Senior Designer, Walker Books
Tell us a little about your professional background including how you came to be Senior Designer at Walker Books.
I studied Book Art and Design (BA), at London College of Communication (UAL). During my last two years of the course, I had a part-time job as a nanny and was spending a good deal of time appreciating the likes of ‘There Are Cats in This Book’ by Vivian Schwarz in the local libraries, surrounded by toddlers. Yet at that time, I don’t think I would ever have thought to pursue a job in children’s publishing. A change in course leader meant that by my second year at uni, children’s publishing just wasn’t something that was talked about. In fact the new course leader very much looked down on children’s books and once told us that if we submitted an illustration project with talking animals she would refuse to mark the work!
Instead it was pure coincidence (and I’ll admit, sickening serendipity) that through an entirely separate work experience placement at a corporate finance magazine, my CV was kindly passed on to one of the directors at Walker Books. Just a few weeks after that, I interviewed for a rare design internship at Walker and got the job. And thank god I did.
Since starting as a Design Assistant in 2011, I have done everything from making dummies for book fairs, to presenting books at sales conferences and commissioning award winning talent. At each stage of my career I can honestly say that I’ve known without doubt that I was very lucky to have landed here at Walker straight out of uni. After all this time I still count myself fortunate to be here. There are always new and exciting things that happen that keep me inspired and excited to do my job – it’s a very special place to learn your craft.
Could you describe your role and give an overview of your main responsibilities?
As a Senior Designer I am involved in scouting new talent, formats and publishing opportunities, which includes commissioning projects. (I’ve always loved the fact that at Walker we have two publishers who come from a design background.) I support the Senior Art Director, Louise Jackson, with various management and coordination tasks – like helping our team meet publishing schedules and planning ahead for various editions of each project. And (to my geeky satisfaction) I’m tasked with rolling out any new in-house systems and training newer members of the team (normally with a bit of mentoring thrown in, where needed). Working as I do in such a dynamic and busy publishing team, often means having to dip in and out of other designers projects to help them reach the finish line when workloads are over stretched or when book fairs and sales events approach.
I am also assigned to certain picture book authors and illustrators (Emma Yarlett, Simon James, Marcia Williams…), offering continuity and crucial support both when developing new projects, and advocating on their behalf for past projects. It’s a responsibility that I cherish.
And of course I do the same job as any other book designer! – where aside from doing the actual designing (i.e. coming up with visual concepts and plans), I will source the right illustrator for a project, and brief and art direct them. A huge part of a designer’s role includes project management and collaborating and communicating with editors, art directors, production teams, sales and finance etc. It’s a very involved job.
Which five Walker Books titles would you select to share with our audience and why?
I’d start with ‘There Are Cats in This Book’ by Vivian Schwartz (art directed by Ben Norland) because it was the first children’s book that I really appreciated as an adult in charge of a child. It’s very clever, yet also very simple – the art, the text, the design; they all work together in perfect coordination. Plus the book, as an object, is part of the narrative which is genius! I think for these reasons it’s a really good book to look at if you’re trying to write and illustrate for children but are feeling overwhelmed with where to start. Sometimes the simplest concept can produce really great results!
The second would have to be 'Dragon Post’ by Emma Yarlett. It’s a book that I helped commission, after a long period of trying to develop something with Emma. The story is wonderful and it's fabulously illustrated, and like ’There Are Cat’s in This Book’, it's another novelty book. Alex, the character in the story, receives letters and in the book these are presented as closely as possible to real ones. The detail and the imagination that Emma has poured into the project is to an exceptional standard – and although I had coveted Emma’s work for a long time, even as her art director I was blown away by what she produced. From stamps and air mail stickers, to hand drawn addresses, it’s a real lesson in how to go the extra mile and create a fully formed world that children will love to explore.
Next would be 'My Red Hat’, by Rachel Stubbs, who won the Sebastian Walker prize a few years ago. She’s a very exciting new illustrator that I helped bring onto our list with publisher Denise Johnstone-Burt. I just love Rachel's work. Her illustrations are emotive and rich, and yet light and open all at once. The story in this picture book debut is both beautifully quiet and imaginatively playful. It’s a genius offering of balance and opposites, and I think it’s a book illustrators will especially love to explore.
The fourth book would be 'A First Book of Nature’ by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld (art directed by a genius Walker alumni, Liz Wood). As a designer of illustrated books, there are some things that I get particularly excited about. One of those things is colour and I don’t think I can appropriately explain how well the colours in this book have been treated. Mark’s work is utterly faultless and the production quality is superb – I feel like the artwork literally sings on the paper (which isn’t always easy when you’re dealing with print). You’ll have to grab a copy to really see it for yourself, but I think it’s a great example for illustrators who are struggling with how to use colour in their work.
I’m struggling to pick a 5th book as there are so many to choose from! But something very different to the aforementioned would be the Football School Series, illustrated by Spike Gerrell. This is a great example of illustrating what you love – because it makes all the difference in the outcome. The series is art directed by Laurelie Bazin.
What makes a good picture book illustration?
A good picture book illustration has to say the right thing at the right time. In my opinion the illustration should compliment and communicate what is happening in the text, telling the story consistently and truthfully. But it should also manage to both fill the spaces that the text leaves behind and also leave enough unsaid. What a paradox!
Good questions to ask are; does the illustration represent a truthful experience, both in the world of the story and in the world of the audience? Does it communicate well? AND – does this illustrator fit with the project? Are they right for the author and are they right for the audience (even if they aren’t expecting it!)?
Are there particular styles or subject matters an illustrator looking to appeal to Walker should include in their portfolio?
Much of choosing an artist comes down to whether they are the right fit for the project, so it would be impossible to make any rules when it comes to portfolios. Any art, no matter what style, has it’s place.
It is true however that there are aproaches to illustration that in an unsolicited portfolio can seem tired, overused, or dated – and therefore it’s important to present your best, most exciting and engaging work. I’d suggest looking at current publishing trends when it comes to subject matter (right now this would include a lot of non-fiction and biographies), but also make sure you include things that you are passionate about and enjoy illustrating. Where possible show character designs (preferably both human and animal) as well as examples of composition and sequencing. And don’t be afraid to mix up the age range too (you might think you are best suited to illustrate picture books, but a designer may be able to spot an altogether different potential in your work, say for fiction covers for example). This will give you the best chance,no matter what your art style.
Taking a look across a publisher’s backlist of books will also give a really good idea of what the publishing teams enjoy working on, and whether your work would naturally fit within their list going forward. This doesn’t mean however that they will only be looking for the same as before – of course they will want to be innovative and exciting too, and finding new talent is so important for this!
Talk us through your most successful project to date including all the various stages of its journey.
In terms of sales, the most successful project I have worked on has been 'Dragon Post’ by Emma Yarlett. Since 2018 we have printed over 250k copies worldwide, in more than 10 languages – it’s been phenomenal.
The journey began in 2016, when I reached out to Emma to see if she would like to work on a project with us at Walker. It took a few attempts, but in February 2017 Emma sat at our creative meeting table with a dummy book embossed with the words “Dragon Post”. Denise Johnstone-Burt, Emma’s editor and publisher, started reading the dummy and before she’d reached the last line of the book it was clear that this was ‘the one’. We swiftly contracted the book and soon after began work on the edits, reworkings, rough sketches and dummies of the story, to check that everything worked as well as possible before Emma started painting the artwork. (It’s this stage that can often take the longest time – but it’s so vital and prevents any problems with colour art at final delivery stage.)
Once the structure of the story was in place, Emma started to look at how to characterise Alex, the protagonist and narrator of the story, and also the dragon, which was perhaps the trickiest task of all. After some thought we decided to use a neon pantone red for the dragon to really help him seem as magical and other-worldy as possible – and give an extra level of pizzazz to the book! We did some print tests at this stage and I also spent time working on creating cutter guides and glue points for the inclusion of the letters that the reader would be able to open and read as part of the story.
By November 2017 Emma had delivered all of the art and together we digitally added the pantone colouring to the dragon, making the final touches to the book just before Christmas. Once the book had been proofed we made some small tweaks to a few colours that had suffered in the printing process, and final files were signed off in March 2018 when the book went to print.
Since 'Dragon Post' was published we’ve also continued the series with 'Beast Feast' in 2019 and an exciting new title will be published later in 2020.
What are some of a) the most challenging and b) most enjoyable parts of your job?
Some of the most challenging parts of my job are –
- Getting projects off the ground: Sometimes you can have a vision for something, but if other people don’t ‘get it’ or trust your instinct, it can be difficult to move things forward unless you can find a better way to present your ideas.
- Working with illustrators who aren’t open to direction: This is one of the reasons why relationships are so important in picture book making. An illustrator ought to be able to trust their art director, but it’s also the art directors job to understand their artist. It's a collaborative process.
The most enjoyable parts of my job are –
- Finding projects for artists: Nothing is more satisfying than getting work to the talent!
- I love helping people make their best work: It’s a real privilege to be part of someone’s creative process and sometimes just being an extra pair of eyes or offering encouragement can really help.
- I’m a total geek, and I really enjoy looking at figures: I find working with production on costings for projects very satisfying – especially when dealing with different formats and variables in novelty books. It’s fun to solve problems around the mechanics of printing and making a novelty book. Being business minded in this way also means being creative.
What do you wish you’d have known starting out as a book designer?
"Your value is not only in the work you create.” (A lesson I’m still trying to learn!)
I think when you work in a competitive creative industry such as publishing, and you appreciate how lucky you are to do what you love, it can be easy to feel a huge amount of personal pressure. This can make it hard to put boundaries in place. But at the end of the day, whilst it’s good to be invested and to go the extra mile, we’re still just making books – we’re not saving lives – so it’s ok to go home and switch off!
Who have been your most significant career mentors?
I have always valued the input that I get from my manager, Louise Jackson, at Walker. She has worked on some incredible books and won many awards, so she’s a real inspiration. Similarly across the company there are many other colleagues who I have learnt from and been inspired by in various ways, not just in design. Caroline Muir, our Forign Rights Director, is someone I very much admire – she's a role model in how to build and lead a team that consistently outdoes their own performance.
It’s also my peers and my friends at work who at the end of the day challenge me and encourage me – normally over a cheap glass of wine!
Charlie Moyler portrait (c) Donna Ford 2020