When the unique designs of the classic novels published by Gladstone Press caught our eye, we went Field Trippin' to visit publisher/designer Ingrid Paulson to get the scoop on her work to encourage new readers through fresh design, distilling the essence of a book into a single message, and how she finds inspiration in bringing to life classic works that still appeal to contemporary audiences. Read on for our interview with Ingrid, below.
All Lit Up: Your designs are incredibly unique – able to convey the essence of a book in a single icon. What influences your style and how difficult is it to land on the design that will speak best to the text?
Ingrid Paulson: Well, the goal of a design is to find a way to distill the essence of a book into a single message that can be interpreted multiple ways. I went through about fifteen different looks for
Gladstone Press, but I had a few questions I wanted to answer: Would people who aren’t heavy readers (or didn’t study English Lit in university) want to own these? What would happen if classic novels looked like cutting-edge contemporary novels? Would I want these on my own bookshelf? (That last one was the hardest. I’m a horrible client - hence the fifteen different takes.)
The cover layout of earlier Penguins form the backbone of the design, as well as many mid-century abstracted design ideas. I like a good grid system and tight typography. I put together a few rules: I use the same grid layout, the same typeface (the cover typeface, Franklin Gothic, was developed in 1902, so it deftly straddles both ‘old' and 'new'), and an object in the centre that relates to what I think is the essence of the book. Hopefully, that object is something that has not been used on another edition, or is something that avoids any clichés associated with that novel.
For The Age of Innocence, the opera glasses represent the wealthy, restrictive, gossipy New York society of Wharton’s novel – how there is no 'private life’ for these characters. With Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf punctuates her stream-of-consciousness novel with the sound of Big Ben counting the hours.
It’s not easy to find the right symbol, much less find a lesser-used symbol: if you look at other editions of
The Scarlet Letter, the vast majority use the red ‘A.’ It’s impossible to avoid using it, really, so I did use the red ‘A’ - but in the title itself and on a red background, so it is invisible. I’m just trying to find ways to make a person stop, think, and reevaluate this book. Perhaps these symbols intrigue them enough to get them to read.
ALU: Gladstone Press is fairly new, but you’ve designed for other publishers. Is there a design from your past work that stands out to you as one you’re really proud of, one you really enjoyed working on, or even just one you found especially challenging?
IP: I’m proud of most of my work, and my fave book designs change from year to year (and I’ve been designing books for a lot of years!) So I can’t really answer that… The most challenging design work has been for books where I can’t find my way to relate to the text. That doesn’t mean the book is bad (it’s not), it’s just that I know I'm not the right designer for the job. Over time, I’ve learned to say ‘no' rather than be drawn into a scenario where I struggle to find the right design, the publisher becomes increasingly stressed, and we all end up with time wasted and a kill fee, or worse: an inferior cover that does not serve the best interests of the author’s work. It’s a tough call to turn down a gig, especially as a freelancer.
ALU: There are so many well-known and well-loved classic novels out there. How do you decide which books to bring back to life with a fresh design?
IP: I didn’t go to university to study literature (I went to art college instead), so sometimes I feel at a disadvantage. I read a lot, and since I was young I’ve been reading as many classic novels as I could find. So I started with books I know and love, and then expand my own horizons by listening to colleagues, friends, and bookstores when they suggest certain titles. In Canada we are in the midst of a huge conversation about inclusion, colonialism, race, gender, ability… and the classic canon is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male. As a white woman, I can spot the sexism, but I know that I may not easily see how a book’s story arc works to uphold damaging notions of supremacy and exclusion. I’m learning all the time, perhaps even second-guessing some choices (Kate Chopin’s The Awakening comes to mind - it’s such a beautiful, amazing feminist novel, but the depiction of African-Americans makes me pause, and at this point in time I don’t feel I’m the one who can make that call publishing it). I know I have blind spots and I’m trying to keep that in mind. In the end, I’m trying to find those novels that still appeal to a contemporary audience without having to apologize for antiquated, damaging, ignorant ideas.
ALU: Can you share some of your thoughts on the power of good design in encouraging people to read?
IP: This will sound shallow, but think about it: in our choices of clothing, collectibles, artwork, furniture, even plants, we like to surround ourselves with objects that reflect our sense of self. Bringing books into our lives, placing them on shelves for us to look at after reading, carrying them around and reading them in public, we probably gravitate toward covers that make us feel at home. And when I say ‘good design,’ I mean ‘effective design.’ Does it convey the intended message? Can a reader relate to it, understand what type of book they are buying? I keep reminding people that my take on classic novel design is not THE take - there are many readers who love the historical designs, who respond well to the use of historical paintings or sweet, expressive illustration. My take is just one way of looking at these books.
ALU: In a previous interview with the Toronto Star you mention that you “...try to avoid describing the book as if its a dead thing.” Can you explain the work or the consideration that goes into bringing back cover blurbs into the present day.
IP: Ha! Well, to elaborate: I try to avoid reminding readers of when the book was first published, or mention that it is a classic, or that the author is a national treasure. Tucked away on my personal bookshelves are second-hand copies of classic novels where the back cover copy reads as if the book is fresh, as if it is competing with current authors’ books, and nary a whisper about its historical importance. That’s my inspiration. I don’t want readers to feel they HAVE to read these books - I want to entice them to investigate books that they may have at one point in their life felt was not something they’d enjoy, if only because it was too ‘important,’ and ‘important’ sometimes translates into ‘impenetrable’ or even just plain ‘boring.' These are fun reads - they aren’t everyone’s idea of fun, but not every book suits all readers. It’s why my list is broad.
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Ingrid Paulson has been designing books for the past twenty years. She started at McClelland & Stewart Inc. and was art director at Raincoast Books. Mostly, though, she has been designing books through her own one-person studio for such clients as Coach House Books, House of Anansi Press, Penguin Canada, Harper Collins Canada, Figure 1, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum, and McMichael Gallery. She has also been guest faculty for SFU’s Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing summer publishing bootcamp, been honoured to receive awards from both the Alcuin Society and the AIGA, and has had her book cover work discussed in various publications.
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A special thank you to Ingrid Paulson for this close-up on the design process for classic works published by
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