The Judging Process with Coralie Bickford-Smith

Each year ABDA invites a panel of designers and publishing industry professionals to judge the Book Design Awards, including one international judge. Previously, Jessica Hische, David Pearson, Jon Gray and Dan Wagstaff have lent us their expertise. This year we were honoured to have award-winning book designer and senior designer at Penguin Books UK Coralie Bickford-Smith give us her perspective. Below we hear her thoughts on the judging process, Australian book design and how she feels about design awards.

How does your experience in book design inform the way you judge awards? Any key elements you look for?

I look for strong typography, clarity of communication, I think about the subject matter and genre the designer is designing for. I like to see evidence that a brief has been pushed creatively to bring a sense of newness and the unexpected to the finished book. These elements are all part of my criteria and go hand in hand with my experience as a book cover designer. They are criteria I try to fulfil when answering a brief myself. I am aware that there is the unavoidable element of personal taste when reacting to the work, as design is a very subjective thing, but I try to avoid judging the design in terms of my own aesthetic preferences. This is why it so was helpful to have a few sentences summing up the brief for each entry, and for me this was a valuable part of the judging process.

Penguin gothic horror series designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith

Your book designs are some of the most covetable and awarded, how do you feel about awards in design, and in particular book design?

I feel that awards are a great way to get your work out there and seen. Of course it is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment when your work is recognised by an award, but it is equally important to bear in mind that awards are also subjective. My take home message has always been that you should not use award outcomes to define who you are as a designer. Your passion for creating and following your heart is the most important part of anyone’s craft.

Penguin cloth-bound Classics series designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith

Do you think Australian book design has any defining characteristics? People often talk about the US and UK having different book design styles, do you think you can tell an Australian designed book apart from those territories?

I used to see a marked difference between the US and UK book design sensibility, but recently I feel that this difference is disappearing. To my eyes it is no longer as defined as it once was. Naturally I was interested in this idea when I began judging the ABDA awards, but the visual language was very familiar, and my critical sentiments seemed closely aligned to those of the other judges. From a commercial point of view, publishers in different countries know how they like to market certain genres of books visually, but good design is good design the world over.

‘The Worm and The Bird’ written and illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith

Unfortunately you weren’t able to see the books in person, what things were helpful when Skyping about the books, did anything surprise you going from flat digital images and photographs to being able to ask questions about them?

This was difficult, and I think every book designer working in a physical medium would appreciate why. The feel of the paper, the weight of the book and the smell of the ink is normally so integral to the process. That said, the Skype session was very useful. For example, there was one book that had printed edges that I could only have seen through the Skype session. Luckily, we all speak the same technical language when it comes to finishes and production values, so I was able to ask about the actual feel of the book and see the spot varnish or sprayed edges. It was an invaluable session and I really appreciated the patience of Regine and Adam as I asked questions and scribbled down notes. They had a fantastic system in place that was very well thought out and much needed as they were handling so many books.

Paperback book designs by Coralie Bickford-Smith

2017 in Australian book design: any noticeable trends? Any surprises?

I don’t really like to think of great book design in terms of trends. If it is a trend it has already broken new ground and is no longer original. I think the best design serves its contents and answers the brief in a new and unexpected way. I like to see book design that is breaking new ground, ideas that push the book further, and I am happy to report I saw a lot of this. The standard was very high, and I really enjoyed seeing such a beautiful body of work. I was very inspired and felt honoured to be a part of the process.

A book entitled 8 Poems, designed by Marion Guerineau and published by Akerman Daly, blew my mind in the Best Designed Independent Book category. The playfulness of the format, the use of typography and paper stock was extremely inventive but refreshingly simple. Another stand out was a book entitled Treatment, which was in the Best Designed Fully-Illustrated book under $50 category, designed by Stuart Geddes and published by Surpllus. This title was dealing with a subject matter that most people would not think of as appealing from a design point of view, but the book was surprisingly engaging with its clever use of ink and layout.

‘8 Poems’ designed by Marion Guerineau; ‘Treatment’ designed by Stuart Geddes