Design for web sites and other electronic media is frequently a derivative process, with ideas being copied from site to site in an endlessly self-consuming cycle, so sometimes it pays to seek inspiration from a different field. One of the feature sessions at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival was about how book designers come up with their ideas, and I went along to seek out some fresh creative strategies. Read on to learn about the tactics used by three award-winning book designers and how you can adapt them for other design projects, online or elsewhere.The three designers who presented were Trisha Garner (a freelance designer who frequently works for Hardie Grant), Olga Lavecchia (from Cengage Learning) and Daniel New (from Penguin Books). Each has designed dozens of books but focused on the creative process involved in a particular title which went on to win an award at the Australian Publishers Association Book Design awards. Some of what's involved comes down to basic talent — as Lavecchia put it, "Good designers have an instinct, and it's very hard to show how it comes about" — but here's some of the key lessons these three have learnt over the years.
One key element will make your design
Fiddling with the minutiae of (say) CSS has its place, but the core to much good design is finding one single element that can bind a whole project together, suggesting everything from colours to fonts. Garner talked about designing the cover for Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives. Since Broadhurst had achieved fame as a wallpaper designer, Garner knew early on that selecting and reproducing an iconic design would produce a striking cover. Garner had to sort through more than 300 designs to find the best image, but it was worth the effort: "There was one floral design that stood out for us." Similarly, when New designed the cover for Maggie's Harvest (a lushly produced cookbook by Maggie Beer), he knew the key design element would be a tree from Beer's own Barossa farmyard, which ultimately ended up being rendered in embroidery and covering the whole spine of the book. Even though that choice resulted in the cover price going up, it created a more desirable and unique item. Lavecchia built the whole concept for her cover for Communicating as Professionals from a single photo. Maintaining that focus can be just as difficult as bringing together multiple elements. ""You work pretty hard to try and keep it really simple," Garner said.
Seek advice from others
Visions of an artist in a garret don't cut much ice with book designers. "Design is not a solitary business," New said. Indeed, ideas can come from pretty much anyone involved in the book production process, Lavecchia said. "Most of it is a collaborative approach." You might not have colleagues to talk to (especially if it's a personal project), but that doesn't mean you can't seek advice from friends or family. Of course, one advantage of online compared to print publishing is you can quickly tweak and change things in response to audience feedback, rather than waiting for months for a printing sample to come back from somewhere in Asia.
Borrow ideas from everywhere
A well-designed book is unlikely to get its inspiration from other books (or, to put it more bluntly in a tech context, copying Apple when it comes to interfaces isn't a universally wise idea). Garner listed a range of sources for getting ideas, ranging from travelling to advertising billboards to matchbook covers. Of course, not everything needs to be found in the physical world. "I adore image libraries and I spend lots of time looking through them," Lavecchia said. Even without the luxury of paid-for libraries, there's enough material on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons to keep any aspiring designer deep in thought.
A design concept has to work within practical parameters: textbooks need to be clearly segmented into sub-sections, recipe books have to make the recipes themselves stand out from other material. The same applies in the world of tech: there's no point trying to render a highly detailed photograph on a tiny screen. But rather than kicking against those restrictions, you should actively embrace them. "Limitations can make you a good designer sometimes," Lavecchia said.
Design is important
You'd hardly expect designers to argue otherwise, but every presenter emphasised that design was a critical element in book publishing, not just an afterthought. "The skill when designing trade books is designing something special that's appealing to the broad market," Garner said. "Beautiful design can really help sell a book." And don't use subject matter as an excuse either. If you're working on technical or esoteric material, it can be easy to assume that it's either impossible or unimportant to design it as well as possible. However, Lavecchia worked on the "deeply unsexy" title Investments: Concepts & Applications and went on to win the Best Cover Of The Year award in 2007. If design can make a finance title sexy, then it can certainly sauce up your website or desktop.