Part of SYP Scotland’s inaugural conference | For Design in Discussion, we had Eric Campbell and Jim Hutcheson, creative directors of Hot Rum Cow (White Light Media) and Birlinn respectively, talking about the ins and outs of design with chair, Leah McDowell of Floris Books.
Trends change rapidly.
So, let’s start with the basics: a cover. For Eric, his difficulty is that his product has to sit on a newsstand and battle for attention. They keep the masthead in the same pace so it stands out. It has to be vibrant, to grab readers attention. A cover sells the magazines, but is also an advert for it for the duration of its life. They try to be endearing and different.
Jim notes that one of the key places to get feedback on your cover is from a bookseller as they are on the pulse with what works and doesn’t. Trends also alter so rapidly that your cover can be out of date a year on, so that’s a particular risk.
Design gets scrutinised more often than other areas of the process, purely as it’s an immediate, visual experience. How do they cope with that? White Light Media publish on behalf of clients, so in that sense they’re constrained in what they can do in terms of brand guidelines. There, they just do what is asked. With Hot Rum Cow, “we are the masters of our own destiny”. They push the limits. If they get bad criticism, they let is wash over them. Do what you do best.
Be a sponge.
But how do you get better and grow as a designer? It’s down to working with people. You learn from those in your immediate surroundings, get advice, build knowledge. Having really good content makes the design a hell of a lot easier. For Jim, there’s a social aspect in getting to know the author. You’ve got to be affable; getting on well with them makes it a lot easier, as they know the book you’re designing for better than anyone.
Be a sponge, nail the work and pick up what you can. “I’m a total sponger,” jokes Jim. Do illustration. He previously worked with record sleeves pre-digital and finds it interesting to compare how the music industry has changed in all those years in his work.
Being a creative director, how do they handle that in terms of the whole company in finding the right design? “Be self-indulgent,” says Jim. You get the best design that way. You’re better going for what you want to do first of all than to try someone else’s ideas from the start. He has a quite high success rate, as they have a trust in you as a designer.
For Eric, the company is split into two. They dial it back on company work, go self-indulgent with Hot Rum Cow. They’re in a good position where people come to them because they like their work, which means they can do more interesting things with it; they’re finding that they have to pitch for work less often with recommendations pointing people straight to them.
“It’s a fantastic privilege to work with illustrators.”
Hot Rum Cow is his passion project. He gets to collaborate with artists. He doesn’t prescribe what he wants to an illustrator, but sends them a loose brief, the raw text and they have a back and forth, a few pencilled ideas, until they find what’s right. “It’s a fantastic privilege to work with illustrators,” adds Jim. It’s great to give someone work and see it go through the entire process.
So when it comes to illustrators, what catches their eye? Illustration, as with everything else, goes through trends, explains Jim. You’ll be out of work by the time you’re 30 if you don’t move with styles – same with typography. Keeping up is key, and they can all recognise someone putting hard work in.
How illustration is interpreted is so subjective, Eric picks up, and a good selection shows your style. They get bombarded with people who illustrate food and drink – they try to stay clear of anything like that. They look for the diverse and left-field. Both note that Pinterest is a great place for finding illustrators and showcasing work.
Return to the physical.
Pinterest is a nice connection to the other big question of change: digital. For Eric, digital was an amazing sphere for them but print remains their end product. It’s difficult to get anyone to sit and pay attention for any length of time online. It’s really easy to design on paper in comparison; it’s a logistical nightmare to create every format for digital, but it’s not going to go away.
The physical nature of the book is the same as it was in medieval times, but it’s difficult for people to engage with and strike a chord with the same things online amid everything else. There’s only so many hours in the day.
The internet is awash with a load of rubbish to the point there’s a resurgence in taking time to read something beautiful. For Eric, his new year’s resolution was in line with this: just to read half an hour a day away from a screen. Digital isn’t going anywhere, but it isn’t the be all and end all. It’s similar in music, adds Jim, with fans returning to vinyl and reclaiming the physical.
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