On Design and Working at Ooligan Press

Connect the dots. That’s what I attempt to achieve with my design work. The dots are product, audience, message, organization identity, and organizational goals. The tools used to connect the dots are research, experimentation, and refinement of concept in execution. The results should contain an element of mystery, a balance between showing and telling, and a layout that portrays a thoughtful and accurate representation of the intention of the design piece.

Design is about supporting the marketing efforts of your client. During the preparation process for working on a book there are several requirements on my checklist: Read the manuscript, know the audience and what they expect from the genre, know what the comparative titles look like, and know how and where the book will be sold. My checklist is very similar when I’m designing collateral. I enjoy doing communications marketing, so when I’m working with an organization like Ooligan Press I’m always asking myself,  how else can this publishing house and publishing program reach their intended market? Is there a marketing opportunity that could be capitalized on by conceptualizing and creating a particular piece of collateral? Are there ways the Design Workgroup can help the publishing house be more consistent with its branding efforts (e.g., through the use of color and repetitive design elements, or by always including web addresses and social media information on outreach materials)? It’s important to look at both the small details and the big picture.

From a background working mostly in small-budget organizations I know the importance of having versatility in skills, as well as in design styles. In the design world it’s often important to be able to keep up with the Joneses. In order to continually produce relevant designs, a designer always needs to be looking—at everything. Having been a professional artist for over thirteen years prior to designing and illustrating, I’m in the habit of looking. I apply this same strategy to my design approach. I look at art in galleries, fine art and design magazines, architecture, movies, bookstore layouts, websites, local clothing shops and restaurants, nature, etc. I don’t discriminate, because I never know when I might need to pull from this bank of images.

In book cover design and illustration, I strive to appeal to the visual intelligence of my audience by offering an element of mystery, where appropriate. As in good writing, in visual imagery there also needs to be a balance between the showing and telling of a story. I don’t believe that people like to be told the whole story. Instead, they find making connections between text and image rewarding. Like Chip Kidd said in his Ted Talk, you don’t show a picture of an apple next to the word apple. People’s brains automatically conjure up that picture (Of course, one exception to this rule is children’s books. Learning readers often need a visual cue to reinforce the words they are reading.) Knowing the visual language of the culture for which you are creating, and playing with inventive ways of tapping into a story with visual cues provides a foundation for intelligent storytelling. 

Designing book interiors and collateral require using not only a good eye for compositional layout, but also the ability to organize information—creating a hierarchy of text and image that succinctly communicates the message. In both book interiors and collateral design my editorial and copywriting skills have been assets in creating informational systems. Although I wouldn’t consider myself an editor, having basic skills in this area has helped me. Knowing when rules have been broken, and when you can break or slightly alter them is crucial to dealing with text. There have been a number of times my copyediting and proofing skills have helped me add a missing word here, or turn an en dash into an em dash there. 

One of the most rewarding aspects about being a student in the PSU Publishing Program and staff at Ooligan Press was the freedom given us to restructure and improve processes, and to create new initiatives. Because the publishing house was considered a “learning press,” as manager I set a goal of connecting the Design Workgroup with design professionals. The impetus was to make sure we continued to learn new skills while keeping up with the press’s production needs. I implemented a process using Flickr for sharing research, and early stages of design work that proved helpful in the design development and critique process. I also reached out to the greater publishing and design community to gain feedback on our designs via critique. Through spearheading the PSU Publishing Program sponsored event, Transmit Culture, I fulfilled a vision of mine to connect Ooligan Press’s student-staff with publishing professionals through on and off campus lectures and panel discussions. My hope was to establish the PSU Publishing Program as a hub for publishing professionals who want to network and learn from one another.

To me, design is more than producing visually appealing layouts. It’s about paying homage to tradition, while embracing innovation. It’s about connecting the dots between people and unifying community. Successful design uses a common language to bring people with similar interests together. In the words of Robert L. Peters, “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”