How do I become a book designer?

It happens while you are making other plans . . .

I thought I was preparing for a career as a writer.

In high school, I discovered I enjoy being around printing presses and photography. When I was a senior, instead of taking AP courses at the community college, I used the opportunity to study graphic design and learn how to run a small offset printing press. In college, while studying for my BA in English, I looked for jobs in print shops, copy shops, and with publishers (where I could find them).

My job titles: copy shop manager, print shop gopher, bindery worker, word processor, typesetter, production artist, computer specialist, graphic designer, prepress expert . . . It wasn’t until I was well into my 40s that I looked around at my workload and my prospects and decided that my job title was finally Book Designer.

I don’t think my trajectory is uncommon. It is like that of book designer David Bullen.

Spontaneous generation?

Book designers are often born from pivotal situations:

  • An intern or assistant with visual and verbal sense communicates well and sparks ideas with the managing editor: a book designer is born.
  • A group of artists or activists decide to make a zine and turn to the person in their group with computer skills and a flair for color or illustration: a publication designer is born.
  • A writer or editor with a strong ideas learns InDesign or hires an assistant with skills: an art director is born.

Check out the origin story for Peter Mendelsund.

Your mission is to make such a pivotal situation more likely.

Choice, chance, and location, location, location

In my story, geography was key.

I lived at the epicenter of the personal computer revolution. My first job after graduation was at a publishing company at the cutting edge of technology. We had an Apple Lisa computer in our art department. Typesetting and graphic design were the first industries to flourish on microcomputers (as any computer that fit on or under a desk was called back then). I was one of the first that had that expertise, and my expertise was in demand.

I lived in metropolitan areas that were home to publishing companies. By living the Bay Area and Seattle, I had opportunities to expand my skills working for a variety of small publishers and a newspapers. In college I interned at a major publisher in San Francisco. I joined a vibrant professional organization, Bookbuilders West, that inspired me and helped me network. I took extension classes from local institutions in book design and calligraphy. My book design prospects would have been even better had I moved to New York City.

I was fortunate that my path led me to right place and right time to meet my best publishing clients. But, I had made many good choices that lead me to those chances. I suggest you do the same.


Book design is a very small subset of graphic design. You will possibly be designing other types of materials and that are mundane (not books, not literary, not scholarly). Students like to design covers for Moby Dick or other literary titles. Try Medically Unexplained Illness: Gender and Psychosocial Issues.

Graphic design and much of book design is not art. A few talented people work with dream teams that allow the designer to rule and have budgets to help them achieve extraordinary results. What they design is art, but don’t beat yourself up too much because that art rests on extraordinary support.

Book design is both cover and interior design. I am a bit nerdy and like the challenge of complex interiors where the job is to develop systems and hierarchies. In today’s world of interior design, you may be surprised how much of interior design has grown to be like programming and web design.

I’ve found my work life made of letters very satisfying. Book design is a “deep” discipline. By that, I mean there is history, tradition, methods, practices, multiple audiences and forms, and continual changes in methods. While some aspects might be described as monotonous, there is plenty of drama, and lots of room for meaning.

So, how to become a book designer?

Start where you are and build your experience and skills. If you can get paid at the same time, great! There are schools that teach all the aspects of book design, or you can choose to study only what you need. Continue adding to your experience and moving toward opportunities to build a portfolio.

  • Refine and practice your visual skills (typography, illustration, display of graphic information). Look deeply at books.
  • Learn about the business and practices of publishing.
  • Learn the how to use the tools and materials.
  • Build portfolio of designs that show you can do the kind work you are seeking.

Here is some great advice from a book designer who has contemporary experience:

Today, you can practice by producing your own book. Print-on-demand technology makes it possible to build a portfolio and learn at the same time. Undertaking your own book project will teach you so much!

And this.

Most of what you do as a book designer is please your clients. I intentionally use the plural “clients.”

Unless you are self-publishing zines or chapbooks, each book is built by a team.

The most important skills you have may not be your exquisite sense of color, or style, or efficient way of executing alterations. Showing up, understanding what your client wants, guessing what your client wants when they don’t know how to tell you, and balancing the desires of various stakeholders must be part of your way of working.

Book design is relationships. Book people make great colleagues.

More questions? Let me know.

Design Eye on AWP16

AWP2016 bookshow beautiful books and creative risks

Books I brought home from the large book fair at AWP 2016.
Gleanings from AWP 2016 book fair

I traversed the book fair floor with an eye to interesting covers and book forms. I was thrilled to see the beauty, the risks, and the variety of books brought to the AWP16 word party.

From top left to right:

Organic Weapons Arts (OW! Arts) out of Detroit produce 5.5 x 6.5 chapbooks that fall somewhere between trade books and handmade. Kudzu Does Not Bend by Jane Wong has an outsider-arts-and-crafts illustration on the cover.

Yes Yes Books is in the photo twice. Dream with a Glass Chamber by Aricka Foreman is a 5.5 x 6.5 chapbook that is so polished I hardly want to call it a chapbook. I’m a fan of Alban Fischer, the designer at Yes Yes, and he can’t help it but make a miniature jewel.

Siglio Press is in the photo three times because, well I just want to own every book on their table. Siglio books are singular because they are beautifully executed and are all doorways into extraordinary arts and minds. The colorful book peeking out at 12:00 in the photo is the ecstatic You Who Read Me with Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends by Dorothy Iannone and edited by Lisa Pearson. Beauty beauty beauty!

Copper Canyon Press at 1:00 position, represented by So Much Synth by Brenda Shaugnessy. Love that “synth” image and the rich colors of the jacket front and back. The case is shiny gray. I have to say, Copper Canyon Press treats poetry very well. Hardcover poetry. Wow. Book design by Phil Kovacevich. (Full disclosure, CCP is my client)

Immediately below that is Lotería Huasteca: Woodblock Prints by Alec Dempster, Porcupine’s Quill Press. Every book on this publisher’s table had the same toothy paper and letterpressy feeling covers — and no wonder. Follow the links to see how they do it. The interior designs by Canada’s Tim Inkster.

To the right of the Lotería is Suite Vénitienne by Sophie Calle (Siglio). It has a gorgeous blue case with a die cut shaped like an eye, and reveals part of the photo on the flyleaf that provides the iris to complete the effect. And this isn’t just a cute device, it serves the work perfectly.

Next to the blue Suite, at 3:00 and 4:00 are books by Otis Books, the publishing arm of the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art and Design. Traditional typography and photography on the interiors, and always black covers. Propped open is Tlemcen or Places of Writing by Mohammed Dib. Below that, in black is Panic Cure: Poetry from Spain for the 21st Century edited by Forrest Gander. All the books are beautifully traditional, and it is good to know that there is a writing program like this one that show writing students how it’s done. They must chafe against those black covers though! . . . suppose it keeps them focused.

“And now for something completely different . . . ” Saturn, by Simon Jacobs published by Spork Press “Bound with prescriptions, dirt, Vangelis, help, more IPA, and Sander Monson Jr” as noted on the copyright page, the book feels simultaneously like a Little Golden Book (the cardboard binding) and a zine (the art). The people at the Spork table showed me a new, larger format product. This is so good, it has to be from Portland, but it isn’t. It comes from Tucson. Note to self: take another look at Tucson.

At 6 o’clock position is another Yes Yes book, this time 7″ x 9″ with fold-outs no less. Some Planet, by John Mortara

At 7 o’clock is Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa published by Deep Vellum Publishing. Support literature in translation!

Finally, The Center is Barbaric, The Periphery is Without Lights by Tim Early, Doublecross Press, printed in daring letterpress, metallic silver on black on the cover and black on craft paper on the interior. Big lovely gothic letterforms. Typeset and printed at The Center for Book Arts, NYC by Anna Gurton-Wachter, MC Hyland, and Jeff Peterson.

Still lots more to digest from the feast of AWP2016. More soon.

Here’s a link to Part 2.



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