Kristina Coates Interview

Kristina Coates

Senior Designer, Ladybird

Can you give us a little 'tour' of your professional background including how you came to be Senior Designer at Ladybird?

I joined the Ladybird Trade team earlier this year, so I'm relatively fresh!

To get here, I studied Graphic Arts at LJMU, specialising in Animation and Illustration. I enjoyed the character design and storyboarding elements of animation –all of which has proved very useful since – but found my passion leant towards children’s book illustration at the end.

So when I got work experience and a part-time role in Macmillan Children’s Books, it was a real click moment, I knew Children’s publishing suited me. I pursued and landed my first full-time role at Nosy Crow early the following year. It was a fantastic first job; immersive and agile and an exciting place and time to learn about all the different areas of children’s publishing. I worked across Novelty and Picture Books, plus all kinds of odd jobs, before moving to Bloomsbury to work in Picture Books and creatively manage a great list. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with narrative design, beautiful artwork and collaboratively with editorial.

When I saw that Ladybird was relaunching and looking for a Senior Designer, I recognised that to be part of an iconic and established brand at this stage was too good an opportunity to miss. Especially, once I met James (Stevens, Art Director) and saw the launch list. Now, I work across novelty books, picture books and non-fiction in lots of different and new formats, which is a bit of a commissioning dream when looking for new artists!

Tell us what a typical day can look like for you and what you most enjoy about your role.

It's a cliché but, there’s no such thing as a typical day, which is probably why there's a lot to enjoy!

My day generally involves developing and looking at new ideas for mechanisms, formats and artists. I work to get projects started and acquired and match up illustrators and design with existing and new ideas. Once a project is signed up and underway, I’ll commission, brief, set up layouts and text design, work on cover concepts and branding design. I give and take art direction and refine mechanisms and design at various stages, ensuring that we get feedback and input from sales, rights and more creative heads as we go, right up until the project goes to print and finally to bookshops!

I enjoy the variety of the work and creative problem solving, plus there's nothing quite like seeing new ideas or looks come to fruition. I get to work with great, creative and energetic people both in and out of house.  They keep the work interesting, ideas flowing and my curiosity alert.

What are your own memories of Ladybird growing up and how is this different to the brand we see today?

My early memories of Ladybird are, of course, the iconic hardbacks. Most vividly: 'Well Loved Tales'. I adored the artwork, loved the stories and at times felt a teensy bit scared! Looking at some of those titles today, such as; Beauty and the Beast, The Tinder Box, and Rumpelstiltskin, I can see why. The format of the hardbacks is also perfect for learning more about the world at that age, too. They're easy to hold, contain clear content and are beautifully accurate. I've almost taken for granted that much of my knowledge of nature and how things worked was gained by reading Ladybird books.

Today, we’re respecting the history of Ladybird, with equally great content and design. The beauty is the heritage titles exist so we can build on that legacy, without needing to replace it. We're not tied to a rigid or set look and are adapting what we need to.

The updated Baby Touch series has been a fantastic example of working with a legacy and the success of updating a design. It's striking and has gone down well internationally.

There’s an emphasis on original ideas, too. The Ladybird Trade list had been ticking along, but it was maintained rather than grown in the last few years. We now have a bit of an opportunity to experiment across novelty, picture books with a purpose and fresh subjects and angles for Non-Fiction. The needs, interest and tastes of parents and children have changed so we’re reflecting that in our choices of projects and artists.

Often the simplest ideas done well are the most fun. There’s a new, fantastic Busy Day novelty series which uses flaps so cleverly, that it really is quite magical!

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Tell us about one of your most memorable projects.

Well, being new here means most of the projects I'm developing are at an early and top-secret stage, so I can’t share those, yet!

I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with a real mix of talented artists and exciting books, which are memorable in their own right for different reasons. To cheat, I would say sending my first book to press at Nosy Crow was utterly exhilarating and nerve-wracking; it was a novelty title on a tight schedule needed for Bologna book fair. I recall Adrian making a harried airport dash when it got stuck at customs!

I'll always remember the moment it finally arrived at the office. We'd pulled it off! I've felt utterly excited seeing projects become books ever since.

Who or what inspired your love of design?

Honestly, without really considering it before, books would have. I've always been an avid reader.

I'll not mention people I've worked and am working with, and not all of the following work in publishing, but.

I have long admired the work of David Hockney, Edward Gorey, Janet Ahlberg, Sara Fanelli, Oliver Jeffers, Laura Carlin, Lucinda Rogers, David Shrigley, Eric Ravillious, Edward Hopper, Yuri Norstein and the master that is Richard Scarry!

I love their work for many, distinct reasons, whether it's their colour palettes, textures characterisation, sense of place, use of humour and/or emotion because in every case it makes me feel something. What links them for me is they each have a distinctive visual language and built an engaging world in their work. You believe their world and as a viewer can escape into it, which I think helps us try to make sense of this one.

Do you have any content or organizational advice for illustrators looking to make an impression on Ladybird with their portfolio?

It’s a great time to work with Ladybird Trade. We’re actively looking for new artists as we grow the list and come up with new ideas!

We cover a vast range of subjects from the magical realms of mermaids right down to diagrams of how a lightbulb works. Plus, we're on the lookout for new, well-executed novelty concepts too. If you can condense a big idea, into a simple image or mechanism and make it fun, that’s right up our street!

My general content advice for artists would be to make sure your portfolio content is age-appropriate. Try and include likely subject matters such as animals, homes, children, farms, jungles, space, and then how you want to interpret them to make them stand out.

We look for representation, so have a range of diverse strong, appealing characters. All shapes, ages, cultures, capabilities and sizes.

If you're interested in Non-fiction projects then consider how you can bring a level of accuracy to your work and make it beautiful and child-friendly. It should be identifiable but not necessarily hyper-real.

If you want to do picture books: consider the world in which your characters exist and how that may look. Characters and consistency are very important, as is the use of expression and emotion.

If you feel your work suits the very young and novelty, I'd say that we're particularly drawn to clever use of colour, texture shape and image-making. We love a graphic style with warmth and appeal in it.

Aside from artistic talent, what other qualities do you look for in an illustrator?

I look for illustrators who enjoy collaboration. It’s great to be able to discuss an idea with someone who considers the content concept and how something works as a whole.

Also, timing and delivery are important. I always recommend or try to work with people who can meet deadlines where possible or communicate well, it makes all the difference!

Which titles on your current list have been the most successful?

Being new, I'm not taking credit for this, but, the Ladybird re-launch stormed out of the gates with 'Ten Minutes to Bed' picture books, by Rhiannon Fielding. It’s been a phenomenal success! Chris Chatterton's art is beautiful and there are a lot more characters to be discovered in the Land of Nod, so it's set to get bigger and better. The latest title on Meg’s (Designer) screen is even more stunning, if possible!?

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There's also a sense that what is a 'Ladybird book' has creatively broadened. Carolyn Suzuki’s F is for Feminism series, and  Ben Rothery’s Sensational Butterflies and Hidden Planet kick started new precedents for what we commission, format choices and were very distinct, gorgeous titles, both set to continue. There’s too much to mention, really, but likewise, the 'Little World' books, 'Poems Out Loud', ‘Ladybird Tales’, 'The Big Book of Dead Things' and 'The Big Book of the UK' all caught my eye – high quality, big variety and lots of fun. It's why I joined.

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It's still early days, so there’s a lot more coming! I'm excited to see two new novelty series: 'Busy Day' and 'Fairytale Pop-Ups' launch in 2020. I think they're going to make a splash!

Has an illustrator ever brought more to the text than you could ever have briefed or imagined?

Almost every time – that's the joy of collaboration!

If an artist has met, then pushed the brief it tends to spark new ideas for the design, which then builds on the original concept, so I love it and find it satisfying when there's some creative tennis involved.

Two projects at Bloomsbury, spring to mind, where this happened. The first was working with Deborah Allwright on ‘There are No Dragons in this Story’, by Lou Carter. Deborah considered and discussed every narrative visual element whilst making that book, it looks clear and simple now, but there were so many potential illustrative directions with the text. We reshaped the layout to fit the stronger ideas. It was at times unpredictable, but joyful experience to see it come together and surpassed my highest hopes.

The second was with Sarah Massini on 'The Girl and the Dinosaur', by Hollie Hughes. I’d worked with Sarah before, and thought I was familiar with her process and work, but she again thought about every facet and page turn. We both knew this was a magical, beautiful beast of a story, and we had something special, but still. I was quite emotional when the art and early proof arrived. It took my breath away!

Making a picture book is a team effort and can be lengthy, so it's great to have great memories of those projects. The end product was as beautiful as the journey!

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Which children's book characters would be on your list of all-time favourites?

It's a toughie, but I've whittled it down to five. So, in no particular order:

Pippi Longstocking, she's strong, clever, loyal, kind and bakes pepparkakor on a scale I can only envy – what's not to love!

Burglar Bill, my favourite reformed criminal and a big softie. Every child should have "I'll Have That" in their catchphrase repertoire.

Bernard from 'Not Now, Bernard', felt his pain, respected his stoicism.

Matilda, of course.

Finally, more recently, but still very much an all-time favourite is Biff from 'Dogs Don’t Do Ballet'. I think we all could all do with having a bit of Biff in us.

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