Hall of Fame – Tony Palmer
Tony Palmer graduated from Monash University, Melbourne, in 1985 with an honours degree in Graphic Communication. He is the Executive Designer at Penguin Random House and also teaches design part-time at Victoria University, RMIT University, and Monash University where he is undertaking a PhD in Art and Design. He has been regularly nominated for book design awards and is a multiple winner. Tony is the author of the YA novels, Break of Day and The Valley of Blood and Gold, and an illustrated children’s book, The Soldier’s Gift.
W.H. Chong: How did you get into book design?
Tony Palmer: I landed my first book design job at Macmillan in 1986. The aspirational graduates really wanted experience with high-profile advertising campaigns and corporate identity work. None of that really appealed. The dean of Chisholm Design school called and said he had three book publishers looking for candidates, and did I want to apply for one? I said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’
Was there an inspirational figure?
My first six months after graduation were spent working as a finished artist for the designer Robert Rosetzky. I was so impressed by how he laid out grids: pushing type right up to within millimetres of margins. He had a real vision of layout, a kind of enclosed world. I was truly amazed to see how this worked, and most of his grid building and layout approach stayed with me for my whole career.
At Macmillan I worked under the direction of Mike Wood, the design manager. I have such vivid memories of him making me cut out text-block shapes of grey cardboard and then moving them around the trim size of pages to find the best way to apply tension to a book grid. Most of these ended up as asymmetrical grids. Again, it was so important for me to be guided by him. It made me see type and layout as something both subtle and purposeful that can make or break a book design’s forward momentum.
A literally old school, hands-on apprenticeship in layout and typography.
Yes, that’s pretty true. Maybe back in those early days we were pretty compliant. When I started out I never felt like I needed to show anyone how good I was, because I knew I wasn’t really any good at design at all! I was ready to learn.
What graphic design remains like a talisman for you?
I can list a few: Otl Aicher’s The World as Design, the Typographica series published by Lund Humphries in the 1960s, anything by Shigeo Fukuda …
What exemplars! Aicher designed the seminal pictograms for the 1972 Munich Olympics, Fukuda was famous for deceptively simple graphic puns, and the Typographica series is a graphic geek treasury. Is it fair to say that the long tail of their influence comes through in the graphic silhouettes you used on Surrender and The Midnight Zoo, and the type stylings of Of a Boy and Air Guitar?
That sounds pretty right. I’ve never been all that interested in messy stuff. Clarity, directness, purity. Placing just two or three elements correctly and letting them resonate. Keeping a light touch on matters.
After thirty years does book design still turn you on?
Yeah, I still find enormous pleasure in the elusive pursuit for creative purity. A kind of breathless sense that the right typeface, or spacing, or colour is just ahead, and just out of reach, and if only I keep pushing I will find it. Maybe because that pursuit has always been an end in itself and one that can never be fully realised.
You’ve designed hundreds of covers. Your first, Above Renown, already has the hallmarks of ‘clarity, directness, purity’. But Greylands has a complex and ambiguous image.
It’s just two stock pics, but they worked almost seamlessly together. On their own they say something in a limited way, but together and with the title of the book they drag a reader into real depths. This is the work of design, the mere nuance of combination resulting in a powerful effect.
‘Placing just 2 or 3 elements correctly’ or as Milton Glaser says, ‘what the designer intuits is the linkage’. Do you think today’s amazing technology makes much difference to someone like you?
Not a lot. I used to drive former Penguin Art Director Deb Brash crazy with my threats to do away with using the internet completely! Of course a lot of things are easier and quicker. But thought, and emotional connection take time to nurture and too often I feel designs are completed before they have even really got started. I still draw my covers by hand with pencil and paper before I go to the software. Bruno Herfst, my studio neighbour, keeps photographing my books and hands and tweeting them like I’m some kind of museum exhibit.
Does that mean for Bryce Courtenay’s The Night Country or Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender you already had a clear idea of the image before you searched or commissioned?
I would have drawn Courtenay’s cover before I commissioned the illustrator. Sonya would always come with ideas for her covers but she’d also give me room to develop my own. So, when she saw me doing something she liked she’d champion the design so that it wasn’t interfered with. All those covers exist as drawings.
You made the images for Little Brother, Surrender and Then. Is that for budget reasons or for control?
Yes, all those covers are my Photoshop imaging because there was an expectation that the rough I submitted for internal approval would be close to the finished piece.
The question of control is a really good one. I feel like I’m always saying, ‘let’s not brief the illustrator too much, you know they are going to see things in their own way, and they will probably surprise us!’ That’s how Air Guitar worked out. I had an idea I mocked-up in Photoshop and then handed over to Julie Knoblock. When I got her piece of reflective art back, and saw how she had re-imagined my rough, I nearly wept with joy. It was so much richer, deeper and vibrant. God, you gotta love a good illustrator.
Returning to some of your remarks: ‘Clarity, directness, purity … thought, and emotional connection take time to nurture’. That’s a kind of purity of attitude, but there is the matter of marketing and commerce which you touched on with Sonya championing a design. Is your best work (or anybody’s) also the furthest from the commercial influence? Does design have much to do with art?
Let me deal with design and art first. It’s a really important discussion. I’m often a little perplexed at the rise of the designer/celebrity. I’ve always seen us belonging more to the craftsman’s tradition as opposed to the individual expression. After all, the core creative act of virtually all books belongs to the author. So, in this sense, we are akin to the brilliant and yet anonymous sculptors who carved out the saints on the exterior of Notre Dame. Pure genius at their craft, but their names unknown. And in no way does this diminish their creative power. In fact I feel it enriches it. The creative power of someone working to a commercial brief averts the perils of more self-conscious creativity. In that sense they are actually very pure in their form of expression.
I never lost sight, say with Sonya’s work, that this cover image was to shine some kind of light on her writing. The book cover was never meant to be an end in itself.
As a writer yourself, how did you respond to the designs of your books?
I got into writing partly because I did and do have a lot to say. But, as we have discussed, book design is not a platform for a voice crying out in the wilderness.
When it came to my books, the covers were done by other designers, which I never saw until they were finished. I’d seen way too many authors think they knew what their writing was in a visual sense, and then ruin their covers.
What’s the greatest pleasure in teaching?
There is that one moment when you stand in front of a class at the very beginning of the course and just feel the wave of your students’ hopes and aspirations. It’s almost intoxicating, and I always feel I have only a window of a few minutes to affirm those hopes and that we are all going to learn some things of significance and we are going to do it together in partnership.
Can you talk a little about ’The Soldier’s Gift’?
This was such a special project for me, and I’ve always felt like it was the highlight of my career. I’d wanted to write this book for years and finally managed to persuade Jane Tanner to illustrate it. I remember almost begging her at one stage. What she did was bring faces of the book’s period setting right up close so a young reader could get a real sense of the emotion. All the photographs of the time are so distant and removed. The other thing I could do as the author/designer on that book was to use the endpapers to tell the story before the story, and the story after the story in a purely visual way. A careful reader can see what happens to the young girl as she gets older after the story ends.
I once heard Massimo Vignelli speak about book design, and his sense of books being more like cinema than anything else. How they begin and end, how elements enter and leave through a forward narrative, always recognizable and yet speaking new lines. As a kind of homage to Vignelli I deliberately restricted the illustrative material of the cover to then merge into the monochromatic endpapers, and then finally revealing the full colour pages as the story begins. There was a lot of thought in that book.