Creating Design Magic
by Tatyana Sinioukov
Perhaps what makes University of California Press so successful is, in part, that its design team consists of people like Nola Burger, who enjoy the daily challenge of making their books stand out
At UC Press, five in-house designers choose their projects and leave the manufacturing responsibilities to production coordinators. "We'll look over a list of books that are being launched, and then the designers will meet," explains Nola Burger, an award-winning designer who has been creating book covers, jackets and interiors for eight years; has taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco; and has judged the Bookbuilders West book shows. "We figure out who wants what," Burger elaborates. "Sometimes it's a subject of particular interest to a designer, other times it's the text and art that pose an appealing design challenge. Production staff go through a similar selection process; it's satisfying to have a say in one's projects."
Burger most enjoys working on complex projects. "Having chosen my titles, I've invested in them from the start," she reveals. "I am thinking about the reader, wanting to make a book that the reader is going to enjoy."
Burger designs about 50 books per year; less than half are considered complex. "When I get a complex book, I am working as a team with editors and production and the author. In the course of designing the book I'll have input on everything from image use to editorial aspects. It's a true collaboration."
According to Burger, for about 35 to 40 percent of the simpler books, such as midlist and monographs, standard design templates are used. For larger markets and more distinctive subjects, she creates original designs.
As a university press, Burger notes, UC Press often works with small budgets, and print runs are typically low (2,000 to 3,000 for midlist). Ten years ago, many titles were guaranteed steady library sales, Burger recalls, but, "as library funds dried up a bit," UC Press has expanded its market to include more general-interest titles. Burger's mission is to create an identity for each book so that it will reach as wide an audience as possible.
"For the interior, I want to do justice to the text: I want it to be readable, with text and art in sync with each other," she says. A book's interior, notes Burger, is an intimate space "that needs to strike a balance, to enhance the subject without overwhelming the content or distracting the reader." The learning curve for the designer is slow, Burger notes, since a book's production cycle typically spans a year or more. When she finally sees the completed product, she may learn, for example, that a page design that was perfect as a single layout looks different in a trimmed, bound book. "A finished book is a three-dimensional object, and the design changes when viewed as a sequence of pages," Burger points out. "That's one of the reasons why making books is challenging--with each project ... I know that I can make a better book than the last time."
Design, Burger speculates, is a mix of inspiration ("When ideas come at random moments") and careful, hard work. Especially in the beginning of a project, she takes thorough notes so she can recall the details later. Although close to 2/3 of all of her daily communication is done via e-mail, a face-to-face conversation often works best, especially when a third party is involved. "Being in close communication ... helps us avoid mistakes, and gives flexibility," Burger explains. "For example, I might find that a deadline for a certain design stage can be negotiated ... which it almost always can be. And if it can't, I need to know that, too."
In Burger's opinion, technological advances have redefined the role of designer, and in the process made books a more desirable commodity. "The range of book design in stores these days is truly exciting. The computer brings a lot more people into the field," she states. "It's made the process more immediate."
Although Burger admits being dedicated to Quark (she also uses Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop), she says Adobe InDesign looks promising. "I am content to not be on the absolute cutting-edge of technology," she confesses, "I aim to express ideas and solve problems. When I can't figure out how to get the results I want from my software, I ask for help."
As for what the future holds for the book industry, Burger acknowledges the significant changes happening in the Internet arena and with print on demand. However, she is most anxious to see the developments in color proofing.
"I don't know when, if ever, this is going to come," she remarks, "but it would be great to see accurate color matching across media. What I see on my screen, what I get on my color printer, and what ultimately prints in the real world are still three different universes."
Overall, Burger says it would be interesting to see where the industry is heading, but she is confident that printed books aren't going to go away altogether. For her, it's a good thing. "I love to design books," she notes. "Even with other interests in my life, I am always happy to go work on my projects."