Q&A with Jessica Horrocks

Jessica Horrocks is one of two designers shortlisted in the Emerging Designer of the Year category for the Australian Book Design Awards 2019Before the winner is announced on Friday 31st May at The State Library of NSW in Sydney, we wanted to get to know more about Jessica and her work.


How did you end up in book design? Was it an early ambition?

I did have an early awareness of it. I remember taking my primary school’s Book Week poster design competition very seriously! My parents still have my winning entry from when I was 11. The theme was Put Yourself in the Picture, so I drew the covers of the CBCA’s shortlisted picture books but with a cartoon version of my face replacing an existing one in each. I drew a border that looked like a wooden frame and some matching lettering (definitely overkill in hindsight). I remember finding it difficult to draw type, and I still do.

As I got older I became more aware of book design and illustration as an actual job but thought of it as an unrealistic career path. At university we were told we’d be lucky to get jobs designing toothpaste tubes after graduating. No disrespect to any designers out there in the toothpaste industry, of course. After graduating I moved to Melbourne and got a job in the production department of an educational publisher. Eventually I wanted a more creative role within the publishing industry but felt inexperienced with an outdated folio, so I completed a short course at a local design college. I finished with a refreshed folio just in time for an interview as an assistant in Text’s production and design department, where I still work now.

Which was the first book cover you designed?

Technically it was White Sands by Geoff Dyer, but the photograph had already been selected for me so it was just a case of deciding how to crop it and then adding type. In terms of choosing everything myself, it was The Scholl Case by Anja Reich-Osang. It’s a true crime book about the murder of a woman in the German woods, possibly by her husband of fifty years. I wanted the perspective on the cover to be ambiguous, as though you could be looking down on the branches or up through them. The writing is austere, so the aesthetic is quite harsh though the branches do weave a bit of delicacy through the otherwise severe letterforms. I was excited when the editor suggested printing on silver stock but then realised the contrast in the image would be compromised, so we settled on a spot gloss treatment for the type instead.

What project has been your favourite so far?

I think it would be Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq. I connected with the manuscript immediately and felt inspired to work on it as soon as I’d finished reading. It’s dystopian fiction but it’s not at all generic. It’s disturbing and absurd with a potent dose of pitch black humour and a unique voice, which is as conversational as it is detached. Despite being set in the future there’s a strong undercurrent of nostalgia, so after a few rounds of concepts I started gravitating towards illustrations with a historical feel. I’m very fond of this particular style so I was happy to spend hours looking through stock sites until I found the right ones. I ended up using six different sets, picking out individual illustrations and arranging them to create the final composition. The author’s feedback was the best I’ve had so far: ‘Fantastique! J’adore!’.

Which specific designs have inspired or influenced you?

When I was little I loved getting lost in Mike Wilks’ books, in his hyperdetailed and surreal illustrated worlds. As a student I remember being inspired by Faber’s series of poetry paperbacks with purely typographic covers, particularly Darren Wall’s cover for Ariel and Kerr|Noble’s for Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. I always like Erik Carter’s work because he’s not afraid to explore garish colour combinations and retro type, take his Rachel Ingalls covers for example. Then there’s Helen Yentus, I particularly like her Camus series from a while back and more recently her work for Helen Oyeyemi. She also art directed Stephen Brayda’s recent cover for Mouthful of Birds and Grace Han’s for Bangkok Wakes to Rain which are both mesmerising and enigmatic. There are many, many inspiring book designers here in Australia too and I’m so fortunate to have two of them as art directors: W. H. Chong and Imogen Stubbs.


Beyond book design, where do you find inspiration?

Inspiring design is everywhere, actually it’s hard to avoid which is simultaneously good and bad. I have to be careful not to get too distracted by branding otherwise I’d never leave the supermarket. I’m a big fan of NASA’s ‘worm’ branding system and wish they still used it! Outer space is inspiring in general because it’s infinite and mysterious. There’s plenty to be inspired by back on Earth too: exotic birds, dense tropical forests, colourful mushrooms, glowing insects, bizarre deep sea creatures. And the CBD too, I love it when the afternoon sun turns skyscrapers into glittering pastels. I find it difficult to work without music, though I mainly listen to ambient or drone otherwise it can be too distracting. Or sometimes I’ll pick music embodying the mood of a book and hope it infiltrates my work.


What are the challenges facing a young designer today? What advice do you have for those still studying?

I think social media initially made self-promotion easier but has made it more difficult now because the digital landscape has become so saturated that it’s hard to stand out. Everyone’s feeds and profiles are designed and curated, whether or not they’re a designer. We’re also living in a gig economy, which means it’s easier finding freelance or casual work than a steady 9–5. It’s challenging because it means learning how to run a business instead of just working for one. And I’m not sure I feel qualified to give advice to design students, but if I had to, I’d say the number one trait to work on is resilience. Design skills are obviously important, as is a strong folio, but without resilience even the most talented designer will crumble.


Do you think book design will change much over the next 10-20-30 years? Will you still be designing books?

If print remains as popular as it is right now I think sustainability will be the main catalyst for change. Maybe books will be edible? There are definitely some delicious looking covers out there. Or inhalable? Imagine being able to breathe in a book. And breathe out a design! Realistically though it’s more likely reading will just become better integrated with mobile technology, maybe with the development of more sophisticated reading apps. And as predicted in the pre-Kindle era, design will still be important, because it’s only the context and mode of consumption that changes. Although, the way design is generated will probably change too. We’re now at a point where AI can create unique and believable photographs of fictional human faces based on datasets of real ones. Imagine if this kind of technology is further developed and becomes commercially available, designers might only need to enter a few keywords to generate the perfect photograph. Or: the perfect design, which is unnerving because yes, I’d still like to be designing!


Stay tuned, later this week we’ll share an interview with Louisa Maggio, who is also shortlisted for this year’s Emerging Designer of the Year Award.