Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Jonathan Gibbs

Last week I went along to Stories From The Fold, a mini book design conference held at the Bridewell Foundation, just off Fleet Street – a tiny London mecca for anyone interested in book design and typography. Nine speakers were squeezed into four hours – this was very much organised to be of interest to those outside the profession (like me), as well as those inside it.

Rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of proceedings, this post will introduce seven of the speakers and pull out one fit-for-dummies design ‘lesson’ from their talk – it goes without saying, this is a personal response, and not an objective summary of what they said. The final two talks (Emma Langley from Phoenix Yard Books, and Ligaya Salazar and Sam Winston, curator and artist from the V&A’s Memory Palace exhibition) fell a little too far from book design for easy inclusion.

Brian Webb, of Webb & Webb design, was the long-serving designer on the programme, and took us through some of his favourite pieces from his back catalogue – those that had stories behind them. So we had jewel-inlaid limited edition Bond books too expensive for their designer to own, complete  reworkings of the Harry Potter series… and this, the Design series of monographs on famous designers.

BrianWebb1 Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Lesson One: If you are going to design a series of books, don’t give them all the same name.

The first in the ‘Design’ series, on Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, was not intended as the first in a series, but was a quickly produced catalogue for an exhibition. When the print run sold out before the end of the show, it was decided to reprint it as a book. Then they were asked if they would like to do some more similar books on other designers, and now the series runs to 14 books, all titled ‘Design’, together with the name of the subject designer. At first the ‘Design’ was more prominent than the subject’s name – stuck with the title, Webb have at least been able to swap that around, so the name is more prominent than the title. In other words, try to think ahead, though of course you never can.


Zoë Bather talked about her work on the three books accompanying TV series by the omni-clever Brian Cox (Wonders of the Solar System, Universe and Life) – but as she worked on them, she realised there was potential to do make them much more than The Big Book of Lovely Brian (and Science), and took us through some of her roughs and sketches.

ZoeBathersolar Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Lesson Two: Designers can get involved in content creation, but it will be in their own time.

Bather talked about how she not only found ways to present the text she was given, and sourced images to illustrate points that were only made in passing, but found herself shaping the content too. She also found herself studying science at a level far beyond what she expected. After all, a cover designer really only needs to be able to pick and choose between themes, and find a synthesis. Design the inside of a non-fiction book, and you need to apply yourself to every theme, every topic. It certainly turned the books into more than the coffee table books they might have been, but it seems to have been one mammoth task.


James Huggins from Made in Me talked about his work as part of a design company that works on digital books and book-like environments. While this is an area I am rather sniffy about (a young child, a picture book and an attentive adult really gives you all the interaction you need), he did at least make the point that, when it comes to digital environments, having some element of constriction about the interaction is essential.

James made in me Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Lesson Three: Embrace the limitations of interaction

When it comes to bringing picture books to a digital space, don’t even try to compete with the ‘sandbox’ worlds of computer games, where you can go anyway, do anything. Giving the child a prescribed set of options, and making them happy with that limitation, is the key to meaningful interaction.


Clare Skeats talked about her work, with her partner David Pearson, on completely redesigning the look of Pushkin Press for its new owners. This was a really interesting talk, down to the details of business meetings to discuss branding, and whether there were any other competitors’ books left lying around by the client for use as examples (there weren’t – they had a completely free hand). To pick one lesson from many:

pushkin press Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Lesson Four: Use illustration as a device of emblem

Although the new look Pushkin has a ‘grid’, in a rather vague sense, and makes much use of patterning, there is also room for illustration – but when it is there, Skeats said, it was decided it should be used as a discrete element in the design, rather than the primary focus. The example used was the Penguin Classics Odyssey, with its central boss. Skeats also praised Pushkin for its inclusion of an illustrator biography on the jacket flap of the book. (That bull is by Ping Zhu.)


Claire Mason is Text Designer at Penguin UK, and so is in charge of how the words sit on the insides of the books. She gave an overview of how she got there, including her times at the outer reaches of book design, following her studies at Camberwell College of Art, when she largely worked in the rule-fleeing world of artists’ books and, before that, learning the rudiments of typography from her grandparents’ flower stall outside Tooting Braodway tube station.

ClaireMason1 Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Lesson Five: The price is always large and comedic. The product is smaller and explosive.

Frankly, though Mason was interesting on her typography work for Penguin, it would be difficult to pick out a simple lesson from it for those outside the industry. Instead, here is her example of flower stall price cards. Not something immediately applicable to books, you’d think and you’d be right. Books want to look expensive. They don’t have to attract passing trade. Their buyers usually have time to compare different comparable products before making their choice. But still there is a place for the eye-catching book cover – just look at the work of Jon Gray, below.


Nicky Borowiec is Head of Design at Palgrave Macmillian, and talked impressively about her struggle to convince her publisher that academic books needed branding too, and how she eventually prevailed (see here for a Pinterest page of new covers). Below, on the left, an old cover, on the right a new one.

NickyBorowiec3 Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Lesson Six: Don’t make assumptions about your market.

Turns out students and academics like things to look nice, too. And so they should.


Jon Gray, aka gray318, is surely one of the best young book (cover) designers in the UK. He is, to my mind, the British answer to Chip Kidd: someone ready to be bold, brash and idiosyncratic in his imagery and treatment of the space of the cover – though this is often allied to a subtle reading of the book in question.

gray lethem 1024x517 Friday Book Design Blog: Stories From The Fold

Lesson Seven: To start with, ripping yourself off is fun.

Gray spoke – often funnily, often candidly and self-deprecatingly – about his work practices, and the anxieties that come with wanting to come up with truly original work. He showed us his first cover for Jonathan Lethem’s current book, Dissident Gardens, a multi-generational story following American Communists down the second half of the last century. It was rejected out of hand. The second and third images were offered as alternatives, with the third (though Gray admits he prefers the raised fists) being gratefully accepted. It’s a great cover – relentlessly eyecatching, but subtle in its response to the subject matter, in the way it glories in American colours, and simplicity, while rejecting the stultifying hegemony of automated type. You might say it’s a cover that shouldn’t work – you can’t imagine anyone pitching it successfully – but the moment you see it, it does.

Look out for other events at St Bride’s, including the intriguingly titled ‘Frederic Warde: The Gatsby of Type’ (October 22).

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