Monday 13 December 2010

Book Covers Make Short Stories Out of Entire Bibles: An Interview with Ian Shimkoviak

Ian Shimkoviak is one half of theBookDesigners, a small but prolific book design firm who do a lot of work for both established publishing companies and self-published authors. I have long been fascinated by his blog, where Ian shows many of the concept sketches and design alternatives for the books he works on. (The downside to this is that sometimes you see a beautiful cover that will never be because a publisher or author doesn't like it.) He was kind enough to agree to be interviewed about his background and working process.

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CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What's your background as a designer? How did you get into book design?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: My Parents both immigrated to Brooklyn, NY in 1979 where I was born. They were both fine art majors from Poland with dreams of painting and living the artist life in New York. As it goes with first generation immigrants, they never really made it in that way, but they both ended up in design work. My mother was a textile artist and my father did a bunch of design related stuff, one of which was a stint with New York book cover designer/art director Marc J. Cohen. He designed a number of books and he used to always point them out at bookstores when I was a kid.

Above, the final cover, and below, four concept sketches

As a child my father was always exposing me to design and print specifically (I recall being 5 or 6 when he pointed out to me that subway posters are just composed of tiny small dots of CMYK). He operated Rose Point studios in Brooklyn with some friends where they did primarily silkscreen work for a wide assortment of clients. I spent many hours in that studio.

Leaving my rather interesting life on hold for this conversation (I traveled much during my youth to exotic locations and lived in the Philippines for 4 years—when I was 10, my mother converted to Hinduism), suffice it to say that when it was time to wrap up my education I chose Graphic Design. I finished an 18 month crash course at some technical collage in Honolulu, Hawaii, and shortly after, I was hired at Clarance Lee Design and Associates where I worked for a short period. I designed my first book cover there amongst other things. I moved to South Carolina for a year where I designed, of all things, cycling jerseys, and then drove cross country to San Francisco where I worked at a publishing/print house called Palace Press International for a number of years. I built up a decent portfolio of book designs there and moved on to start my own studio with long-time friend Alan Hebel, who is my other half in this design thing I do.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I'm interested in the often large number of different concept sketches you do for each project--more than many designers seem to produce. Is this the way you've always worked?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: I have received negative feedback for this from many designers, but the bottom line is it's my process, for better or worse. Most publishers love it. Obviously. We all know that there are the occasional times where one idea is perfect and that three is enough. I try to explore a variety of ways to solve a problem. There is never one way to say something. There is a best way, but everyone's perception of "best" is different.

Above and below, seven very different approaches to one cover

I also do a good number of comps simply because it engages the clients thought process a little more and they get real excited about talking about their project and how I have shed light on things they never really would have thought about. Ultimately, I suspect that it is some sort of insecurity on my part and that eventually I will get more refined about my presentation. I by no means think it's an ideal process, just my way that works for now. I admire deeply those designers who can nail an idea in one sweep and have the confidence to say that it's their best foot forward. I lack that kind of internal meter. Personally I am never quite satisfied with a final piece. It grows on me as the years go by.

I am sure that much of this oddity in my process has to do with my rather poor education as a designer. Generating a substantial amount of ideas has allowed me to stay open to the possibilities any given project holds. It also allows me to stay a bit removed and unattached to any particular idea. While I will have my 3 favorite ideas in any given round of comps, I am not strongly convinced about any of them. They all hold some potential that the client and I will get to the bottom of as the project evolves. Sometimes the parameters are very straight forward and there is not a whole lot I can do creatively other than make it "look good".

To answer the last part of your question—I don't know if I have always worked like this as there are some projects that I do fewer comps for and have a more focused idea of what the book needs to say. I think in the past, when I was less skilled or proficient in using the software I probably just buckled down and went with my initial instinct. I think overtime I also naturally responded to the fact that many publishers would ask to see a change in this direction or that and in the end after all was said and done I ended up with 20 comps anyway. So a part of this comp thing is just a way to cut down on email and endless back and forth: I have already tried that on comp 16 and 27.

Bottom line: Every designer has their way of doing things—their way of getting the juice flowing. For me, I start with 3 sketches and as I work on those it will lead to other potential solutions and then I see something online or on a walk or in a magazine and it seems like it could work well for that project too and it just goes on and on. Things also happen unexpectedly. Something happens almost by accident and it looks interesting and somehow works. I think the good question to ask me is how do I know when to stop. And I would have to say truthfully it never stops, but at a certain point you need to look at it all and say—well, this looks like I have explored a healthy amount of compositions—this looks like I am into the project and feel it is important enough to show that there are many ways to say what the project needs to say.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Do you and Alan Hebel work on covers together, or do you each take take sole control of the design projects you do?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: Alan is not a designer, he does all the production stuff in our dynamic. So I'll do a cover or layout design and he will theme out the entire book and make sure my files are bled, converted to CMYK and all that stuff we designers hate to think about. Without him I would not exist. He also deals with all client interactions. I offend people. So partly, yes. Alan has his set of jobs that no longer need my design attention that he is working on and he just keeps funneling the projects to me as they come in. He also does things that take a lot of time out of the creative process like downloading images from my lightbox after I do some research, cutting images out and preparing all my cover documents—this type of stuff increases my productivity a lot so I'm not sitting around doing run of the mill things that suck my energy. So my focus is design and his is production. We work remotely. He lives in Northern California and I live in Portland, Oregon. Every morning and throughout the day we communicate about our workloads and how to maintain the day to day business side of things.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: You were able to post your concept work publicly for quite a while. What made you stop doing this (something which a lot of designers have stopped doing)?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: Basically my blog has been a log/diary of my work. It was more for me than anyone else. The few meager followers I have gathered over the years are, I suspect, not necessarily other designers in as much as students, authors, publishers and perhaps a few art directors (ADs) curious to see what I am up to. Not making the blog public was due to ADs on a number of occasions telling me to take stuff down that is not published or in early developmental stages. I totally get that. So rather than sacrifice my daily log of work (there is no way I could ever keep track of my work otherwise—my desktop is a mess) I chose to keep posting, but make it per invitation only.

Really, there is nothing there that is that special for the public to see. Much of the stuff is rather shameful and not worth showing anyone. Again, it's a log of my work flow and things that I feel have potential or that I have some temporary affinity for. I do reference the blog myself regularly to see if there is any old comps that could spark some ideas for other projects I am working on. I also look at old work and see what I do not want to do again, or see technical things (treatments of color, texture, type etc) that I have tried that were interesting and could work for other things.

I also think many designers feel like it is sort of cheating to show your conceptual work—after all, it is never going to see the light of day. But I disagree. Computers have allowed us to generate so many unique images and compositions in a rather short period of time. The amount of work you produce that is actually worth looking at and referring to is monumental compared to the old days when you did some quick napkin sketch and them moved on to create your mechanicals. There was not much there to contemplate and review as a testament to your process. It helps me as a designer to look at the work I have done and see how things have evolved.

I enjoy seeing concept stage work of other designers immensely. To see how, for example, Peter Mendelsund evolved the Steig Larsson series and how initial sketches looked and what the final designs were—that fascinates me. Or seeing a very detailed illustrative sketch that someone makes and seeing how in the final design they had to add or sacrifice certain things because the type could not fit otherwise or the image cropped differently then their sketch had shown. These details of how designers think and the technical execution of a concept is just wonderful thinking made live for everyone to learn from and enjoy.

I often look at Matt Dorfman's work. He does a lot of very conceptual pieces and will at times show initial sketches. To see that each sketch could have worked but for whatever reason the final one was the winner—this kind of stuff is always interesting to me because I can imagine what happened and I can relate to how these things take place. When you look at a finished cover you never really know how it was that that became the final solution. Another illustrator's blog I love is Brian Stauffer. His work is very engaging and to see how he starts form a sketch and how he works up to a final idea is like nothing I have ever seen. I am also endlessly fascinated by designers doing things differently. Take the Vintage Nabokov repackage that uses the butterfly cases. The fact that John Gall gave a bunch of different designers this task of creating something within this butterfly case is pure genius. Or his work with Ned Drew on the Kobo Abe covers. The results were so unexpected and fresh simply because of the uniqueness in the process. When designers reveal these secrets of how they work and how this seemingly magical process takes place, it gets less critically thinking designers like myself to pull up my sleeves and get to work. I love listening to Debbie Millman's interviews with designers. Hearing how designers think helps me in my thinking and teaches me valuable lessons I never learned at school. Although, I have to say that nothing prepares you for running your own business. That's something that art schools need to spend more time on and that designers should talk more about.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: How does working for self-publishers compare to working for publishing houses? Does the author's direct input make the process more difficult?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: You know, I would say that at one point, not too long ago, about 80% of our work was from self-pubs. That's a nice chunk of change. Now we have more established pubs we work with. There is really no formula or anything I can point out as easier. Just different. Authors will typically run the designs I do for them by their cousin or wife or dog. This can be good or bad—just as much as an AD or Publisher running things past a marketing department, editor, or the sales folks or Barnes and Nobles.

For self-publishers we usually do the interiors of books too, which we do not do for many, if any, publishers. I suppose there are nuances of difference also in the caliber of work we get from self publishers as opposed to established publishing houses. Most self-publishers will not be able to print more than 2000 copies of their book and they do not have the wide distribution, so you never see that work at the bookstore for example.

We are also getting a lot of requests nowadays, for ebooks. Much of that is from self publishers. But the overall process and time and energy is very much the same. Typically the turnaround time is a bit faster with a self publisher. You do the cover, interiors and a few weeks later you are off to press. Self publishers typically cannot afford to spring for certain technical printing finishes and so many of these types of books get a high-gloss varnish or simple matte lamination on cheap paper. In that sense, it is nice to work with certain publishers because your end product has some physical, tactile qualities that boost the overall final effect of your design. At Palace Press we were spoiled, as many of the books we worked on had elaborate printing features that we were able to do. So when we started our own studio and had all these self publishing accounts, we quickly realized that there was going to be some diminished quality in the final printed piece. Working with authors directly is sometimes a boon and other times it can get pretty silly with all the mixing and matching of various design elements to achieve the final piece. I think having a hierarchy of ADs, editors, and marketing folks that define the projects boundaries is key to any designs ultimate success in the marketplace.

On another note, I also think there is a big difference in the dynamic of an in-house designer versus freelancers or small studios like ours. I'm very isolated. I work in a basement office. Venues like twitter shift that dynamic slightly for me as they create the feeling that I am working in a giant office with other designers. I get to peak at what Michel Vrana is working on, or what David Gee has cooked up, or what issues other designers are dealing with. But in general, I think there is something to be said about the difference in work flow for a freelancer and for a in-house worker.

I work on roughly 6-10 new projects every month (on top of wrapping up old projects and making day to day adjustments to various ongoing projects), I have to also consider and worry about the business/marketing/sales side of things. This split in focus for a designer is dramatic. To wear so many hats, to be isolated from other people in your field of work. All this affects, in my opinion, what we are able to do as designers. For example, in most cases I do not have the luxury of doing a photo shoot or working with a typographer/calligrapher or an illustrator. I cannot step out for a casual lunch with my design buddy and dwell on a single title I am working on. I dwell on 4 or 6 at a time while wondering if we are able to invoice for something as I stuff a burrito down my throat that my wife lovingly fetched for me. I have kids running above my head 24/7 and my wife rolls her eyes at me when I start talking about some random book cover for the thousandth time. It becomes taxing physically to come up with compelling solutions at times. You don't have the luxury of running your latest creation by a fellow designers desk for some comments, thoughts, or creative dialogue. Most of the time the design dialogue happens somewhere between your head and the screen you stare at for majority of your day.

So to sum it all up, there is not so much difference working with a self-pub versus a publisher in as much as a difference in working as a freelancer versus an in-house designer. I may be wrong and this is obviously my own observation from where I sit, but this is the biggest difference I feel affects me and what I am working on and the process and way I work.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What are some recent covers of which you're most proud? What about older work?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: Recent: I like much of what is on my website. Give or take, most of it is recent work. I like the lettering and overall effect of Magickeepers, which is a young adult novel. I love Tutankhamun: Book Of Shadows, although I wish that the final piece had used a gold foil on the title.
Above, the final cover, and below, three concept sketches

It's A Jungle in There is a fun, simple cover that got us a good bit of attention and hence some work. Rational Optimist is a strong all-type solution.

Albeit not my cup of tea as far as reading material goes, I do like some of the Jane Austenesqe Darcy stuff we did for SourceBooks. Those are hard to work on because there is so much of that out there right now.

Cleopatra The Great turned out nice. I'm pretty happy with a lot of stuff we are doing for University presses these days and it is really fun doing thrillers and crime stuff. University press book topics are so odd and it's always a challenge to do something interesting and intelligent (looking). I look to designers like David Drummond for inspiration on how to tackle projects like that.

Above, the final cover, and below, four concept sketches

As far as the old stuff goes, I am quite pleased with a number of the architectural monographs we did. They are pretty timeless and doing super restrained and modern design is hard—especially when it's 400-600 pages worth of it—I also had to travel to the architects firm for most of those, so I remember that fondly as it was amazing to see architects at work and be in their company for weeks at a time while I tried to impress them with my layouts.

And finally, I am proud of some real old stuff like the eastern philosophy books we did as well as a blues book I did called Between Midnight and Day, and a book on the Rolling Stones (20 photographers covering 40 years of the Stones) as well as the San Francisco Giants book that commemorated 50 years of the baseball team. While these title are dated in their look, I always look at them fondly and notice stuff about them that makes me say, "I wonder what compelled me to solve this problem in this way".

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: If you could design, inside and out, without budget limitations, any book from the history of literature, what would it be?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: This is quite an unfair question for the type of person I am, I read 6+ books at a time and finish half of them as I start new ones (I must have a mild form of ADD). I love Hess, Kundera and Márquez. There are so many classics that I would die to redesign. I suppose for the sake of just choosing something I would say something monumental like the Bhagavad Gita. Perhaps an illustrated version that includes multiple translations by all the famous commentators as well as infographics that show the way all the character are connected. But I would undertake such a thing only if I had 4 years to really do something breathtaking and generate a million comps before I began designing the interiors. Overall, I would like to redesign a bunch of books that I have not read so that I would be forced to read them in order to design for them. My wife get annoyed with me buying books all the time and every new book that arrives I always just say, "It's for the kids—when they get older". I often drool over the work of other designers who are more fortunate than me and able to work on books for really great authors or simply more compelling topics. I think as designers we are naturally drawn to admire and look at the work of all the past and present legends of book design and in some way feel like we would love the opportunity to do such work. Most book design work being done and even most graphic design work being done, period, is not for anything glamorous or substantial. There are hundred of designers working every day very hard to create something compelling out of otherwise nothing. Most designers work on lower-end projects. I always contemplate this in a slightly depressed way. I think, wow, there are literally hundreds of designers who are slaving away out there on something as mundane as a toothbrush packaging or a logo for some obscure whatever. You do not see that work in design annuals. You don't really get a realistic sense of what a designers job is by flipping through an issue of print magazine or by going on any number of reputable design blogs. That stuff is the elite, upper-level stuff that we all strive for. But only a handful of people gets to do that work. The rest of us do the stuff that the general public uses and enjoys. I think as with any art, book covers fall into a category of very contextual design. Like a logo.

Some of my favorite covers are simply attractive, abstract images and type. They do little in the way of communicating the central ideas in the book. But overtime they take on a life of their own and establish themselves in the popular psyche. There are many music posters that I love for various artists that speak very little to the artists music and tone, but they are beautiful as pieces of art that challenge our perception of what "works" for such a topic. The same goes for book design. I am always amazed at what book designers come up with for covers. There is everything from literal solutions that are striking and enticing all the same as well as deeply conceptual and artistically astounding work that any lay person would have very little understanding or appreciation for. That's what i love about design. It's very subjective. The intention is there to communicate "something", but everyone's interpretation will be different.

For example, I know that some designers were not too fond of the new Penguin Classics "Red" series as they felt that the designs did little in the way of communicating the content of the book. I'm not stuck on ideas like this. Design is there to expound upon and expand our taste and relationship with the world around us. It's not there to simply communicate something as it is and be appropriate for the book. If this was the case we would still be living in the dark ages. Art/design is there to push aside notions and create new vocabularies. I often find that in design, context is everything. We are attracted to things that remind us of feelings and moments and create associations in our minds that allow us to build bridges to other ideas and ways of thinking. There is an art to doing that and it's a type of psychological trick we as designers play everyday. How do we create something that can communicate and be understood while introducing a fresh idea? How can we take familiar concepts that people feel safe with and that mean something to them and stretch that a bit further. So sorry for the tangent, but in general I would like to redesign many titles because there are always other ways to see the same thing.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Is there any neglected book you'd love to draw to people's attention as something they should seek out?

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: Not really. I loved Sea of Poppies. I can't wait till the rest of the trilogy comes out. The writing takes you so deep into the culture and mindset of the time period and characters. I'm not a very literary man. I like book covers. They make short stories out of entire bibles. You can look at a well designed cover and you almost do not need to read the book because you get it—you have been made to feel how you are meant to feel. I know this sounds shallow, but this to me is a good book. A good book should have a good cover. A good cover shows that the publisher, author and everyone involved believed in the writing so much that they created something wonderful inside and out.

My friend Michael Kellner, who is a book designer had reintroduced me to the Tao Te Ching. Now there is a good book. Neglected—probably not, but one of those books you just keep reading throughout your life and every time it says something new—everyone should own a copy. While I like the way a big book feels with all of that spine area, I am personally a fan of short stories and quicker reads. Heavy reading always leaves me asking the same question: Why does someone feel compelled to write so much? If I have to read one book for weeks and months I loose my taste for it—some days I feel like reading a detective novel, the next some philosophy, another day it's something else. So read the Tao and get on with it.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Thank you, Mr Shimkoviak!

IAN SHIMKOVIAK: Thanks for the interview. Not sure if I shed light on anything worthwhile. I am really an amateur at this book design thing. I try my best and I hope to create something substantial as the years roll on. I have tremendous respect for book designer these days: there is more great work than ever before and if there is anything that will keep the book alive in print for a very long time it will be good book cover design. People will feel compelled to have libraries at home filled with beautiful books. It is only natural to want to treasure and keep something that is well conceived.


Unknown said...

Really great to hear Ian's thoughts. Brilliant designer, and this is a wonderful interview. Thanks so much for posting this. I'm a big fan of your blog.

JRSM said...

Thanks, Laura. And I'm just looking at the great illustrations on your blog now. Lovely stuff.

Hence72 said...

excellent stuff as always

dont forget to pop over for a visit soon

John Salisbury said...

A very nice read. I'm a fan of Ian as well. Well done.

Alex said...

I am in love with Ian Shimkoviak now.

JRSM said...

And rightly so!