Q & A with Atosha McCaw
Atosha McCaw is the Director at The Timekeeper’s Assistant, a book design project she started on the side of her full-time job as a designer and marketer with sporting and membership-based organisations. She’s keen on books that share ideas, start conversations and keep history alive.
Did you mean to end up as a book designer? What was your trajectory?
This is probably a bad thing to say, but I don’t see myself as a book designer. I’m a designer who loves print design. I’ve been lucky enough to work as an in-house designer for most of my career, including for trade unions and national sporting teams.
Working as an in-house designer is a privilege; you get opportunities that wouldn’t arise doing client work. But on the other hand you don’t get the budget.
An ordinary day for me at any point could start with book design, move to campaign creative direction, include some video editing or app development, and finish with digital design or magazine design. I’m pretty lucky to be able to say I have designed everything from trading cards to trophies, to books and exhibitions, to merchandise and mobile games, and everything in between.
My current side hustle is The Timekeeper’s Assistant. It was born out of a frustration of seeing the same books pushed as classics. How many copies of Austen, Dickens, or Huxley does anyone need? It was apparent that there were forgotten brilliant books. The Timekeeper’s Assistant publishes lost classics, challenging thinkers, eyewitness accounts from remarkable moments in history and the best books ever. It’s a vast remit!
Does art — gallery, museum art — inspire you? Or film, tv etc.? If so, what do you like?
All of the above. Inspiration comes from all places, and I am sure I’m not the only designer who has a collection of photos of unexpected and accidental colour combinations for later use.
What do you listen to when you work?
Endless Spotify playlists. I spend way too much time organising perfect playlists. I like listening to music that is not word-heavy when I’m thinking, so a fair amount of Krautrock gets played. There is nothing like Cluster’s Zuckerzeit to zone out your brain when working on concepts. Occasionally when I’m working on a design for non-fiction, I find it useful to listen to lectures on the topic or by the author.
What question do you least enjoy from people when they discover you design books?
I have two: people will ask if you write books, or they announce that ‘print is dead’. Mainly these are the unthinking response they give and it shows the value society puts on design. Design for a lot of people is something they don’t notice until it doesn’t work. They do however make many decisions based on the thing they don’t consciously see.
Thankfully print is far from dead! It may not be as big an industry as it was, but it is a more powerful medium now that a majority of design has gone digital. I find people take more notice now when they receive something printed just because it is a rarer occurrence than it was.
What is your favourite tool on the computer? (Not just a program but within a program or OS)
My favourite tool is not a design tool. I use Grammarly a lot. It is a tool that fixes your grammar and spelling in emails and online. It saves me time and embarrassment every single day. When you spend so much time dealing with other people’s words it has a flow-on effect of making you consider your personal use of language.
How do you know when a project is done?
Things are never done, just released. Most of the time that is decided for you by a deadline. Mostly I know If I’ve slept on it and when I come back it still looks ok, then it will do. Otherwise, the desire to improve can destroy.
Walk us through your design process.
An ordinary day is never ordinary. My process is still fairly random after 20 years designing. It mostly starts with a request. Sometimes that request is a question I’ve asked myself. I’ll then sit down and get the full brief. That means finding out what is it they are trying to achieve, what do they want to say and what does success look like. I also like to know: who are the people that you want to love this? Sometimes that is someone’s boss and not the people who will purchase it.
From there it is about generating ideas. Then I do sketches, upon sketches, upon sketches. They turn into prototypes, upon prototypes, upon prototypes. At some point, you have to face showing someone else, and it is normally then that you notice the obvious spelling mistake or generate an even better idea.
I try to build in things that you will only ‘get’ once you have interacted with the design. A small thing on the cover that won’t be apparent until after you’ve finished the book. It feels less brutal to give designs that give back to the viewer at many points. I want to build a design that has moments of discovery and not a design that is purely for the moment of purchase.
Who is one of your favourite book designers and why?
I love Jim Stoddart, Paula Scher and Alexander Rodchenko equally. All three are designers who think about meaning and purpose when designing. Much of the design we get served up day-to-day has no mystery. It doesn’t engage the viewer in a conversation that lets the viewer complete the design. I think the most potent design is that which involves your brain to complete the loop.
Stoddart is incredibly generous with publishing his working notes and grid structures on his website. His art direction is very robust; the system has to work across such an extensive range of books. Scher is the master of type. Her work is timeless, designs that are still dominant decades later.
Your favourite place (store, library, blog etc) to look at books?