Q&A with Mary Callahan, the 2021 Hall of Fame Recipient

Last night’s 69th Australian Book Design Awards saw us welcome the very talented Mary Callahan into the ABDA Hall of Fame. Mary’s work as a book designer has contributed in a large part to the ongoing excellence of Australian book design. This month ABDA Treasurer, Phil Campbell, had a chance to speak to her about her illustrious career spanning three decades.

Your entry into publishing was through the doors of McPhee Gribble, a springboard for many successful writing, publishing and design careers. What was that like?

It was a formative experience for me; an old swimwear factory in Fitzroy, a bunch of remarkable people led by Di Gribble and Hilary McPhee, fabulous parties, a meeting place for writers, lunchtime swims at the Fitzroy pool – it was the 80s!

Pasting up pages of books taught me about type, the parties taught me about the industry and its people, Di and Hilary taught me about passion and humour, the meetings about the company’s future taught me about money, and the staff taught me about hard work and working together. I was very fortunate to have been a part of all that.

Have there been any particular mentors?

I’ve always wanted one of those.

How has the work of a book designer changed since your early career?

Well, there was a lot more manual labour in the early days. There were a lot of tracing paper overlays, Letraset type, scalpel work, etc. There certainly wasn’t the focus on marketing that exists today, so when you designed a book cover, it seemed that it was much more about an honest relationship with the content of the book, than fitting the cover into a marketing plan. What’s exciting to see now, though, is the prevalence of so many more young designers choosing to work on books and really raising the bar on the quality of design. I do believe the quality of design education has lifted also, so that must be playing a part.

You mention content of the book vs marketing imperatives. There is that sense publishers often want a cover to speak to the market in visual shorthand, so a book declares its genre boldly on the shelf. Does this stifle your creativity?

Yes, I reckon sometimes it can, but I think that being made to work within constraints forces you to work harder for a good result. And sometimes you just have to accept that your job is to put a cover on a book, and you don’t always have the opportunity to create an award-winner. I’ve come to appreciate that using my craft to the best of my ability is sometimes enough in itself, grasshopper.

On a slightly different tack, it’s interesting to watch genres in writing blurring more and more, and that seems to be opening up a much broader range of exciting design responses.

You’ve worked both as a freelance designer and in-house with publishers. How does it compare?

I’m still having my coffee and toast in bed at 9 am in the morning, so freelancing suits me. Having said that, when you’re lucky enough to work in a design department that enjoys a fun culture, then it can be stimulating to be a part of a team.

You honed your style working on fiction titles for authors such as Richard Flanagan, Robert Drewe and Elliot Perlman. What attracts you about design for fiction?

Designing for fiction allows for conceptual thinking and for a designer to explore a visual poetry with the interaction of type and image. A design response for non-fiction of course, can be conceptual, but I think that perhaps it’s the invented nature of fiction that appeals to me. I enjoy playing a small part in giving a manuscript the best possible outfit for its entry to the world.

Equally, the more pragmatic side of me can get very excited about the challenges posed by organising the contents of an illustrated non-fiction book. It’s very often a puzzle that needs solving: the structure of the content and how that might inform the design, for example. Or how to make a coherent whole out of a guide book that has mostly amateur-looking photographs and no budget for illustration (Around the World in 80 Dinners).

Adam Liaw’s Two Asian Kitchens involved an extensive photo shoot, working with photographer, a cook and a stylist, and finally bringing it all together in the design. To be involved in art direction, production and design is a hoot.

You took time off to complete a degree in fine art. How has this informed your design work?

I’m not sure that my design work has changed in a particular way, but I would say that receiving an education in fine art very much broadened my way of thinking about design and the possibilities that exist in the intersection of the two. It also gave me a language to speak about art and design which has been very useful.

With your work at RMIT School of Design, do you find teaching rewarding, in terms of sharing the knowledge or is it more of a two-way conversation?

It’s definitely both. It’s lovely to have a student get as excited as you do when you teach them about grids. Equally gratifying is being witness to how these emerging designers think about the world, and how many of them see design as a tool for change. Teaching has also made me realise how much stuff I actually know, which makes me feel quite grown up!

You are fond of using an existing artwork to set the scene, sometimes employing a detail to tell a larger story; Stravinsky’s Lunch, The Drowner, Dark Places, The Island in the Mind. What’s the rationale?

An existing piece of art or painting is conceived as a discrete object. When I’ve used a detail of a painting, for example, then I’m re-presenting/ re-purposing that painting for my own means, I suppose. If I’d used the whole painting for The Drowner, then the cover would have told a story about pre-Raphaelite painting. Whereas, using a detail brought poetry to the cover and allowed me to play with the power of suggestion and with ideas of passion, romance and history. So while it’s a fairly pragmatic rationale, it allows for enormous scope. Julia Ciccarone’s painting for The Island in the Mind was a great find. The story was an ambitious one and its themes were big. Set in the time of the Enlightenment, I wanted a big American hardback feel for the jacket, so the detail worked well to not only set a scene, but also to allow for the prominent type treatment.

On Gould’s Book of Fish you convinced the publisher to print the text of every chapter in a different colour, creating quite a stir at the time. Did the publisher look at you over her glasses when you pitched it?

I wish I could say that I pulled that off alone, but I can’t. I simply backed up Richard Flanagan’s mad idea that he put to me before he’d written the book. I did try to sweeten it a bit and recall conversations with Richard about him writing the chapters to fit within 32 page sections. He appreciated the production budget advantages of this, but unsurprisingly, didn’t follow through! In the end, the printer had to print it in CMYK, and inevitably there was variation through the pages. Whilst at first I was devastated, I now think that this outcome perfectly accords with the brutality and the beauty contained in the story.

Do you feel the weight of responsibility with every new book design brief? That sense of an author having spent months or years on a manuscript and their success being, even in a small way, tied to the work of the publisher and designer?

Sure. But that’s our job. I tend not to over-identify with the author’s position. If I did, I’d find it stifling I think. I find that a level of disconnect helps me to do my job better.

What’s in store for publishing and book design in the next 10 or so years, and what developments would you like to see?

I reckon that there’ll be more rock star book designers! And I believe that book covers on social media are already morphing into small movies, animations and the like. I think we’ll see a lot more developments in that area.

I’d like to see more publishers improve their understanding and handling of the copyright of designers’ work. I think that there’s room for developing a structure whereby a publisher pays a fee for a licence to use a design for the Australian market, or a higher fee for complete copyright ownership. They can then do whatever they choose with it, including on-selling it to overseas publishers.

Isn’t it remarkable that there’s a whole world of designers out there whose careers are dedicated to working with this singular format of a book that essentially never changes. The size only gets smaller, when you consider thumbnail covers on a screen. We’re a mad lot …

A big congratulations to Mary Callahan on this momentous achievement. You can find the full interview in the 69th Australian Book Design Awards catalogue which can be purchased here. Stocks are limited, so make sure you don’t miss out!