The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Matt Roeser, Candlewick Press

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If you follow book design on social media at all, chances are you’ve come already across Matt Roeser‘s  funny, if somewhat dinosaur-fixated, Twitter feed. But over the past couple of years as senior designer at independent children’s publisher Candlewick Press in Massachusetts, Matt has been quietly producing some bright, brilliant, and original covers for their line of young adult titles.

I first came across Matt’s work about 4 years ago when he first started a Tumblr project called New Cover, and was working outside publishing in St. Louis. Now he is designing books full-time, it only seemed appropriate to ask him a few questions about his interests and influences, his work, and his career. We corresponded by email.

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Were there a lot of books in your house growing up?

Absolutely. We lived two blocks away from our library, so my parents were always taking my brother and I there and letting me bring home as much as I could carry. That, paired with the book order forms our teachers would pass out every month (of which I had an unhealthy level of excitement for) meant there was always a constant stream of books in our house.

Did you have a favourite book as a kid?

I had three, and to this day, still can’t decide which one I like the most because they’re each fabulous in their own way: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler because the kids run away and live in a museum (I’m still hoping to do this one day!), The Westing Game, because it’s an epic murder mystery, and The Phantom Tollbooth, because it’s so imaginative and full of wordplay, which I have a soft-spot for.

EggandSpoon

Do you remember when you first became interested in design?

Yes, and it was paired with reading in a way. The movie Jurassic Park came out when I was 10 and I went with my brother to see it at least 5 or 6 times and was just completely enthralled. Then my brother bought the book with the now-classic Chip Kidd design on the front. I read it and, being my first “big-person” book that I had read, it really stuck with me. I remember thinking it was so cool that the design of the jacket was used for the logo for the park in the movie. And it was on t-shirts, lunchboxes, everything. The fact that a new Jurassic Park movie is coming out next year, and they’re still using Chip Kidd’s design just makes me so happy. So while I don’t think I completely realized it at the time, that’s the moment that I became aware and interested in design. And since I’ve never actually grown up, all of the things I loved as a child (dinosaurs, space, time travel) still excite me to this day (thus why a majority of my tweets revolve around dinosaurs). I even had a Jurassic Park themed 30th birthday party which was simultaneously my most proud and most embarrassing moment in life.

Is anyone else in your family creative?

Yeah, my immediate and extended family is full of carpenters and woodworkers, interior designers and painters and people that just generally like to create and build with their hands.

Did you study design at school?

Initially, when I started college, I dove deep into marketing. However, I quickly found out, after taking macro-economics and a plethora of other numbers-based courses, that the business side of marketing was not at all interesting to me. I then started taking a bunch of creative communication classes that included various advertising and graphic design courses, and quickly felt much more at home. Ultimately, a lot of my design education was self-taught, but at school I learned the basic process of working on creative projects that really stuck with me.

What were you doing before you joined Candlewick?

I worked with the creative team at Atomicdust, a branding and marketing agency in St. Louis, Missouri. I definitely learned the ins and outs of the creative process while there. We had a great array of clients that allowed us to flex our creative muscles in a variety of ways as we came up with messaging and then decided the best ways to get that message out. Learning how to boil down a company’s entire purpose/goals/soul into a clear message was great experience for what I do now: communicating an entire book’s essence through its jacket.

Caminar

Before you were designing books professionally, you started New Cover, a self-initiated project redesigning the covers of some of your favourite books. Was your goal to get a job in publishing?

Ultimately. It was really driven from the fact that I love to read and I love design, and it had always been a secret “dream-job” ambition of mine to make of career of combining the two. Part of my job at Atomicdust was hiring designers, and as a result, I was sent tons of resumes and portfolios. Every once in a while, there would be someone who didn’t have any work to show but was still looking for a job, but you can’t really hire a designer without seeing any of their work. And then it hit me; if I wanted publishers to hire me to design book covers, they weren’t just going to do it because they saw that I could design websites and brochures. They would need to see book covers. So I picked a few of my favorite books and started creating new covers for them. The project was featured on a couple of design blogs and then spiralled from there into real work from publishers.

Can you tell me a little bit about Candlewick Press and what it’s like to work there?

Candlewick has all of the best elements of a smaller company mixed with the structure of a larger corporate company. There are about 95 employees in total and we’re all on one huge floor of a building in Davis Square, a sort of hipster-y area right outside of Boston. It’s a really open and encouraging environment that gives me the freedom to fully visualize the design ideas I have for titles. We’re the companion company to Walker Books in the UK as well as Walker Australia, so occasionally we’ll take on some of their titles and vice versa, or we’ll coordinate a global launch for a title that we will all be simultaneously publishing. It also means we have an almost never-ending source of imported chocolates and cookies coming to the office via visitors from our other branches.

How many designers work in your office?

The art department has about 15 designers, a majority of who work primarily on picture books. I mostly work on young adult and middle grade fiction and a non-fiction title every now and then.

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Did you ever think you would make a career of designing kids’ books?

Looking back at previous jobs, you can definitely see all of the stepping stones that got me here. In high school, I worked in the children’s room of my town’s library. Then, during college, I worked at a preschool. So I’ve always sort of been surrounded by kids’ books. That, paired with graphic design in college and at Atomicdust, and it makes sense.

Can you describe your process for designing a book cover?

First, I read the book. I like to think that the jacket idea is already there in the text somewhere and I just have to find it and bring it to fruition. Once I’ve read the manuscript, I start sketching out ideas both on paper and on my computer. Sometimes I have a really clear initial vision of what the cover should look like and the final cover ends up looking pretty similar. Other times, I won’t have as clean-cut of an initial idea, so I’ll do really broad image searches based on a few keywords I’ve written down while reading just to get the wheels turning. It’s hard to say where ideas come from. The ultimate goal is to make a finished product that would catch someone’s eye, regardless of who the specific audience is. If I can make it interesting enough for anyone to pick up, I’ve done my job.

MoreThanThis

What are your favourite kinds of projects to work on?

Anything that’s a little off. As a reader, I like stories where about 75% of what’s going on seems normal and then there’s this gray space remaining where something unexpected/bizarre/weird is happening. It’s why I like books like The Prestige, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, A Tale for the Time Being, and the TV show LOST. So story-wise, those are projects I get the most excited about. Also, anytime a book is part of Launch (the titles that the publisher is really pumped about) because that ultimately means they’re willing to try different things to set the book apart. Whether it’s a die-cut through the case for More Than This, or a ¾ jacket wrapped around a printed case, or stamping the entire design in foil, I enjoy playing with the materials in new ways.

Who are some of your design heroes?

Chip Kidd, Jonathan Gray, Peter Mendelsund. Their designs are always interesting, unique and more often than not, little works of art.

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Who else do you think is doing interesting work right now?

Will Staehle and Oliver Munday. They are two people that whenever I see their name on a book jacket, I’m simultaneously super excited to see a great cover and also maddeningly jealous of their innate talent that makes it look so easy. I haven’t seen a cover of theirs that I don’t like.

Is there a particular author or a book you’d like to design (or redesign!) a cover for?

Hmm, this is tough. I feel like a lot of them I did as part of New Cover back in the day, although I should revisit some of those and the questionable design decisions I made at the time. Some of those author names are in such a tiny point size that I just laugh thinking about it now. I would love to take on a series redesign as it’s something I haven’t gotten the chance to do professionally.

What’s in your ‘to read’ pile?

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell! I’ve been anticipating this book for a while after reading and falling in love with his novel Cloud Atlas. A coworker was able to grab an ARC of the The Bone Clocks at BEA, so I’m currently immersed in it. I’m also looking forward to the new Murakami book coming out in a few months. And, after numerous people have told me that they can’t believe I haven’t read it yet, The Lost City of Z is the next book I’m reading.

FloatingShelves

Do you have a system for organizing your books?

A few years back, I saw a floating pile of books on a wall in a design store and thought it was genius. Then, like I do with most things, I went overboard and bought 15 of them to hang over my desk. (See photo) They’re perfect for displaying some of my books in a way that’s a little different than normal. I try and fill them with a good mix of books I love and books that are visually amazing, and then put the majority of my other books in these three huge old steel lockers I have. One day, I will have a room with shelves going up every wall and a rolling ladder that I can ride around on like Belle does in the beginning of Beauty and the Beast and then I will truly be happy.

What’s the one book you recommend to everyone?

Cloud Atlas. It’s one where I would pause after reading a sentence and look out the window and contemplate life and just wonder how anyone could possibly be this good at writing. If you only saw the movie and hated it, go read the book. Before that, A Confederacy of Dunces. The dialogue is hysterical and I don’t remember laughing more at a book in my entire life.

PlayForTheCommandant

What does the future hold for book cover design?

I think regardless of how popular ebook readers become, there’s always going to be those titles that people want to buy a physical copy of. Maybe this means, as an industry, we make fewer (but more special) physical versions of books, which I don’t necessarily see as a bad thing. I’m a big believer in quality over quantity and if we want people to buy physical books, they need to be everything that they can’t get in an ebook: the materials should be exceptional, the design should be a work of art, the interior should have (gasp!) well thought out margins. It should be something they want to display. On the flip side, there’s always going to be an audience that only cares about the content. They don’t want stacks of books everywhere, don’t want to lug them around, don’t care (gasp!) about margins. I can understand all of that. But there will still be a need for associating some sort of image with the book. I can’t/don’t want to imagine a future where there’s just a long text list of titles that people choose from with no accompanying visual. When that day comes, you can find me barricaded in my own personal library, muttering to myself as I zoom around on my rolling ladder.

Thanks Matt!

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