Beautiful Books: Seeing Martin

Pedlar Press chats with book designer Emma Allain about her work on Su Croll’s Seeing Martin (Pedlar Press)—from choosing the right cover image, to finding just the right mix of typefaces and her previous work on designing books within the Pedlar portfolio.


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Pedlar Press: Describe your creative process. What are your major steps?Emma Allain: I would say that my book design process is an even split between logic and intuition. As a book designer, I have to be very cognizant of rules; ultimately, my job is to make the design frictionless for the reader so they can immerse themselves in the text. As long as that goal is achieved, there is a lot of room to play. I usually read as much of the manuscript as I can before coming up with ideas, and then respond to my own impressions of the book. Completing my Master of Fine Arts at NSCAD University last year really helped me to hone the intuitive side of the process and to relax some of the more rigid design sensibilities I learned in design school. PP: Which designers have been major influences?EA: Zab Hobart taught me book design at York University while I was a student there. I took her class in the final semester of design school and it felt like, for the first time, I had really found my niche. I hadn’t connected to a lot of the commercial-side design work in the program in the same way that my peers had. After I graduated, Zab helped me to find work as a book designer and connected me with Beth Follett and Pedlar Press. I have a ton of respect for Zab’s precision and ability to create very contemporary work that respects traditional typesetting.I’m also very inspired by modern printed matter and art books. I try to stay involved in the art book fair world and keep an eye on the printed works on display at Art Metropole in Toronto and Printed Matter Inc. in New York. It’s inspiring to see how artists work with the format of a book and challenge a lot of traditional design ideas. PP: Pedlar almost always supplies the cover image for you to work with. What were your first responses to Camila Quintera’s photograph?EA: I was a bit more involved in the process of searching for this cover image than I usually am with Pedlar books. I worked with Pedlar Press partner Monica Kidd to find something that worked, and ultimately was given a few photos to choose from, including the one by Quintera of the young man with flowers on his face. I felt this image really spoke to the themes of beauty and pain in Seeing Martin and had an artful feel. It felt like the kinds of photos that are described in the book. It also reminded me of the stunning cover of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life which felt appropriate.
 PP: Tell me about your experience working remotely. What do you feel is important to make sure the work gets done efficiently?EA: I’ve been working remotely for a number of years and I’m always trying to achieve the right balance. I keep to business hours as much as possible, but allow myself some flexibility to go for walks during the day and take time away from screens. In the past, I would work in a café once or twice a week to change things up; these days I alternate between my home office and kitchen table. I live in Halifax where everything is very close together, so it’s easy for me to feel like I’m still involved in my community while working from home. One of my personal rules is to try not to work past 9PM. I’m a bit of a night owl, so I sometimes struggle with this, but having time to decompress at the end of the day is very important. My partner, Peter, also works from home so we do a good job of keeping each other in check. PP: The challenge for Seeing Martin was to show graphically the myriad voices in the novel, while achieving clean lines. Please comment.EA: There was a lot of back-and-forth deciding on styles in the early stages of this book’s design in order to determine how to represent its variety of perspectives. I see Seeing Martin as an archive, like a series of documents collected into a folder that tells one story, so with that in mind I felt I could experiment with the styles without worrying too much about aesthetic cohesion. My job as a typesetter is to make the story flow without too much friction, so although each section looks very different, they all conform to a rigid grid which assures that the reader is not disoriented when they turn the page.  PP: Please talk about the various typefaces used in the book. What do you think of their overall effect on readers?EA: I used five different typefaces, and many styles within them, in order to differentiate the six unique sections of Seeing Martin. The cover prominently features a typeface called Moret – a bold, 1970s-style font – so I repeated the use of it in the chapter headings throughout. For the main narrative we decided on Caslon. I set the magazine article pages in Avenir (both condensed and regular) in order to give them a bit of an art journal feel, which differentiates the tone from a newpaper column. Mira’s notebook also uses Avenir condensed and Beatrice’s diary is set in Calluna. We settled on those choices to try to get the tone of the characters right, since those sections are of course very personal. Finally, the 4 Aces movie script is set in Courier, which is really the only choice for a screenplay. My hope is that the shifts in type are smooth and undistracting to the reader while aiding Su Croll’s world building in the scope of Seeing Martin.
  PP: Walk us through your Pedlar portfolio. Which books are you most proud of, and why? Which book was the most challenging?EA: Seeing Martin is the tenth book I have had the pleasure of designing for Pedlar. I’m proud of all of the Pedlar books I worked on, but concetta principe’s This Real felt like a turning point. Since I had designed its predecessor, Hiroshima: A Love War Story, I was building on an existing grid and style guide. It was great to have the opportunity to improve on my previous work, and I think the end product turned out very well. I also loved working with the grid on that book since the trim size is square.I enjoy a typographic challenge, and Seeing Martin definitely stretched my understanding of how to use multiple styles in a single book. Kyeren Rehgehr’s Cult Life was similarly interesting because, to deal with some longer line lengths, Kyeren requested that a few poems run from bottom to top so that the reader has to rotate the book 90º. To edit those poems, I also had to turn the text boxes, since I can’t turn a whole page within its document. It’s harder for me to catch spacing issues when I’m reading sideways. It was very fun, with both books, to work with such atypical designs. PP: What is your favourite typeface?EA: I’ve always been a fan of the classics: Caslon and Baskerville are two I feel I can always rely on to lend a page structure and elegance. Some of the families of Caslon come with amazing glyph libraries that I sift through often for page breaks and flourishes. There are also a lot of modern type designers making beautiful display faces these days; I love the work of Andrei Robu and Riley Cran especially.  PP: Any additional comments you’d like to make about the work.EA: Pedlar Press has made its name by publishing unique and beautiful books, and with that in mind, I think Seeing Martin is a fitting final book for the press. It was very exciting to work on such a big project with Monica Kidd and Beth Follett. As the tenth book I designed with Pedlar, it felt like a real celebration of all the press has to offer.

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A big thank you to Pedlar Press and Emma Allain for joining us on the ALU blog!Read on to discover more of the stories behind ALU’s Beautiful Books >>