No matter what you're selling - a product, an idea or a skill - the presentation is just as important as the thing itself. Your customers will only do so much research (if at all) when purchasing your product, and when presented with similar choices, they will choose the one they feel most comfortable with. And that decision is most likely based on the packaging. Nothing illustrates this better than the experience of shopping for new books: before we even bother to read the description on the back of a book we have never heard of, we need to first notice the book and have enough desire to pick it up. And that decision is based on the book's cover.
In this interview, Hear, Hear chats with an expert in book cover design - Paul Buckley, a veteran art director of one of the largest book publishers in the world, Penguin Group. The interview will be published in two installments.
(About the cropped cover of The Wonder Spot shown above: "a slew of covers were presented over a span of many weeks.. of all the covers rejected, this was the only one that caught the authors eyes long enough for her to say 'I like this but...' Its still my favorite of the body of work done for this book. I was pretty unhappy with the hardcover, but I do like Helen Yentus's paperback solution.")
I. "So I grew up drawing and obsessed with reptiles"
Hear, Hear: Hi, Paul! Thanks for giving us the time to chat with you. Why don't you start off by telling our readers what you do for a living?
Paul Buckley: My official title is Vice President Executive Art Director, which should give you a clue that I’ve been here [Penguin Group USA] awhile. They treat me pretty good, so I’ve stuck around. Basically, I wear two hats – I manage a large staff of very talented designers and art directors, and look over their shoulders when necessary and stay out of their way when necessary. While running my department, I try to be a Designer as well, working on my own covers and fulfilling my own artistic needs. The imprints within my department are all trade – Penguin / Viking / Penguin Press / Portfolio / Sentinel; so there is a really nice mix and always interesting projects to sink ones teeth into. My staff and I work on roughly 600 book covers and jackets a year and this gives us the opportunity to work with some of the most talented authors, designers, photographers, typographers, painters and illustrators in America and abroad. The Art Directors and Designers that I am proud to call my staff are Roseanne Serra, Darren Haggar, Joseph Perez, Maggie Payette, Jesse Reyes, Herb Thornby, Jaya Miceli, Jasmine Lee, Jason Booher, Greg Mollica and Jennifer Wang.
HH: How did you get into this field?
PB: I got into design through my father Gerald Buckley. He grew up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia idolizing guys like Milton Caniff and Will Eisner, and eventually got placed in the Korean War drawing comics for The Stars and Stripes newspaper overseas. My family grew up surrounded by his art and the sounds of my mother's piano and guitar playing. For the longest stretch of his life, my father was an art director in advertising, and was involved in the Philadelphia design world. He sported the most insanely manicured goatee and drove an Austin Healey, even though he had 5 kids. An amazing painter, illustrator, art director, teacher, designer and cartoonist, at one point my father made his living in all these fields, and his overabundance of talent spilled out into every inch of our home. As well, my wife Ingsu Liu, and brother Jerry Buckley are also book cover designers.
So I grew up drawing and obsessed with reptiles, convinced I wanted to be either an illustrator or herpetologist. In my high school senior year, i took a job with a travelling petting zoo / amusement park, and ran the merry go round for these ex-cons who would feed me black beauties to keep me alert. When my father found out I was going cross-country with this outfit after graduation, he went A-Team and found me a job very quickly in NYC running a stat machine and doing paste-ups for a small studio.
So a week after graduation, I was travelling 4.5 hours a day from the Philadelphia suburbs to NYC for $5 an hour. Commuting with one's father at that age is not an optimal father / son relationship. Also at that time, I enrolled into Bucks County Community College, which as unglamorous as it sounds, had (and may still have…) a very excellent two-year fine arts program – so I’d commute to NYC a few days a week, and I’d stay home and drive to college the rest of the week. Upon graduation, in conjunction with School of Visual Arts (SVA), they awarded me a scholarship to NYC - SVA, where I received my Bachelors degree in Illustration. By the time I graduated, I've had five years of design under my belt from various studios and magazine design shops, and was getting my illustrations published in magazines like Newsweek and Penthouse, so I was doing ok, though not enjoying painting as much as I used to. I then took a road-trip taking a few months off, eventually landing in Belize and Guatemala. When I came back, I needed money to pay my rent. Judy Murello told me of a job at Penguin and I never left. I was not going after publishing, I just needed a job after that long trip, and quickly realized that I really liked designing books, and I still feel that way today, 18 years later. In the beginning I tried to illustrate every book I was working on, but soon realized I enjoyed design more and that it offered me greater flexibility to constantly reinvent myself.
II. It's all art, it's all valid, it's all good.
HH: Where does one draw the line between design and illustration? I think illustration is an important skill for all designers. What do you think is the difference between art direction and graphic design?
PB: I like the fact that I’m very knowledgeable about illustration / painting / technique, but I’d disagree with you and say it's not necessary for many designers. Some of the best designers I know cannot draw a stick figure, and I’d kill to have half of their design talent. That said, on the opposite side of that coin, many folks who both illustrate and design their own work, do some of the most unique work out there – as long as they don't create a style that becomes too rigidly signature and same ole and stale. That happens all too often. I enjoy both avenues – collaborating with great visual artists to create a great hybrid, or doing the entire package myself and seeing what I can come up with. It's ART - it's all valid. It's all good. Nobody is right or wrong. One thing I do know though – the more people I collaborate with, the more people who want to buy me beer.
The difference between art direction and graphic design is simple, though the two have some overlap. Art directors direct the art – we choose the talent that's going to physically make the package happen or come to life, no different from what a movie director does for a film. I read the book and decide which photographer, illustrator, hand-letterer, etc, would be appropriate to do a two-dimensional representation of this author’s work, that will then catch the viewer’s eye. Then these various artists show me their thoughts on paper or screen, and I direct them as to what aspects of their work is going right and what is going wrong. A designer does the actual design labor – it's his or her hand that chooses the fonts, layout, colors, textures, etc, and together with the art director’s comments, whips it all into shape, and will no doubt bear his or her look and mood.
HH: If you were to talk to a classroom of aspiring designers, how would you describe to them what book design is? How is it different from other forms of graphic design (say, compared to CD packaging)?
PB: I often talk to classes and prefer they come to my office-studio to get a feel for what it's truly like - the good, the bad, and the ugly. This way they get to see things in various stages of development and different types of books, photography, art, etc. Book design is just that – the designing of various books.
Book design and CD design are definite siblings. Aesthetics-wise, the main difference I note is that CDs use more nonsequitors, and books use literal imagery. Often I look at the cover of a CD I’m very familiar with and think the choice of art ridiculous, and I do the same with books thinking they spelled it out so damn much, why do you even need to read it? I wish both camps would mix it up more. I think the most successful designs evoke the mood, but not in a literal way, nor do they leave you feeling duped into buying something that completely misrepresented itself visually. Another key difference is that CD folk don't seem to obsess over “big type” the way book publishers / editors / marketers / sales force do. I think they really get that if you want the new Beck CD, you’re going to buy it regardless of what strength the type carries. Of course there is a big difference in canvas size, and books do have the opportunity to actually catch your eye, much more than a row of 5-inch CDs do. But publishing executives are very insecure about type and do tend to flood the market with books that have huge, foil-embossed type, and instead of these getting your attention, they actually fade into a sea of sameness – or if they do catch your attention, you might feel like you are being yelled at in some cheap, aggressive way. Certainly typography is a beautiful medium and large type can be gorgeous, but there are so few books out there that achieve this.