by Tatyana Sinioukov
What makes Steve Renick get up every morning? How does he manage, after having been designing books for quite a few years, to keep his projects innovative and his approach fresh? The answer is simple. He really, really likes what he does
Steve Renick wears many hats, and they all seem to fit him comfortably: He is art director at the University of California Press, owner of Anselm Design (the work of which was included in the AIGA "50 Books of the Year" in 1998), and he has been teaching design at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) since the late 80s. The course Renick teaches focuses on book design; he teaches it in cooperation with Tom Ingalls of Ingalls and Associates, who has extensive book publishing and packaging experience, and Michael Carabetta, creative director for San Francisco-based Chronicle Books.
The graphic design program at CCAC is recognized for having produced many internationally recognized designers, Renick notes with pride, and the program's dean, Michael Vanderbyl, is this year's recipient of the AIGA Medal. In addition to teaching at CCAC, he says he engages in committee work and acts as an academic advisor and mentor there.
Renick has also taught the extension program for design at the University of California, until he became consumed by another passion that, he said, left no time for teaching that program--playing blues bass. If that's not enough to fill his days, Renick lectures on design and production and speaks at such industry events as the Bookbuilders West meetings and the BookTech conferences.
"Teaching is one of my real passions," Renick admits, noting that the art directorship at UC Press requires the most commitment. "My day starts early and often ends late, but I Iove my work."
So what comprises Renick's daily routine?
"There is no routine in my job as art director," he insists. "That's one reason why I love it. I have the blessing of a wonderful design staff, which provides another reason for me to love my work."
"The joy and the curse of this job is the same as that of all of book publishing," he surmises. "By far, the most difficult part of my job is having to deal with egos: People often lose sight of the community aspect of the publishing enterprise, and, while those of us in publishing pride ourselves in our contribution to society, we should remember that even the toughest publishing experience pales when compared to the activities of those ... who deal with the life-and-death matters."
Most importantly, Renick loves designing books.
"I love the complexity of the enterprise and its cast of characters, but, most of all, the wide variety of objects on our list of almost every topic, viewed from a complexity of angles. Who could ask for or even want more?" he observes.
Drawing from his personal experience, he reflects on three important design concerns for both book covers and interiors: being aware of the "My Book syndrome," the importance of building strong communications and avoiding playing "visual Ping-Pong" (both terms coined by Renick).
The "My Book syndrome" is a "territorial marking device" of sorts, he explains, when people involved at any stage of book design and production refer to their shared project as "my book." On one hand, Renick says, this is an understandable reference, but if the shared project is not perceived as "our book," production problems may arise.
"Of course, each of us contributes to a single project, but I feel very strongly that the only person to make such a claim is the author," Renick states. "It has also been my experience that the best authors to work with do not ... refer to a book as being exclusively theirs.'"
The second essential ingredient is clear and focused communication, which may be ensured by putting all decisions and suggestions made along the way in writing, as well as all staff involved in the project taking responsibility for communicating among themselves as often as necessary.
The third factor involves avoiding playing "Visual Ping-Pong"--as Renick sees it, a situation where the designer is constantly revising and re-revising a design concept due to lack of knowledge of the product's purpose and target audience.
"Our designers will not proceed on any design without a clearly written document which reflects the goals for that design," he says.
At University of California Press, this document is called the "design memo." It is usually written by the acquisitions editor and passed through the marketing department before it reaches the designer. This way, Renick explains, if there is a "difference in focus" between acquisitions and marketing departments, matters can be clarified before designers even become aware of it. He feels it's not the designer's job to solve such problems.
Renick dispenses the following advice to book designers who must deal with deadlines, other departments in house, unexpected production issues and so on
--Don't say yes to everything.
--Be realistic about what deadlines really encompass as far as the work you must perform is concerned.
--Define what the "real" emergencies are ("A crisis to one person may not be that to another") and create extra time to solve them.
Finally, in an effort to keep up with the emerging technologies, Renick says he always waits until a new technology has been tested by someone else.
"Let the technology become a proven commodity before investing in it," he suggests. "I always ask vendors and other book and general graphic designers what they know and use to help me sort out what works and what does not as applied to my needs.
"I have no real idea as to what the future holds," he summarizes, "but I know I can embrace usable technologies because I have the luxury of experience."