Today, we are continuing our conversation about book design with Raphael Geroni. Raphael is the incredibly talented designer who designed both of my books. Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World and my first book Google It: A History of Google (How Two Students’ Quest to Organize the Internet Changed the World.) Not only do book designers take on the task of creating an impressive must-pick-up-this-book cover, but they design the interior of the books well–every single page. Be sure to check out part one of our conversation, which included Raphael’s process for using the book cover as powerful storytelling space.
A special ALERT to educators and librarians: if you know young people who are interested in publishing, this a great opportunity for them to learn about book design. Plus, Raphael’s courageous creative journey will inspire kids who think outside of the box!
Let’s dig in!
Anna – Tell me about your job. How did you get where you are and how do you view the central mission of your work?
Raphael – I went to a very small private school that didn’t encourage value in any field other than sports and, as a young closeted boy who grew up driving race cars with my family, to say I didn’t fit in would be an understatement. Fortunately, I had a terrific art teacher named Jean Broden who saw that I was a little (okay, a lot) more interested in the arts than most and she nurtured that interest and gave me the encouragement I didn’t receive anywhere else. It was wonderful to be given honest feedback in a space that felt safe and rewarding. With her guidance and support, by my senior year, I had a strong portfolio and had been accepted into my first choice for art school.
Once I was in college, I didn’t feel as special as I did in high school but it was the first time I was with so many like-minded creative people and it was challenging, exciting, devastating, and reassuring all at once.
At first, I thought I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator so I focused on painting and drawing classes. But by the time I was a junior, we had to pick a major and a friend and I were worried about what we would do after we graduated in terms of financial independence. We wondered if there was anything for us in graphic design. After my very first design class, the decision was easy since I was delighted to find that I had always been attracted to conceptual image-making and typography but just didn’t know it was called “graphic design.”
I loved every project that was assigned in my design classes but my favorites dealt with publishing and storytelling. This was during the “PRINT IS DEAD” era, however, so we were encouraged to focus on creating a strong web design portfolio, but I honestly had no interest in designing things that would lose meaning, fade away, and be redesigned in perpetuity. Books and print design seemed wonderful because once they become a physical thing, they can’t be changed and their function and meaning always remains the same. The individual who finds interest in them will always change, of course, but whether it’s visual- or content-based, it’s purpose can’t be changed.
Instead of doing work I didn’t want to do in the “real world,” I decided that I would strategize by building my design portfolio with work that would prove the worth and value of physical objects that couldn’t exist in a digital format. In the end, my hard work paid off and I was awarded the top portfolio of my graduating class and I started working in book design a week after graduation.
For six years, I worked at small design studios either focused on book design or custom typography and I learned a great deal about the industry but certainly much more about myself in the process, and I yearned for the days I could decide which projects to take on, how much time to spend on them, and when I would work on them.
For me, as an artist, a 9-5 lifestyle simply doesn’t facilitate creativity. If I force myself to sit down and come up with something for a deadline in this manner, it just won’t happen and it doesn’t feel very exciting or gratifying. In past work environments, it was a great deal of sitting, clicking, and waiting for a project to be begin or end. I still do a lot of sitting, of course, but I have to be in the right frame of mind before I can start thinking about something new. It could be at 3pm or 3am and I’m fortunate and grateful to have the freedom to do that now.
In order to start my own studio, I knew I would have to reintroduce myself to the design world with something personal that would showcase my interests and talents and set myself apart from the crowded field. So I created a personal project where I redesigned every title in Judy Garland’s filmography with custom lettering and illustrations accompanied with blog posts and visual references that I could share in installments on social media and then have a physical promotional poster to send to potential clients at the end.
The project was a great success and I’ve been working as a one-person design studio in Brooklyn for three years. I am fortunate, and it was my goal, to have a reputation for being a versatile designer who imagines every project through my artistic lens of figuring out the very best way to communicate what needs to be communicated. It sounds simple but I’ve found that thoughtfulness is more valuable than a particular style.
Anna – The inside of Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World is also beautifully designed. The starry background announcing each chapter is so cool. How do you approach designing the inside of a book?
Raphael – Thank you! First, I have to take into account the goal page count and how the book is structured and make a plan for the hierarchy of the typography to make sure everything will be easy to digest and physically fit. One-color books can seem like a hindrance but I love taking them on as a challenge to do as much as I can with tints and typography style sheets. Most of my work is non-fiction four-color books requiring spread-by-spread design rather than heavily styled and more familiar “reader” books. I enjoy both for their individual challenges. Playing with typography style sheets and using nerdy and unconventional tricks to get things to be extra special is really fun for me and never gets dull.
Anna – One aspect that people may not realize about internal book design, is that the design process is underway while the book is still in revision which can change the design. How do you handle those late changes?
Raphael – Oh yes, this is something I am always conscious of and I make sure from the very beginning of setting up my files that every single element is easily changeable no matter how much of the content I’m working with is final. In my earliest projects I found myself spending far too much time fixing things as the project transformed into something else. If I set everything up in a more malleable and temporary way, I can shift along with the project and let it work for me and the content better.
Anna – Tell us about your other work. What inspires you the most about your work?
Raphael – I am fascinated by the past. So much of my work is about celebrating and exploring it for answers as to how we got to where we are now. Why does something resonate with people and what might have been lost or overlooked that I can possibly shine a light on?
In my work, I often find myself trying to capture the essence of a different time period for a topic set in a specific era or I might need design motifs that are historically accurate for a border, for example. The challenge that fascinates me is that sometimes an era might be known for something that is not necessarily a representation of something created in that given time period. Style and the way it bleeds between decades and becomes cross-referenced have a funny way of teaching people visual identification clues that we forever understand by association without ever reallyknowing why, but it’s a terrific storytelling tool. Context and a broad, but varied look can reveal how-and-why and I love figuring this out.
I am currently working on a book by the director of the movie Grease celebrating its 40th anniversary and blu-ray packaging for The Criterion Collection’s editions of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical from the 30s called Swing Time and John Waters’s Polyester. My favorite things in the world are musicals, art deco motifs, and all things camp (as an exploded view of reality) and I’m so happy that my work doesn’t just reflect my interests but is all of my interests, as well.
Anna – Tell about the day to day life of a book designer.
Raphael – I’m sure it’s different for every designer, but for me it’s mostly about time management. I always have a few projects going on at the same time but I try and make sure that their schedules are a bit staggered so I am not a haggard mess by the end of them. There are two big book seasons for me (summer for beach reads and graduation gifts and then winter for holiday gifts) so I can easily decide how many projects to take on each season without overbooking myself. Sometimes that happens anyway because I get excited and want to design everything.
Book covers and custom typography projects move along quite quickly and I can usually get something approved in a matter of weeks. Complete book packages can take about six months to a year to complete, though, and they require multiple “passes” to be approved and print-ready. After a sample chapter design is approved I then design a complete first pass of the book. A great deal of the work is front-loaded with getting things approved and then it’s time to make text edits through about three to six passes. I have to manage when I get to be “creative” and make something new and when I’m more of a machine making edits.
Readers! I hope you enjoyed delving into Raphael’s world as much as I did! Thank you to Raphael for a fascinating look into book design and his own courageous creative journey. I learned so much and am a huge fan of his work! Readers, if you missed the first part of our interview, here’s the link.
And if you want a signed copy of our book, Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World, click here. You’ll see I have super fun giveaway prize promotion for signed book orders now through July 2, 2019!
Stay tuned! More posts, more giveaways and other fun, coming up as we approach the final launch countdown for Elon Musk A Mission to Save the World!
P.S. Art Teacher Jean Broden, wherever you are, I am giving you a standing ovation!
P. P. S. If you liked this post, sign up for my newsletter and you won’t miss other great stories! Enter you e-mail address in the box at the upper right-hand corner of the screen.