The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Coralie Bickford-Smith, Penguin Press


Coralie Bickford-Smith was one of the first book designers I mentioned on The Casual Optimist and her distinctive cover designs have featured regularly ever since.

While Coralie’s work for Penguin clearly draws inspiration from the Arts & Crafts Movement and British inter-war illustration and design, it never seems trite or conventional. There is always an asymmetry, angle, pattern, or colour combination that gives it an unexpected twist that lifts it out of the ordinary. Her covers for Penguin’s ‘Gothic Reds’, for example, are amongst the most brilliantly stark, original, off-kilter and unsettling covers of recent memory.

It almost goes without saying that I am thrilled that Coralie agreed to an interview, and I’m using it as a shameless excuse to post a lot of images of her work.

When did you decide to become  a designer?

I don’t remember when I heard the term designer for what I wanted to do and it all became clear, but I spent my childhood collecting stamps, letraset, calligraphy nibs, books and making my own edition of the dictionary. All that made a lot of sense once I started studying design at university.

What is your role at Penguin,  and where did you work previously?

I’m a senior cover designer for Penguin Press, which publishes Penguin’s classic fiction list as well as non-fiction titles in science, philosophy, history, etc. Before I started at Penguin I worked in various jobs designing whole books, magazines and instore promotions for supermarkets. It was not until a started at Penguin that I settled down and really started to feel creatively fulfilled.

Do you work on particular  imprints?

At Penguin Press we have a number of imprints: Allen Lane, Particular Books, Penguin Classics, Modern Classics, Red Classics and Penguin Paperbacks. Our art department shares the titles around so we get to work on different projects and designers are not tied to one imprint.

Penguin is synonymous with British book design. Is there a sense of that legacy within Penguin  itself?

Absolutely, it’s great to work for a publisher with such a rich design heritage. The responsibility to live up to that can be quite daunting at times, but you just have to get on with what you do and enjoy it, otherwise it would get paralysing. The reputation means that design is valued within the company, which gives the designers a stronger voice. Not that we get carte blanche — sales and marketing obviously have their say — but there isn’t always the decision to play it safe, we’re given a bit more rope to take some risks and hopefully push things further. So we get to have a lot of fun with design and feel listened to and respected.

Could you describe your  design process for book covers?

The first stage of every new cover is nerves and self-doubt: can I do something interesting, visually smart and get across the fundamental nature of the book and help it sell? Nightmare. So I get reading and then try to throw away all my concerns and fears and start getting stuff down on the page, sketching on paper and working things out on the computer. Usually that means trying out a lot of rubbish and having to trust that eventually something will emerge from the process that works. When that happens I can breathe a short sigh of relief and then get on with developing and refining until the cover is finished.

Your work often incorporates  traditional Arts and Craft elements like ornamentation, illustration,  and hand-drawn type. Is this something you strive for or is it dictated  by the nature of the projects?

I suppose those elements are close to being obsessions of mine — I was heavily into William Blake and William Morris as a child. Some projects have quite open briefs so I can pursue a particular vision — the first of my hardback classics grew out of a fascination with Victorian book bindings, which inspired me to experiment with foil-stamped cloth bindings. Other times there will be an element in the brief — illustration for the Boys’ Adventure series for example — that I latch on to and try to get the most out of, with lots of period research and careful commissioning. A lot of the hand-drawn type on my books is commissioned — Stephen Raw is great at period type — but I’d like to develop my own skills in that area as well. John Gray is a constant source of inspiration, the energy in his hand-drawn type is incredible.

What are your favourite  books to work on?

I would say the cloth classics right now. I really enjoy the process of getting the best colour combinations and the feel of the end result in my hands. Representing classic literature through patterns is fun there is so much to go on within the text. Life only doing these would be dull though, so I like that I get to work on a variety of titles. I like that there’s always another area in which to push myself as a designer. I think its coming up with concepts I like best. The rush of the moment where you show it to someone and they get it. When you feel that you know you have got it right.

What are the most challenging?

They’re all challenging at the start, when I think I might make a hash of this one. Conceptual covers for non-fiction can be quite a challenge — especially when there’s a late change to the title or subtitle that makes a great design suddenly redundant. It can be hard scrapping a cover I’ve become attached to and has been approved. I just have take a deep breath and remind myself that the cover is there to serve the book and not the other way around…

How is designing for a series  different for designing an individual cover?

As you would expect, it’s a more intense process. I always have to have rules that will work across the series, from colour usage to typography. There are often period-specific elements that have to researched and backed up. It there’s a grid it has to work across the whole series and not get tired and boring. It’s a longer process, and the energy and attention to detail has to be maintained to the end. With individual covers its a bit more organic as you won’t have to pay down the line for decisions that might create difficulties if spun out into a series. If it works it works and once you’ve got it you move on.

Do have a favourite set  from your recent designs?

Again it has to be the cloth classics as they sit so satisfyingly on the shelf as a set. I tend to pick my work apart after each series is finished and make notes about what I would do next time and how I can improve on the way I approach the typography and the images, well all of it really. I think designers are harsh critics of their own work; there’s a dissatisfaction that motivates us to keep producing new stuff, new approaches.

Where do look for inspiration  and who are some of your design heroes?

The internet is a huge and readily accessible resource. I can spend ages going from site to site just soaking up inspiration. I like to collect objects that I see in junk shops/ebay/charity shops. Bookshops too of course – I really enjoy the Oxfam book shops, so many gems to be found. As for design heroes, there are many. The Williams I mentioned earlier — Blake and Morris. Then there’s so much inspiration in the Penguin back catalogue, form people like Romek Marber and Alan Aldridge. In current book design, John Gray and David Pearson often come up with things that make me think wow, look what you’ve done, that’s amazing. There are also many outside of the book world I admire, such as Orla Kiely. I love her use of colours, and also the 70’s vibe. I have a thing for 70’s orange plastic, and her stuff reminds me of that, its really comforting.

What does the future hold  for book cover design?

Covers are still a lot of the time the only piece of marketing material to attract the customer so I don’t think that is going anywhere fast. We might go through a wave of utter tripe as everyone gets all excited about 3D or animated covers, and the novelty of technology takes precedence over good design. Electronic books are inevitably going to impact physical publishing, but the printed book is a very successful technology in its own right and I don’t think it will be entirely displaced. For all the advantages of ebooks — portability, interactivity, production and distribution savings — there’s something potent about the physical object that will always have a strong appeal. I like to think that as the volume of physical books declines, the average quality of the design will increase, because books will have to work harder to justify their physical presence.

Thanks Coralie!

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  2. Ive always been impressed by Bickford-Smith’s work, so it’s interesting to hear from her about how she sets about her work and her influences.
    I look forward to future designs and covers to come out of Penguin and Bickford-Smith.

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  6. I’m a great fan!

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