Hardie Grant Books in conversation with Tristan Schultz

Tristan Schultz, a Gamilaraay man of Aboriginal and European Australian descent, is the founder and co-director of Relative Creative, a Gold Coast based communication and strategic design agency. He has a Bachelor of Design majoring in product design, a Masters of Design Futures with Honours and a PhD in Design. He is also currently Honorary Adjunct Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney in the Design School and Honorary Principal Research Fellow at RMIT, Melbourne.

Tristan is also the designer for several First Nations titles published by Hardie Grant Explore, including Dear Son by Thomas Mayor, as well as Fire Country and Looking After Country with Fire (January 2022) by Victor Steffensen. We asked Tristan about his design practice, his thoughts on challenging dominant perceptions of commercial success, and using design to expand perspectives.

 1. Tell us about your process working on the recent designs for Dear Son and Looking After Country with Fire. How did the message of these books influence your ideas?

Although I have come to incorporate book design into my design practice only in the last few years, I have worked as a professional designer for about 18 years. I have worked across product design, including packaging, graphic design, illustration, along with more interdisciplinary fields of service design, systems design, UX and experience design, interpretive design for museums and galleries and more. I also have a PhD in Design and lecture at various universities. I have published book chapters, academic journals and other articles. I say this because for me book design is an opportunity to have a vessel to bring all my skills together in one contained artifact. 

My design process for Dear Son and Looking After Country with Fire is similar to how I approach most design projects. I first immersed myself in the content, including speaking to the authors to get a conversational sense of the intent of the book. I instantly begin thinking visually. I think about a visual typology that respects the messages in the books. I ask myself questions like, do themes or chapters have a taste, a colour, a texture or pattern. I think about how people read the visual and how we might be able to nudge people’s perceptions away from negative stereotypes or colonial tropes. This is to say that I consider the critical visual discourse at play.

All this then leads to open experimentation of different ways to visually express the visual typology. For Dear Son, the publisher had decided on a book cover artist, so my role was to allow their process to unfold, then explore a design with their work. The author, artist and myself had a couple creative yarns about ideas and from these it was clear that we wanted the reader, perhaps a father, to see an image of a son reflected back at them, a son that has learned lessons from a father and is on a positive path. For the typography of the cover it was important to me to capture the presence of the hand, of a hand writing a letter. This humanises the experience of reading the letters. A reader can feel as though they’re closer to the letter, perhaps it was a letter handwritten in the type style of the cover. Handwriting with irregular proportions like this suggests a subtle rebellious nature, a visual way of saying to the reader this book is about personal tumultuous stories. I practiced quite a bit to get the style to feel as though it was written by an everyday dad; a non-designer scribbling on the back of a bit of paper. We decided a colour and an image for each author should be present in the design so I illustrated images in a kind of rapid thumbnail style, again, in a similar way to how one might scribble out an image while they’re writing a letter. All this softness; the clouds, pastel colours, photo memories on the cover, scribbly illustrative style, was then balanced, or visually brought under control, with a strong and bold pull quote type treatment, as if to say, yes I am soft, but I am also strong and resilient and I have something with resolve and potency to say.

Looking After Country with Fire, a children’s picture book, was a follow up to the author’s adult non-fiction book Fire Country. I designed and illustrated the cover of Fire Country so I had already become close to the content and messages, to the author’s intent and the visual typologies at play. For Fire Country this all boiled down to one potent image; an outstretched Elders hand offering to Australia their wisdom held in a firestick, should the nation care to listen. A firestick is a handful of half dry long grass and bark wrapped up, not too loose, not too tight, cool at the base and warm at the top. The symmetry in the cover was a strategy to remind the visual reader that Indigenous Knowledge is contemporary and sophisticated, not of some uncontrollable out-dated time. The colours were to connote that amidst the dense bush green, red and yellow raw fire can be managed by a single intelligible hand. The complexity in the illustration linework was to connote the relational indicators Victor speaks of when reading the land.

When I applied these thoughts to Looking After Country with Fire, the messages were the same, but I knew that kids would be compelled to engage with the book through a different set of visual triggers. The author had already selected an artist, so I waited to see some images and a beautiful image of Uncle Kuu leading two children through the bush was the perfect foundation for the cover design. I introduced soft white smoke that travels across every page in the book, to always remind the reader of ‘good fire’. But the message is deeper than that, the book talks about listening to the indicators in Country; looking for the patterns in Country. So, I added a diffusion pattern inside the smoke, as if to say that the smoke is intelligible, if we look closely and read its patterns. The book takes children on a journey with various narrative arcs, so I used colour across the book pages to visually cue an atmosphere to match. Finally, since the book is about listening to Country, I extracted a word on each page and made the word oversize to emphasise listening to important, particularly loaded, words. Expressive typography is used throughout, so that word-images can be ideas represented by the words and the words on the lines can float like smoke in the air.

 2. How does the commercial book format shape your creative decisions? What research and collaboration are involved when approaching a new project?

The commercial book format helps to build an extraordinarily clear scope for the project. That is, whatever I do, it needs to operate inside a box, bordered by a rectangular frame and almost always a reader navigates each frame linear, from front to back. It will be printed at a certain size with no ability to zoom in, so a tolerance of legibility is a known. It will have printing parameters, to do with either CMYK or spot colours, other treatments and paper stocks and all these will have costs. All this shapes creative decisions while at the same time creative concepts might, if compelling enough, have a chance to shape these commercial and practical decisions. The book format differs from the map format, which I also work with a lot. With a systems map, a cognitive map, a data visualisation or even a cartographic map, knowledge is experienced rhizomatically. Many people see the world in this way, but it does not lend itself to the book. I try to incorporate some kind of reflection of this relational way of seeing the world into the book format, even if only a gesture, a subtle contestation of the production of knowledge in the modern world.

The research I will do when approaching a new project will always result in a complex map that works perfectly for me to understand the context and topics at hand. It is interesting that mapping helps me comprehend, yet almost always these process maps end up archived in the darkness of my archi-drawers and never travel with the book as an alternative way of engaging with the content.

 3. Book design is often a balance between the connection to content and commercial success. Non-Indigenous, Euro-centric perceptions of commercial success tend to dominate publishing and design industries. How did you navigate this when working on Dear Son and most recently Looking After Country with Fire with the Hardie Grant Explore publishing team?

There are many stakeholders in book design. Authors, artists and illustrators, designers, publishers, editors, sales and marketing teams to name a few. I have found myself exploring critical ideas that are deliberately there to extend metaphors into complex ideas without the reader necessarily knowing they’re receiving those ideas. This kind of recoding or subversion of the status quo through visual reading is important to me because often tropes have colonial or modernist legacies that serve to perpetuate concrete universalising world views and conceal different world views.

Balancing this with commercial success is tough. While I may be able to articulate why I have designed something in a particularly subversive way, I am part of a collaborative team who may want something to look different because their commercial metrics suggest it will work, but they seldom describe the ancillary consequences of perpetuating those metrics. I think we are seeing more and more that the public are attuned to being disrupted, and this does ultimately fit with commercial success.

4. What can book creators do to challenge and disrupt dominant ideas on book design and contribute to richer diversity in design?

Book creators might care to understand the connections that type, image, symbol and sign have to modern, colonial legacies. For example, sans serif fonts beginning in 20th century were a part of a deliberate project to get rid of the hand-written word, and with it the clutter, decoration and presence of the clumsiness of the hand; it was a part of the mechanisation of man. It was also to say this ‘perfect type’ shows superiority as a civilisation over ‘inferior’ cultural groups, having ventured beyond the savageness of history. It was an attempt at a ‘pure’ way of imparting knowledge. A purity that we now know is unattainable. All that really happened was the creation of a type style that is a reflection of their own cultural values steeped in modernity, masculinity, wealth and everything against those type styles belonging to social minorities who might write and/or make marks in different ways.

This is not to say we should by contrast hand draw words forevermore; we are living in hybrid worlds. There are ways to celebrate the obvious functional and aesthetic qualities of these ‘modern’ font styles, while deliberately subverting them at the same time. For example, their associations can be superseded, or ‘hacked’, on the basis of readers ‘seeing’ the experience of producing the letters with pen or pencil, with texture and grit, or some other form. So, the original production process is subverted and new meaning is made that speaks to tensions and complexities of a complex world. This is important and necessary work to do. Disrupting dominant western ideas of book design speaks to the heart of decolonising book design; of representing through book design, that a viable future is a future in which many worlds fit.