Beyond the words and pictures in a children's book, a number of elements can contribute to its success. Some—like the author/illustrator's reputation, the marketing campaign, the overall quality of the finished book—are more obvious than others. Increasingly, smart children's book design is proving itself an essential component of well-received, commercially successful books. To gain a sense of the current state of children's book design, PW spoke to several art directors whose work is pushing the boundaries of the profession.
"This is an exciting time for design," said David Saylor, v-p and creative director at Scholastic. "Children's designers in many cases are better than ever. There was a period in the late '80s/early '90s when adult design got very exciting and innovative, and I think it has trickled down to children's."
Saylor, whose first job was in a type shop, came to design via a position in textbook production at Knopf. After taking night school classes at Parsons School of Design while working in the children's production department at FSG, he was hired in 1989 as assistant to Harriet Barton, the (recently retired) creative director at HarperCollins Children's Books.
He has been at Scholastic since 1996, and his most widely known work would have to be the Harry Potter books. "For a time, all of the YAs and middle-grade novels looked very similar—a painted scene of children playing or laughing or crying," Saylor noted. This is clearly no longer the case, and he attributes this to designers taking risks: "Sometimes you have to break through barriers that people have set up for children's."
Isabel Warren-Lynch, executive art director at Knopf & Crown Books for Young Readers, concurred, pointing out that designers "are now allowed to try a lot of different things. Design has gotten better, cheaper, with more options. It has been liberating." Warren-Lynch, designer of Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl and Carl Hiaasen's Hoot, echoed many of her colleagues when she said, "[Designer] Molly Leach opened the door in a lot of ways. When we saw The Stinky Cheese Man, designers said, 'This is what we want to do, too!'—and that it worked and sold made that possible." The Stinky Cheese Man is widely recognized as the book that moved children's design into a new era (see sidebar).
Warren-Lynch also found inspiration for her work in other media. "When Nickelodeon started, with more off-beat graphics, I thought it was a really liberating experience," she added. "I always thought that children's books were too old-fashioned—because the thinking was that children's books were only good for the backlist, so they should have a classic look."
At the start of her career, after studying fine arts and graphics, Warren-Lynch thought she would like to illustrate children's books. But she changed her mind after starting a job in design at E.P. Dutton 22 years ago, working with editor Ann Durell. Now she oversees about 100 books a year, and has a staff of four designers. "As an art director, I try to make sure there is a cohesiveness to the list," she said, "and the designers, who do the day-to-day work, have to come up with solutions toward the final goal."
Ann Bobco, executive art director at Atheneum Books for Young Readers since 1994, said she, too, has seen the field expand and grow. "We have more openmindedness on the part of librarians and educators now." Bobco has a master's degree from CalArts, where she studied printmaking and filmmaking; she got her start in magazine design and moved into children's books at Knopf, working for Denise Cronin, after answering an ad in the New York Times.
"When I first started at Knopf," she recalled, "we were not allowed to have an all lower-case title on a book's jacket, for example. In the last 10 years, children's book design has opened up so much." Working on Ian Falconer's Olivia, Bobco said, has been the highlight of her career. "Olivia was a risk, but we knew early on that it really could be something and there was an overlap of enthusiasms between the three of us [Bobco, Falconer and editor Anne Schwartz] that I have not seen since."
Alison Donalty, art director at HarperCollins Children's Books, who designs Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and Louise Rennison's Angus, Thongs books, believes that children are "more receptive to new ideas than adults are, and they are more visually sophisticated. Kids are being thrown complex images from every direction, so the challenge for a designer is to compete with those images." Donalty designs about 30 books a year, mostly novels; she majored in illustration at Rhode Island School of Design and has been at Harper since 1994. "People notice design elements more than you think they do," she said. "Unfortunate Events, for example, is an unusual package, and people respond to that. You can't underestimate the value of good design."
However, Rita Marshall, creative director at Creative Publishing in Mankato, Minn., struck a different chord than other art directors we spoke with. "Design today is in a pretty dismal state, mostly because of the marketing departments," Marshall said. "They want books to be ugly and gaudy—because, I think, ugly probably sells better. Ideally, more independent publishers would take more chances. I remember books from the '70s that took chances, but not many since."
Marshall has been with Creative since 1982, and designs about six trade titles a year; she has a degree in design and got her start designing cookbooks for Stewart, Tabori & Chang and Clarkson Potter. "Some of our books are more successful in Europe," she said, "France especially, where they read a lot more and have more of an appreciation of art and design." Asked which books she considers well-designed, Marshall said, "I like the Lisbeth Zwerger books [from North-South], and the Sendak books are well done."
Ushering in the Computer Age
During the early 1990s, most publishing houses started introducing computers into design departments. Although some were reluctant at first, by now almost all designers have made the switch. The computerization of design departments has had an all-encompassing effect on children's book design and production. According to Saylor, "It has opened things up in all sort of ways, and has given designers much more freedom to experiment [with art placement and size, typeface, type placement and size, etc.]. Designers crave control, and working on the computer gives you a lot of control."
Saylor said, "I was trained the old-fashioned way, and I liked that; it gave me a solid grounding to build on. But before computers, everything was much more time-consuming and changes became costly. Making books hasn't become any easier, but flexibility has increased."
According to Bobco, "It's like night and day. For the first book I designed, in 1990, I spec'ed the type by hand and sent it out to a compositor—it was so labor-intensive. A year later, we were all on computers."
At S&S, computers are being taken advantage of during the copy-editing process as well; the publisher's desktop publishing program allows copy editor to input changes in a book's Quark file, which allows for fewer mistakes and leaves designers with more time to design.
While computers have revolutionized the field and provided many more options to designers, there have also been negative effects. "New designers coming through have much different training," Donalty said. "The computer, which is all they have ever worked on, makes you think differently than manually manipulating type, rules, etc. A lot of design looks the same now. There's a lot the computer can do to make a cover look clever, but still it can be lacking in substance."
Marshall agreed, saying, "Technology has made everyone in the world think they can be a designer." She brought up another result of the computerization of design: "Now we're expected to set type as well, and designers are not really typesetters."
While difficulties persist, Bobco expressed the hope of most designers: "In the next 20 years, I predict more innovative stuff as people move away from the fallback tools and get back to what the hand can do on the computer, to where the designer is aided, not led, by the technology."
Steps in the Process
Although it varies book by book, generally the designer is one of the only people aside from the editor who has direct interaction with authors and illustrators prior to a book's publication. After a project is acquired, there is usually a meeting with the art director, the designer and the book's editor, to agree on an overall look for the book. "The process is very collaborative," Saylor explained. "We talk about text as well as art; we bounce ideas off each other. Sometimes the editor conveys the comments to the author/illustrator, other times I do."
Bobco noted that this give-and-take, collegial attitude is different than in adult book design, where editors don't necessarily involve themselves in design. "I think of picture-book—making like filmmaking," Bobco said. "You have the input of many people, and many people should be credited in the final book—though credit rarely goes to art direction or production. I would like to see more people credited on the copyright page."
Warren-Lynch regards a book as "a partnership between the designer, the editor, the author/illustrator, the sales and marketing people. When those relationships are good, you get good books."
To assign a cover, Donalty said she sends over the manuscript and gives the artist a few days to digest it. "Then we have a conversation about their ideas and then we get sketches." Ultimately, the designer is in a unique position, according to Donalty. "The designer's job is to take the input of editorial, sales, marketing, the chains, etc.," she said, "and translate that into a salable package that will please everyone involved."
In the end, editors have the final say about a book's design, since they are the ones who paid for it and are responsible for the financial end of the book's performance. However, a lot of weight is also given to voices besides those in editorial—buyers at the chains in particular. "If sales doesn't like a jacket design, I listen very carefully," Warren-Lynch said. "I think it's important to listen to that, otherwise all of the work you've done has been for naught.
"The trick is to make the design appropriate for the book," she continued. "There are so many books now, and they can't all have marketing budgets, so sometimes the jacket is the only marketing tool a book has. Now a YA or middle-grade novel has to have a great jacket to compete, and you get immediate feedback at sales conference."
As Donalty noted, "There's a big market for crossovers—and YA and tween books often lend themselves to a sophisticated design. And the writing in these books is getting so good that adult readers can pick them up and enjoy them without feeling duped by the cover." However, she said, blame for a book's poor performance is sometimes placed on its design, whether that is justifiable or not. "It's been said that when a book does well, it's the writing," she noted, "but when a book bombs, it's the jacket."
Along the way to finished book, everyone involved learns to be more flexible. "We are somewhat limited by how the numbers work out on the P&L," Bobco said, "and there are always compromises to be made. But making compromises and being compromised are two different things." Donalty added, "There's always a middle ground, and if you're all working for the good of the book, you'll all get to the solution."
Thinking About Design
The question of how to assess a book's design is complex. Who decides the merit of the designer's work? Sales people, reviewers, members of Caldecott committees, consumers? Judging from designers' comments, it seems that good design can be characterized as striking a certain balance among image and type, abstract and concrete, color, size. Most people, unless they have an art background, are not equipped with the visual vocabulary to properly judge and discuss design—and so, for the purposes of this article, it is a question best left to the designers themselves. "You can see right away when a book has not been designed well," Marshall said. "The design shouldn't overwhelm a project."
Bobco agreed, saying, "If a book is overdesigned just to make people say, 'Oh, look at that design,' then I think it's a waste. I have a willingness to be playful with typography, but it must reinforce the text. Books can be wacky, but they should be wacky for a reason. I like design that is clean and makes sense—and it is important to remember that young children need to be able to read letterforms."
Warren-Lynch said that for YA novels, her aesthetic is tied to the world of adult books. "For Knopf, I take visual clues from Knopf adult titles and translate those kinds of evocative cover images to an appropriate design for a younger age group. I look for a quality, cerebral graphic that will grab someone's eye."
HarperCollins has a system in place that strives to ensure a consistency of design; unlike most other houses, a single person designs a book from the jacket to the interior, working on all of the design aspects. Donalty said she reads all of the books before she goes looking for a cover artist. "It's key for the art director to know the material so the cover will reflect it," she said. "I think it's important to begin the reading experience with the cover, and the reader should know what's on the inside of the book by looking at its cover. But I don't watch over a cover artist when they're working. I'm a firm believer in letting them do what they do best—that's how you get a good cover."
Being attuned to what other designers are doing is also part of staying on top, and influences can come from the marketplace as much as from teachers and colleagues. Saylor said he looks at what's being published in both children's and adult, adding, "Harriet [Barton] has been a role model, and I think we have a similar design sensibility. Harriet taught me to be focused on the book, to not impose a design on a book. She takes an organic approach to designing children's books, where the goal is to enhance what the author and illustrator want to do."
Marshall recalled her experience in another field: "I learned a lot about art direction from my years in advertising. I learned to tell illustrators how an image needs to be. You have to be very direct in advertising." Donalty, who also worked for Barton, said, "I've had the benefit of growing as a designer with colleagues who have been in the business for a long time, and I've taken a little bit from each of them. And five minutes working with [renowned book designer and children's book author/illustrator] Fred Marcellino on his books was like four years of design school."
With the death of Marcellino last year, and the recent retirements of old-guard art directors like Barton and Dial's Atha Tehon, a new guard will rise within the ranks of design departments. Armed with new tools and technology, and new challenges and higher stakes, they are entering an exciting period for the field.
What do designers hope to achieve through their work? "My goal is always to make beautiful books that are well-crafted," Saylor said. "But my ultimate goal is to put less space between the author/illustrator and the reader." Warren-Lynch is working toward longevity: "The goal is to produce well-crafted, lasting books that will be good today and 10 years from now," she said. For Donalty, "My job is to put an author's words in the right package. Sometimes that's beautiful, sometimes that's kooky, sometimes that's dark. One of the nicest things about the job is hearing the author say you did their book justice."