The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with David Drummond, Salamander Hill Design

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“I haven’t changed my mind about modernism from the first day I ever did it…. It means integrity; it means honesty; it means the absence of sentimentality and the absence of nostalgia; it means simplicity; it means clarity. That’s what modernism means to me…” — Paul Rand

There is something of a Modernist tendency in the design of David Drummond. It is not in a strict adherence to the grid or Accidentz Grotesk (or anything quite so obvious), but rather in the thought and purpose underlying his work. There is always a clarity and assurance to the concept and composition. There is never erroneous detail or ornament. Form most definitely follows function. To describe David’s work this way, however, is something of an injustice. His designs are far wittier (and much less pedantic) than one thinks Modernism ought to be.  But then again, whoever said Modernism couldn’t be funny or irreverent? Not Paul Rand.

Perhaps it is simply better to say that David’s designs are the epitome of good ideas well executed. Their apparent effortlessness make it easy to underestimate his work. It is only when one tries to imagine how the cover could have looked otherwise that you truly realise his originality and what he has rejected or removed to get to his apparently simple designs. It should not be a surprise that Paul Rand is inspiration. After all, it was Rand who said:

“Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.”

Somehow that seems to get to the core of David’s work.

I am absolutely thrilled to post this interview. David’s work has received awards from AIGA, Communication Arts Magazine and Print Magazine and he is one of the finest book cover designers working today.

We corresponded by email.

How did you get into book design?
I was working in Montreal for an ad agency when I got a call from McGill-Queen’s University Press.  On the recommendation of my sister, whose book they were publishing, they were interested in looking at my portfolio. That was the catalyst to start breaking out on my own.

When did you open your own studio?
I opened Salamander Hill Design in 2001

Approximately how many publishers do you work with?
I just checked the folder on my computer titled “Presses” and there are about 40 in there. Some are very active and some not at all. It kind of goes up down. Some of them are self published authors as well. There are maybe about 10 that I have longstanding relationships with that feed me with work pretty regularly.

How many covers do you work a season?
Hard to say really. I have so many that are all at varying stages of production. Right now, if I count the books on my list, there are about 30. What I have come to realize is that it is really important for me to always have a lot of work on the go. It helps to keep me in the zone where I can do my best work. I really do think the creative faculty is like a muscle that you have to keep flexing.

You were previously an art director for a marketing and communications company. Has this informed your book cover design?
This is going to sound funny but I wouldn’t really describe myself as a book cover designer. My approach to cover design is pretty much the same that I apply to any area of visual communication. I see the project as solving a visual problem, whether it is a book cover, illustration, logo or package design. Even though I have always entered work in book cover design competitions through the years, it has also been equally important for me to enter competitions like Communication Arts Design Annual to have the work judged in the larger context of graphic design as a whole.

Do you still do corporate identity work and packaging design?
Lately I have been getting back into identity work more and more. I guess I must have been missing it. Last year I decided to branch out and do some illustration work for magazines and that has been really exciting. The tight deadlines and fast turn-arounds force you to make decisions faster. I really hope to develop that more this year. Just last week someone e-mailed me about doing a poster for film festival in Italy. It always amazes me when a job like that lands in your in-box out of the blue.

Could you describe your book cover design process?
In a nutshell: present the cover brief to yourself as a problem that has to be solved. Then I try and bombard my brain with images from all kinds of sources to see if I can trigger something. For me it is about finding the visual hook. If that doesn’t work right away I tend to put it aside and take my dog Beau for a walk. I am sure all the local farmers that pass me on the road in their pick-up trucks must wonder about me and my dog walking far from home in all kinds of weather but I would honestly say it is an important part of my creative process.

I tend to like showing one concept whenever possible. I would say this is true for all of my design work. It shows the client that you have taken a stand and believe in the solution. That doesn’t mean you haven’t produced many different concepts along the way. I am sort of brutally self critical and if something isn’t working or if I am forcing it too much I put it aside and start again. I work with a lot of different clients with different protocols and some of them require that multiple concepts be presented up front. When that is the case I still try and make a strong case for the one I believe in.

I think the key to doing your best work is having a great client relationship. My brother is a poet and he compares publishing a book of poems to launching a pebble off the Grand Canyon and waiting for the sound of it hitting the bottom to come back to you. That is a bit the way I feel when I start working for a new client when you aren’t familiar with their approval process. Sometimes you launch your design out there and then — silence. I have a relationship with most of my clients where I know they want to be surprised by a solution. It does set the bar high each time but I need that challenge.

My wife works as a horse groom for a big show barn and gets up at 5:00 in the morning to get ready for work. Consequently I start my day around the same time. It’s funny — I live in farm country and basically keep farmer’s hours. The lights are also on in the neighbouring barns when I start my day. I focus on idea generation in those early hours and leave the more mundane production stuff to later in the day when my energy is flagging.  The Tron, Inception, Dark Knight soundtracks come in handy at that point to keep me going.

What are your favourite books to work on?
Hard to say really. For the nonfiction stuff I love working on covers that have a great title that presents the subject in a new way. That really tends to help get the ball rolling.

What are the most challenging?
Books on the economy/Wall Street, Canadian Federalism, the Supreme Court, Native Peoples. I say this because I have done so many of them and each time you have to find a new way of presenting it. So far I have always managed to find a new take on it. I keep going back to the well and so far it hasn’t gone dry.

Do you see any current trends in book design?
Not a big fan of trends. Whenever I have been asked to judge design work for competitions the work that always grabs you are the ones that present a strong concept with a clean and simple execution. I think that is the key to producing work that is timeless.

Where do you look for inspiration, and who are some of your design heroes?
I look for inspiration pretty much everywhere. Paul Rand is a big design hero of mine because he kept on creating right to the end. I pretty much knew early on in my career that, because I’m such an oddball, the path of becoming creative director in a big agency was not really an option — not much of a schmoozer.

For me it has always been about the work.

Who else do you think is doing interesting work right now?
So many designers really. I would probably choose designers outside of the book design world like Montreal design firm Paprika — their work never ceases to surprise me.

What does the future hold for book cover design?
I truly feel privileged to get up in the morning and find a new design brief for a cover design in my in-box. Doing this type of work is a perfect fit for me and I hope to continue doing it for as long as it lasts.

And lastly… You (somewhat famously) live in a rural municipality in Quebec with a population of less than 500 people. What can you see from your studio window?
I live in a big rambling farmhouse built in 1825 on about 140 acres of land in Elgin, Quebec. The back fence line is the American border. Our farm sits at the base of the Adirondacks just where the Chateauguay Valley begins. My office is on the second floor with a view out the back. The view is always changing. Depending on the time of the year there are sheep, cows, horses, wild turkeys, deer, and an assortment of barn cats outside my window.

Wonderful! Thanks David.

David’s work can be seen at his blog and at the website for Salamander Hill Design.

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