Designer Q&A with Ashley Ingram

TPOScover_web800pxAshley Ingram has been a designer at Heyday since October of last year. Her work includes the covers of Enough for All, Secrets of the Oak Woodlands, Sierra Stories, and the forthcoming Wonderments of the East Bay. I recently spoke with Ashley about designing the cover and interior of Trail Posts: A Literary Exploration of California’s State Parksa new anthology coedited by Heyday publisher Malcolm Margolin and by yours truly.

We should start by giving an overview of what a book designer actually does. Eagle-eyed readers may notice the credit line on the CIP page or the back of the book, but what does it mean?

Honestly, I never looked at that in my entire life until I became a book designer!

Really?

Never. But basically what a book designer does is design the cover and figure out the style of the layout of the interior—which typefaces to use, figure out spacing. It’s a bunch of style choices with an emphasis on making the text as legible as possible, but also matching the subject matter and reflecting the spirit of the book.

I would never even think about having to think about spacing. It just wouldn’t occur to me. How do you make those kinds of choices?

There are things you should never do and things you should always do. You never want to leave a sentence by itself at the end of a page or at the beginning of a page, things like that.

When you design a book, most of the time it’s going to be in a serif font, which means the letters have little glyphs on the ends. You traditionally don’t use a sans serif because it’s harder to read. That’s one school of thought: having a serif font makes text more legible.

When you apply a style to the text, it gives it sort of a personality.

Then there’s the font size and there’s the leading. You never want to make your eye have to work and that’s why you use certain sizes and typefaces. If it’s a really script-y typeface it’s going to be hard to read, if it’s small it’s going to be hard to read. At the same time really large is considered bad form.

The leading is the space between the lines of type from the baseline to the baseline. If the lines are too close or too far away, when you read to the end of a sentence it’s hard to find your place on the next sentence. You’ll end up skipping lines.

With an anthology like Trail Posts, I imagine it would be difficult to come up with a consistent style that works for all of the pieces when some of them are poetry, some are journal entries, and others are excerpts from novels.

That’s definitely something that you have to take into consideration. When there are so many different styles of writing and it’s about many different things, the best solution is to have the style be sort of understated: just simple and clean so it doesn’t compete with the subject matter, doesn’t take away from it.

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From the table of contents

Tell me about the fonts in this book. There’s a different one for the title headings, the introductions to each piece, and the selection itself.

It can get kind of tricky. You don’t ever want to use fifty different fonts for one project. You’re supposed to keep it to two or three. Sometimes a project will have text, intro text, title, subhead, A-head, extract, sidebar. You don’t want to have a book with a ton of different weights of the same typeface—light, regular, black, bold, semi-bold, all that—because that’s just confusing. That’s when you want to work with fonts that are different, but similar to one another in style.

In this case I chose the sans serif font for the introductions because they’re each a small amount of text, so I didn’t think it was going to be difficult for people to read them.

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For the subheads, I did a larger, simple sans serif font that I thought was clean and modern. I think those two fonts go together. I went back and forth several times on what the subheads were going to be. I had a different font there originally that was a little fancier. I played with that a lot because the subheads vary in length. They go from two words to several words.

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The hardest part about book design—and I’m still trying to figure this out, a way to do it simply—is to make sure that the style you’ve assigned works for every possible situation. And then it usually doesn’t. [Fellow Heyday designer] Rebecca LeGates taught me that when you start designing a book, take the shortest chapter title and the longest title and make both work. Then, pretty much anything in between will work as well. It took several times of getting it wrong and having to redesign the whole thing before I was taught that.

Does it go without saying that if we do another literary anthology, you’re not going to just reuse the template?

I could duplicate the styles, but it would depend on the subject matter, and how things work out in terms of setup: if there are introductions, things like that. But I would probably want to do a fresh design.

It must be very different to design something like Wonderments of the East Bay, which is comprised of lots of short texts—maybe five hundred words max—for each entry, accompanied by several photos.

It is. And you’re going to treat the text differently, because each piece is so short. You can have it a little more “designed” because it’s not going to be a chore to read a different color or a sans serif, something that you traditionally wouldn’t do in a text-driven book. Because the text is broken up into little patches, it doesn’t seem as overwhelming.

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I’m looking at the Trail Posts cover right now and I see a couple different fonts for the title and subtitle, some design-y banners, and a photo. So I see three elements. How many things are actually happening in this cover?

We had originally talked about doing a cover that was a take on the vintage National Parks posters from the twenties and thirties. I spent a lot of time researching those posters and trying to recreate that style. And I came up with something I loved, but the [Trail Posts copublisher] California State Parks Foundation did not. That was sort of disappointing because I thought that was a really fun cover and it was different—not so guidebook-y.

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But before I had gone in an illustrative direction I had—actually, before I got the job here, I was at Samuel P. Taylor State Park and I took a bunch of pictures. I had done some contemporary covers with them, and when the State Parks Foundation turned down the cover we went back to the contemporary ones. This photo is actually my photo with a filter on it. The State Parks Foundation wanted something simple and more of a modern take on it. Modern to me means clean, simple, with contemporary type.

I think that people are so used to seeing things that are poorly designed that they don’t necessarily think it’s not good.

At the same time, there are certain things with book design that you have to do: you have to make the type readable, so that’s why the bands are there. It’s not because I really like the bands; the photograph is just so busy that you need to be able to make the type stand out. And I didn’t want it to be all black or all white because I felt like that was too matchy-matchy, and would make the cover striped in both directions. That’s why I have the two different bands. And the type is green because Trail Posts is about forests and state parks. It seemed like a logical color to use and I liked how it popped on the black and white.

Yeah, especially with this spot gloss on top of it.

Spot gloss is a nice treatment to do because it emphasizes something without—instead of a super-decorative type or something, you can make it simple but this nice finish makes it stand out.

I did not know about spot gloss before I started working here and now I can go into a bookstore and actually notice that kind of thing.

Me too! Before I became a book designer I never really noticed that stuff either. I mean, every once in a while I would. I like debossing and stuff like that.

I feel like design is a skill that people undervalue in its difficulty—the amount of knowledge and training that it requires. If you look at stuff someone made in Word or a paint program, they do not have the same quality as something artfully designed.

I think that design, unless you are design-minded, can be hard to recognize. If something is designed really well, you appreciate it and you notice it because it’s beautiful. When it’s designed poorly, you can see how it’s not successful. But I think in between good and bad is hard, and I think that people are so used to seeing things that are poorly designed that they don’t necessarily think it’s not good. They just think that’s what design is. But it’s everywhere. I mean, printing is one of the largest businesses in the world. You see design so constantly, you don’t even realize you’re looking at it. Menus and street signs and all that kind of stuff—that’s all graphic design.

Let’s talk about the photos.

A lot of the photos in Trail Posts were donated by people through the State Parks Foundation. There are all these great photographers who take photos of the state parks and put them on this website. A lot of the photos were chosen from that.

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Whenever we couldn’t find a photo of high enough quality—or sometimes just the orientation wouldn’t work—I went to Flickr, which is an amazing resource. You can type in anything and anybody who’s ever taken a photo of that particular subject—it’s all right there. Some of them are free to use, but most of them, you know, it’s people’s work. I wrote about a hundred emails to different photographers trying to get permission. Some of them never got back to me, some got back to me two days after we went to print. Some of them said, “I cost this much,” and some were just thrilled that we wanted their photo in the book. But really, it’s a bunch of cool people who were happy to be a part of this project.

I did the initial photo research and I remember that it was difficult to find photos that were definitely of the parks we feature in the book.

Hearst Castle is pretty obvious. But “bird in Point Lobos”—I don’t know if that’s Point Lobos.

It had to be of the actual parks, and it had to be good-looking.

That’s the thing. Otherwise you could easily find all your photos in one day. They also have to match in quality. You can’t have three good ones and one snapshot. And within the page you have to make the photos work well together. There’s one spread that has an orange, brown, and gray cast to one of the photos. I used that color palette as a way of choosing my other photos so that the page makes sense—so it doesn’t feel inharmonious. Clashing colors makes it feel like the photos don’t go together when they’re actually of the same place.

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I know people will ask why the photos are in the back of the book.

In this case, I think it was for financial reasons. It’s more cost-effective to have all the photos in one signature at the end or in the middle than it is to put them on every page ’cause then you have to change the paper and the type of printing. It just becomes a lot more expensive of a book. And it’s kind of a pain to flip forward to the middle and go back to what you’re reading. We thought if they were all at the back, once you’ve read all the stories you’ll say, “Look, there’s this park and this park.”

Is there anything that you want readers to know about Trail Posts that they wouldn’t get if you didn’t tell them?

It was edited amazingly well.

Hey, thanks.

The copyeditor, Lisa [Marietta], was constantly telling me to get rid of the decorative stuff. She kept trying to get me to tone down the design. There’s probably always going to be a clash between editors and designers because editors are purely about functionality. Things I think are cool, they’re like, “Get that out of there.” I was told to take those section break markers out several times. I’m kind of like, “Yes…no.” No one notices them. No one would even notice them, probably.

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I feel the opposite. There’s a reason I hold onto my books that I love. It’s not just nostalgia for the story but for the actual pages of the book, how they smell, how it feels when you hold it in your hands, even the weird typos, those elements that make up a little world.

I mean, a book wants to have a personality, you know? When it’s just type then it becomes sort of soulless. When you apply a style to the text, it gives it sort of a personality.

Now I want to go to all of these parks and not go back to my desk to type this up.

Me too!