Alex Ross on book design and the ABDA shortlist
The Australian Book Designers Association (ABDA) will announce the winners of the 2015 Book Design Awards at a ceremony in Sydney on 22 May. Books+Publishing asked ABDA president and Penguin Australia creative director Alex Ross for his take on book design trends and this year’s shortlist.
What are some of the recent trends in adult fiction covers, and are they evident in the shortlist?
I should preface my answers to all of these questions by saying that the notion of trends when looking at any graphic design, books included, is a really tricky one. Graphic design is a commercial art form, and as such the art, and its relationship to anything resembling a trend, is at the mercy of the segment of the commercial market for which it’s intended. So with that in mind…
The romance with ‘hand type’ seems to have cooled a little. While still very popular, the honeymoon seems to be over for now at least. Those designers doing it well—and there are quite a few—are still creating some amazingly beautiful work. But it seems often to be more restrained, a warmer and more personal rendition of a traditional font, rather than an obvious and extravagant hand-drawn treatment.
Darker palettes and muted colours are popular. Both of which I’m personally a huge fan of. Where I do see bright colours, they’re being given the chance to shine with wonderful effect.
What are some of the trends for children’s and YA books?
It’s business as usual in children’s illustrated, which is to say there’s a bunch of incredible illustrators and artists out there creating beautiful books for kids. As far as ‘business as usual’ is concerned, it’s a pretty amazing business.
YA is a really interesting area of book design at the moment. YA covers are more and more sophisticated, and they continue to blur the line between YA and adult covers. It’s not uncommon that in a cover meeting I hear the question of whether or not a cover intended for the adult market looks too YA. The answer I invariable offer is that no, it doesn’t, but simply that YA covers look more like adult covers than ever before.
Which category of books—illustrated or otherwise—has gone under the most design changes in recent years?
The disappearance of REDgroup had a pretty huge impact on commercial fiction in Australia, and that impact is still being felt now. There used to be a much larger crossover retail space between commercial and indie fiction. The need to get a book into the D&Ds has seen a homogenisation in a number of genres, and I think commercial fiction has been the biggest victim of this. That said, as you can see from the shortlisted books in the Commercial Fiction category in this year’s ABDA design awards, Australian book designers are still doing fantastic work in this category despite the changes in the retail landscape.
Does local book design tend to follow overseas trends, and what are some points of difference between Australian and international book design?
This is occasionally the case, of course, but at times the reverse is true also. Book design is a pretty specific niche, so we’re all reasonably aware of what everyone else is doing around the globe. Trends are led by great design, and there’s plenty of that happening in Australia.
I’m sure there are moments when every Australian designer can’t help but be envious of production budgets that US and UK designers often get to work with due to the size of their print runs.
Are there any new technologies or materials that are becoming popular, or that you expect to become popular soon?
The art of designing for print is pretty antiquated really, isn’t it? I think most of the tools we’ll ever have already exist, perhaps some are just undervalued or underutilised.
There was an amazing book produced early this year in the Netherlands that is locked and, via some technology I’m not going to pretend to understand, reads your facial expression. The book would only unlock itself once the reader’s face showed no judgement. Perhaps this technology could be adapted to allow a designer’s cover to respond autonomously to criticism, which would make things a lot more interesting for the ABDA judging panel in years to come.