Q & A with Duncan Blachford

Duncan Blachford

Currently undertaking a Master of Communication Design at RMIT University, Duncan Blachford has over eight years experience in the book publishing industry. He’s worked at Black Inc. Books in Melbourne and Bloomsbury Publishing in London and is currently the publisher at Tempo Haus.

Did you mean to end up as a book designer? What was your trajectory?

I’ve always wanted to work with books or music – and spent most of my life pursuing the latter. I started designing band posters and album covers – though didn’t view it as design, it was just part of a larger DIY ethos. I fell into typesetting and book design by accident, literally: I was working in admin at Black Inc. when the senior designer was hit by a car while riding to work: both his arms were broken. We had books that needed to go to print, so I became his hands (he’s fine now!).

Does art – gallery, museum art – inspire you? Or film, tv etc? If so, what do you like?

People involved with the arts never really switch off, do they? I’ve been drawn to the avant-garde since an early age, be it literature, music or film. I love Dada, Bauhaus, Modernism, Concrete Poetry – and I’m as interested in vernacular typography as any other medium.

What do you listen to when you work?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Total Control recently, particularly their collection of 7”s. Triple R, krautrock, Keiji Haino, free jazz; especially records from the BYG Actuel and FMP catalogues. I also love listening to Debbie Millman’s ‘Design Matters’ podcast – she’s such a great researcher/interviewer, a favourite episode is Debbie talking to Irma Bloom.

1984 cover by Duncan Blachford

Covers by Duncan Blachford

Covers by Duncan Blachford


What question do you least enjoy from people when they discover you design books?

I’m yet to encounter a question I don’t like: people usually tell me about the book they want to write and I’m interested in those conversations – I want them to see their project through; not just so I can work on it (though I’d love to) – because I want people to pursue those crazy dreams. Design can help facilitate that, which is great.

What is your favourite tool on the computer? 

InDesign, for sure. I recently tried my hand at Glyphs, to design a typeface based on the hand-painted signage in Guildford Lane: tracing the history of one particular sign led me to a Melbourne anti-fascist/Brechtian theatre group who operated there between 1937-1939. I love the research phase of the design process.

How do you know when a project is done?

When it’s paid for, or gone to print, preferably both. But really, sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’ll never be finished – I imagine it’s the same for writers; you could endlessly revise if you didn’t have a due date. But like with music, the first or second take might be the best – even if it’s technically imperfect it captures the right spirit, which overworking things can destroy. That’s not always the case, of course!

Do you have a recent favourite project? 

I’m working on a book about Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook at the moment. Having an opportunity to research his teachings at the Bauhaus is extremely enriching. Any project where I can really engage with the material is the most rewarding.

Which book would you like to design the cover for?

I have a list of early Modernist literature I’m very keen to work on. Maybe it’s my background as a typesetter, but I’m as interested in the page design as the cover. Reading a book that has been holistically designed is always a pleasure.

Who is one of your favourite book designers?

Peter Mendulsund is great – he advocates for designers to keep things loose. It’s great to hear from an art director that believes in bucking the trend, rather than following it. Publishers are often too conservative. Come on, it’s a creative industry: keep it creative. I love New Directions Books in New York, they commission a fantastic array of designers and have a long history of great design. Wang Zhi Hong is possibly my favourite book designer at the moment: his work often very typographic and minimal yet intricately detailed, with a creative use of the book’s materiality. He manages to balance the playful and experimental with the super refined. Beautiful stuff. Irma Boom – my absolute design hero. A real visionary, and in a way – the ultimate punk of book design.

Satin Island designed by Peter Mendelsund; Just Kids designed by Wang Zhi Hong; James Jennifer Georgina designed by Irma Boom

Your favourite place to look at books?

Metropolis, Perimeter and World Food Books in Melbourne, and Readings of course. Draw Down Books on Instagram and the new CVRLVR has been smashing it out recently. I also enjoy books about typographers and book designers – delving into design history is a seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove.