Coralie Bickford-Smith

 

An Interview with the Designer

by Karen Horton/December 15, 2008

 
Coralie is an award winning book cover designer and has created several acclaimed series designs for Penguin Books. Art director Jim Stoddart first spotted her latent talent six years ago in the page layouts for a supermarket pet club magazine. At which point Coralie breathed a huge sigh of relief, as on the whole she prefers designing book covers. Recently she has been working on projects with students at London College of Communication, passing on the principle that underpins her own work: 'stop designing, start playing'.

KAREN HORTON: Tell me a bit about yourself and your design experiences prior to being a Senior Designer at Penguin UK…

CORALIE BICKFORD-SMITH: Before working at Penguin I was doing a lot of whole book design. After graduating I got my first job at Quadrille, a small publishing house. I was enticed by the fact they worked on Tricia Guild books, all beautiful fabrics and interior design; I ended up doing a lot of lush cookery books. Petrified I might never be able to break out of publishing, I only lasted at Quadrille a year. Then I got a job at Black Sun, a ‘strategic, marketing and communications agency’, which turned out to mean long hours and a lot of designing for a supermarket magazine called Pet Club. That was a dark year. I ran out the door with no job and started freelancing for my old publisher and working for another small publisher doing beautiful coffee table books … I realized then that publishing was what I enjoyed, and I dreamed of Penguin. Somehow Jim Stoddart, Art Director at Penguin, saw the merits of my Pet Club layouts, I got the job, and I have been happy here ever since.

What is a typical day in the Penguin UK design department?

CBS: One of the good things is there is no typical day. It’s up to the designers to work through our own projects. We have the freedom to do what we need to do. It’s nice to feel like I’m treated as an individual, lovely in fact. Jim is there when we need him
and gives us room to get on with it if not. I like getting away from my desk and going out to research and coming up with ideas
in libraries.

How did your experience studying typography at University of Reading influence your design work?

CBS: The program at Reading was a huge influence on me. It was the first formal design training I had, the foundation of my design knowledge. It was such an intensive course. I look back with rose tinted specs now but at the time it was a struggle, a lot of confidence breaking— and building— hard work.

When I went to my interview at Reading it was like I had found my home. I was so excited to be there (as I was discouraged from my dream of being a designer from a young age). I remember the yellow doors and the wooden type everywhere. I pushed myself forward as they only took 20 students a year. Professor Michael Twyman asked me why I applied to many other universities to do combined religious studies and design. He was worried that if I came to Reading I would be disappointed to give up a focus on religious studies. That was actually my way to get into design as I couldn’t afford to do a foundation year. I had to get my foot in the door and my intention was to drop RE as soon as possible. I think he liked that.

It was a tough course. Not only was it practical work but it was also exams and a 20,000 word dissertation. I found that especially hard as I was diagnosed with dyslexia in my first year. Some people were like “jeez, how can you be a typographer and not be able to spell right?” So I had this barrier to get over, but to be honest, I had always felt a bit stupid and being dyslexic explained all these things I found hard. By the third and fourth year I had got into my zone and pushed myself. Michael Twyman and Paul Stiff really pushed and encouraged me. It was great to have such a small number of students in each year. Ken Garland (a visiting lecturer from the Royal College of Art) used to upset me. He was a tough, honest teacher, which now I can see the merits of. He set a series of one-day projects with intense crits of the work. At times I was very sensitive about putting my work up. When everyone else was walking into the crit, I would be walking out to the union to get a beer. I was hyper critical of my work, something I still am. I wanted then and still want now to be really good.

I just found some pictures of the department at Reading on flickr and I am pleased to see they still have the yellow doors.

What motivated you to become a book cover designer?

CBS: It was the idea of working on a number of projects, it being all about the ideas, clever thinking, using different styles. Faster turn-around than the big coffee table books that took most of a year.

Are you ever intimidated by designing covers for such classic titles, some of which had iconic cover designs in the past?

CBS: No … Well, I work hard not to be. When I feel intimidated I just start making stuff so that before I can get frozen, something interesting is already grabbing my attention and keeping my mind occupied. As every designer has a different approach to a title, I try not to think “what would so-and-so do” and instead remind myself that my own approach is what I should be aiming for. Books are rich, wonderful things – there’s always something new you can bring out of them. Some people have to keep finding ways to package soap powder – I’ve got a lot more to go on with Crime and Punishment.

I love this web page of all the covers for The War of The Worlds, it makes me feel better.
And less intimidated. http://drzeus.best.vwh.net/wotw/

How do you stay creative, unique, and motivated?

CBS: By looking forward to the next project. I am always seeing other people’s work that I think is brilliant. It keeps me pushing forward with my own design. I am never really content with a final project. I can always see where I could have improved, and that motivates me to do better next time. It’s a never-ending cycle; I guess when I don’t do that anymore its time to move jobs.

Your designs for many of the Penguin Classics series’ use a 2-color palette. To what extent are the design and production choices made a product of budget constraints?

CBS: Budget is always a consideration. It’s a fact of life. Reading University was great preparation for that. There was a print workshop in the University and we were given live briefs and encouraged to approach our work with real-world considerations in mind. Learning to work within constraints and do as much as possible with the remaining variables was really valuable experience.

With regards to using limited colour palettes, that’s more of an aesthetic decision than a budget consideration. With the Penguin’s ‘Boys Own Books Series,’ it was a way to tie the books together as series while using three different illustrators and a lettering artist. As I had different styles of type on each cover and dynamic illustrations, I needed something to make them stand out as a set. With the Penguin Horror Series, I went even more simplistic with two colours and the restrained font across the whole series. I wanted the cyanotypes to be the star of the show.

Your work stands out as often having a hand-made quality. Can you talk a little bit about the first stages involved with packaging a new classic series?

CBS: I try to begin off the computer when possible, just going out and sourcing ideas, colours and textures. For the Waterstone’s Hardback Classics I worked with Isabelle De Cat, an in-house picture researcher. We set up mood boards of visual ideas – texture, ornament, objects, colours – all inspired by themes from the stories or by the period, or just the atmosphere of the novels.

I created the grid quite quickly. The grid enabled me to slot in different ideas while retaining a consistent series style.

Coralie-Bickford-Smith

Can you describe the cyanotype process used for The Penguin Gothic Reds series and the influence of Romek Marber?

CBS: In 1961 Germano Facetti commissioned Romek Marber to come up with a new approach for the Penguin crime series. Marber set up a dark room in his kitchen and started experimenting with photograms (among other photographic processes). I loved his sense of freedom. After experimenting with a few different processes I came up with the idea of using cyanotypes. It’s an early photographic process using light sensitive paper to make – literally – blueprints. They have a fantastic ethereal texture to them, which was ideal for the ghostly tales.

Other than Romek Marber, which past Penguin cover designers most influence you?

CBS: The whole history of Penguin design has some influence on my work as do many other things non-Penguin. I have a soft spot for Alan Aldridge. I went to a talk by him recently, his life was very rock and roll. He has all these great stories about the jobs he got and how he approached them. In one of them he painted a rented mini for an illustration in the Sunday Times magazine, washed it down and then took it back to the rental shop. Now every time we get a new project at work, someone says “what would Alan Aldridge do?” For every project I like to discover new designers and artists. That way I learn heaps and I can keep moving forward.

Where do you look for your inspiration?

CBS: Creative inspirations include Paul Rand, Romek Marber, Karel Martens, Alan Feltcher, loads of people. I just try to collect as many books and examples of great design as possible and build up a big collection of stuff to look at and get inspiration. I also love ebay for collecting things that catch my attention. I have collections of strange objects that inspire me: plates, retro plastic kitchen objects, fabric etc. Inspiration can come from anywhere, not just printed stuff. I love interior design as inspiration – I’m always making notes of colour combinations I see, as colour is really important to me in my design.

Please elaborate on your process of gathering typographical inspiration for the Boys Own Books series.

CBS: I spent a lot of time in the London Library printing and typography section. It’s a great place. It was there that I re-kindled my love of Nicolete Gray, one of the few female typographers in the history books that I was aware of when I was a student. I spent a lot of time putting together research of type from the periods when each book was published. It was like being a student again, but in a real working situation, which was excellent.

The idea was to have period-appropriate type on each title without restricting myself to books as inspiration. The Man Who Was Thursday, for example, takes its cue from Dada and Futurist typography, which fits both the early 20th-century setting and the anarchist subject matter, but wasn’t a feature of mainstream publishing design at the time.

For many of your covers you collaborated with type designers and illustrators. What are some of the challenges and highlights of these relationships?

CBS: There were challenges at the start of the Boys Own Books job,but I had to somehow communicate the ideas to the illustrators. I think I was a hard taskmaster. Honest feedback was difficult to give at first, and knowing how far could I push them. There’s a balance to be found between leaving room for illustrators to be creative, and ensuring the work doesn’t stray from the brief – especially when I have to make the work of three illustrators work together as part of a coherent series.

By the time a couple of the covers were nailed, and I showed the illustrators what I had done with their work, they had something more solid to work towards and saw it was a good vision… I think.

I am now a lot better at this side of things but every project has new challenges. Bring on the next moment of “oh no this is all going wrong!” These tend to produce some nice, unexpected solutions.

A good portion of your designs for Penguin UK rely heavily on final production effects and materials. How are you able to sell these ideas initially?

CBS: I think enthusiasm helps a lot combined with being able to make a case for why certain materials or finishes are right for that particular project. Cloth-bound hardbacks are a particular love of mine, and it hasn’t been a straightforward process over the years. It has taken extra work with the printers to get right. It’s really good to see that the first one of those I did (Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales) has been in print since 2005, and last year’s Poems for Life is on its sixth edition. I think that has helped show that going the extra mile in terms of production can make commercial sense, and it led to the recent series of ten hardback classics.

Which Penguin series set was your favorite to design? Why?

CBS: Right now my favorite is the horrors [Gothic Reds] but it changes. I think the approach I took with the series, the layers of research and experimentation made me happy. It was a really exciting process because I gained more understanding for myself about how I work, which made it easier for me to explain things better to students I was teaching at the time. This helped restore confidence in my creative process and be more comfortable with days of mess making and not settling on the first coherent design/illustration.

I also like the use of the colour yellow, I had not used it much before and to give it a starring role was nice.

What was it like teaching with Wendy Chapple at the London College of Communication?

CBS: It’s been brilliant to have someone to talk to obsessively about the process of creating stuff. As Wendy is also a printmaker/artist, she comes from a different angle. Working with students has brought out a new side of me. I really enjoy seeing where they are coming from and the potential they have as designers. I try to demystify the creative process, and make the students more confident about it. Maybe that’s my own confidence issues surfacing, but, I think it’s good practice and everyone can get out of the their comfort zone and push themselves, especially as students.

I love your poster that says “Stop Designing Start Playing.” Can you elaborate further on this ideology?

CBS: That came out of the teaching and was a collaborative project with Wendy Chapple. It was a way to get the students to free up their creative processes and really explore as widely as possible around a brief before focusing in on a particular solution. The temptation is always to take the constraints of the end product as a starting point as well as an end point. That shuts off so many avenues of exploration. What Wendy and I are trying to encourage is a period of free association (almost), of having fun with ideas and processes, and getting comfortable with the idea that although 90% of what you produce in this period will be discarded, it will lead to places you wouldn’t necessarily have reached directly, and the finished product will benefit as a result.

What advice do you have for future designers?

CBS: Keep enjoying the process, experiment and have fun. If you are in college get the most out of your tutors, they have all this information that needs to be squeezed out ,and it’s your job to learn as much as you can.

Keep working at it. I was really pushed by my tutors at university. There were times when I wanted to give up and felt I did not have it in me and they made me keep on … which frustrated me at the time, but when I saw the final product printed of course I was glad.

Are there any new projects you can tell us about?

CBS: I’m currently working on a couple of personal projects: a children’s book and some textile design. There’s not much more to tell at this stage – I’m still in the mess-making part of the process … It’s been a busy year.

What excites you most about the future of design and books?

CBS: Designers that keep on pushing forward book design and making sure new generations appreciate the beauty in the printed word. As e-books take off as a convenient way for people to read, books are going to have to work harder to justify their existence as physical objects, which is where designers come in. I think it’s going to be an exciting time.



Click on the covers (just below) to view large
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Credit information for Penguin covers:

Classic Boys'Adventures / Boys Own Books

The 39 Steps: illustration and lettering Neil Gower
Greenmantle: illustration by Neil Gower, lettering by Stephen Raw
The Prisoner of Zenda: illustration by Despotica (aka Michael Topping)
Rupert of Hentzau: illustration and lettering by Despotica (aka Michael Topping)
The Lost World: illustration by Mark Thomas, lettering by Stephen Raw
Around the World in 80 Days: illustration by Mark Thomas, lettering by Stephen Raw
The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard: illustration by Mark Thomas, lettering by Stephen Raw
She: illustration by Mark Thomas, lettering by Stephen Raw
Treasure Island: lettering and illustration by Mick Brownfield
Tarzan of the Apes: lettering and illustration by Mick Brownfield
Riddle of The Sands: lettering and illustration by Mick Brownfield
The Man Who Was Thursday: illustration by Mick Brownfield, lettering by Coralie Bickford-Smith

Sherlock Holmes Series x 8: illustration by Despotica (aka Michael Topping)

The Gothic Reds / Horrors all illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith, except for The Dunwich Horror which was illustrated by Claire Scully

The Waterstone's Hardback Classics illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith, apart from the swan on Pride and Prejudice which is based on a Walter Crane swan drawing.

Fairy Tales is a design using paper cuts from Hans Christian Andersen.

At Large and at Small
is illustrated by Claire Scully.

Credit information for 'Stop Designing, Start Playing' poster: collaboration between Coralie Bickford-Smith and Wendy Chapple



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