite pages. I could not think of a better job.
Debra Billson spent her early career creating products for children as an art director and studio manager, until landing her dream job at Penguin Books. For almost a decade, this saw her working across all genres with some of Australia’s highest-profile authors, until starting her own freelance book design business from her Melbourne home studio in 2007. Whilst having designed everything from children’s board books to cookbooks, Debra’s true love is creating fiction covers (especially YA), and nurturing a small and loyal client-base. She can be found on Instagram @debrabillson