The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Ingrid Paulson, Ingrid Paulson Design


Holding Still cover

Before setting up her own design studio in Toronto, award-winning Canadian designer Ingrid Paulson was senior designer at McClelland & Stewart, and art director for Key Porter and Raincoast Books.

Although Ingrid worked at Raincoast, we didn’t actually meet until BookCamp Toronto earlier this year. We only had a brief a conversation, but it was just about long enough for me to blurt out that I wanted to interview her, and for the apparently unflappable Ingrid to say “OK” (and sound like she might mean it).

And so I do want to say a big thank you to Ingrid for coming through with such grace and patience, and for providing such wonderful answers to my not-so-wonderful questions.

Could you describe your design process for book covers?

In terms of workflow? The publisher gives me a title information sheet and/or a creative brief, plus (fingers crossed) either a few chapters or the entire manuscript for the book. I always ask to read the fiction, but for non-fiction I can manage well with a concise book description and perhaps the introduction. I submit a minimum of three cover concepts to my contact at the publishing house, and wait for feedback. Then I either redesign and resubmit, or, if I was ‘on to something,’ I tweak one of the concepts until we get it right.

In terms of creative process? Um. Well.

Some cover concepts appear in my head, fully formed, by the end of my first conversation with my publishing contact. Other get dragged out of me kicking and screaming, begging to stay in the dark void of my head. Sometimes I sketch out the covers — wee thumbnails in my moleskine — whereas other times I play a Google Images lotto search using various vague terms that would describe a feeling I want to associate with the book. Sometimes the font is the first thing chosen, or I envision the type at certain sizes and placed in specific places. Other times, the image is driving the cover and the type just has to play catch-up. I’ll envision a book as predominantly red, or dark, or punchy — and that all comes from what the author has written. I’ll respond to textured sentences with textured visuals (perhaps collage?) and bleak will meet bleak. (But not so bleak as to discourage someone picking it up. The bookbuyer is in my thoughts as well, as I try to envision them and their habits, quirks, and book needs.) Needless to say, my brain gets crowded.

And then there are the days when I just stare at a wall and hope against hope I’ll figure out something clever. I haunt a lot of bookstores.


What are your favourite projects to work on?

The ones I get right on the first try.

I love working on fiction, but it takes the most concentration and, because fiction is so subjective, so evocative of the human condition (both funny and sad), designing a fiction cover can drive me nuts. There is never one absolute visual solution for fiction. Nonfiction, on the other hand, can get formulaic, but I love the simplicity of thought — punchline design, in many ways. So, for sanity’s sake, I prefer to keep a balance of fiction and nonfiction going. Cookbooks can be a blast to design, but I (sheepishly) think that comes from the photo shoot where we all end up eating most of the props (the ones that have flavour, or haven’t been sprayed with any shellac). And then there are the special projects where I’m asked to work on the cover and interior, and I am part of the planning and layout process, where I get to research the images, discuss things with the editors on a page-by-page basis. Those projects are rare, but they keep me happy for a few years at a time.

What do you think makes a good cover design?

Being able to lure someone into picking up the book and reading the back, which takes about 1.5 seconds of their time. Job done. How to do that? If we in publishing knew, we’d also be able to predict bestsellers. The best I’ve figured out is to keep it a simple visual package — don’t let the type look out of place with the image, don’t use the same colours as everyone else is using that season, stay away from looking too much like any of the other books, but make it look like a book. I dunno. The cover should evoke an emotional pull from the bookbuyer, that moment of ‘yes, that’s interesting and looks like what I want to read.’ That solution changes from book to book.

What are some of the common mistakes publishers and designers make with covers?

For publishers, they’ll try to make their book look similar to someone else’s (bestselling) book, as if to catch the wave. This is not clever, it just means the publisher is out of ideas or is feeling the year-end coming and needs to hook on to a sales-winner. It’s the publisher that took a design chance on a different look — and came out the winner in terms of sales — that is the ultimate winner. The rest end up on the remainder table eventually. Daunting. They don’t call it a ‘gentleman’s profession’ for nothing. (Or ‘gentlewoman’s’. I’m just citing the old, old adage.)

For designers, it is not being able to pitch their cover effectively. If a designer can articulate the reasons for their choices of colour, type, and image, then they have a fighting chance of getting that design through. Otherwise they are leaving it to speculation. I’ve worked both sides of the table — inhouse art director, freelance designer — and I know that it is ten times harder for a freelancer to get that voice heard in the meetings. But inhouse staff can get asked to revise designs far more often than the freelancer, as the perceived economies behind a salaried staff versus a per-project contractor sometimes give the publisher too much leeway on revisions. I’ve been inhouse with a book cover that I simply didn’t ‘get,’ but there was no way to contract out the job, as, due to costs, the publisher refused. It was a painful, long design process for all involved (not just me), and they ended up with something inferior to what they would have gotten with a designer who understood the book. As an Art Director, I could’ve just handed it to a specialist designer and, with a few good notes, gotten something much more suitable for the book.

I guess that leads to a codicil: know when to walk away. Yes, we all want to try new book categories. Just know when to draw the line, so to speak.

British and American book design styles are often seen as quite distinct (with critics and proponents of both!). Is there a Canadian style of book design?

What there is known of Canadian book design is an amalgam of quiet, well-crafted literary press style — usually hand in hand with DIY letterpress style — smashed against a desperate need for full-bleed sepia landscapes (or sleeping sepia people) and egregiously large title type. We err on the side of poetic, which can look like a wash in the stores (or worse — too literary, which could alienate those poor readers still recovering from their English high school reading list). We avoid edgy.

There is some astonishing design coming out of the cracks across the nation — David Drummond comes to mind, as does the brain trust under Peter Cocking at Douglas & McIntyre — and I hope that will win out. Clear, slightly subversive, more in tune with our world-famous sense of humour. Intelligent is the word that comes to mind.

Do Canadian book designers have unique opportunities? Are they accompanied by particular challenges?

Figuring out new and exciting ways to design both hockey and ‘whither Canada’ books, which are a yearly staple on publishers’ lists. We are handy and imaginative with maple leaf imagery and the colour red.

You’re an artist as well as a book designer. Is there a tension between your artistic sensibility and the commercial design process?

Every day, and the design wins. I’ve tried to avoid overlaps, but words are images to me, so lately I’ve been working on art based around words. I try to keep it as three dimensional as possible (since my day work is two-dimensional), but then font choices become a factor and I run screaming. It helps to know that both Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger worked in designer/typesetter jobs early in their artistic careers.

The challenge lies in accepting and separating out design and art from their ultimate goals: design is created to communicate a product; art is created to communicate the world, in whatever form, or whatever scope, the artist chooses. There is no client in art.

How is designing book interiors different from designing their covers?

Interiors are, in many ways, a much more detailed exercise in communication. For a text-only book, I have to make sure that the reader never really sees the design, else it distract from their involvement with the text. For a picture book, the pictures stand tall, so the design should just assist the pictures. But a cover is a marketing tool, and the cover must try, in no uncertain terms, to woo the reader. It must stand out.


Where do you look for inspiration?

Currently? Other designers (book and non-book), as well as music poster design. There is a great revival (when did it go away?) of one-off poster designs for gigs. They are all silkscreened or letterpressed limited-edition beauties. I used to look at rave fliers all the time (when raves were the thing). I look online. I remember stuff my mom — who was an antiquer in the 1970s — used to show me, old ads and magazines. I read a lot (beyond manuscripts), so I end up with this polymathic knowledge of, say, alchemical symbols and Greek demigods. We used to be such a visual culture, pre-literacy, and I think in many ways we’re heading back there. My job is to connect the shorthand symbols of the culture, both old and new. It can fascinate me for hours, why LOLCats is the thing (and then not the thing, but what did the visual say of us?), or looking at, say, a Dutch design student’s incredibly cool/obscure website.

Who else is doing interesting work right now?

I love designers with latitute — ones that aren’t just one-trick (or one-look). Who comes to mind? Coralie Bickford-Smith, Jason Gabbert, Terri Nimmo, David Gee, Gabriele Wilson, Peter Mendulsund… They all have style that can bend to the project. I could go on, but that’s today’s list. It will change and expand tomorrow.

You’re very active with your website, blog, and Twitter etc. Is it important for a designer to engage with people online?

You know, every time I blog (or answer nice questions like yours), I sit back afterward and fear that my opinion is going to lose me a client. There is this balance one must keep when designing, as the client is always right (or deserves the design they get, depending on the outcome), yet what designers put out there does contribute to our visual worldscape. So, I try to contribute.

But I work from home (or, in Toronto parlance, I have a ‘live/work situation’). Blogging keeps me from talking to the wall too much, or thinking that the cat cares when I’m sweating to find the right sans-serif. It has been fascinating to watch how many book designers have joined Twitter lately — we all seem to find each other, this odd subgenre of designers, and I think in the future, that will result in some mind-blowing design (or a great convention in Bend, Oregon). My purpose online is to build community, to share ideas, to groan when needed, and if other non-designers join the conversation, well, then it just becomes this great party.

With the growing popularity of e-books, what is next for book cover design?

Ack! I don’t know. I really don’t. We’ll see what happens. What I do know is that there will always be a role for design, but what that role takes is anyone’s guess.

Thanks Ingrid!

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