BookMachine and EMC Design Q&A, Talking Design: Trends

Posted on June 11, 2018 in News & Reviews, UK

If there was one area of the publishing industry I wish I could try my hand at, yet at the same time know I will never be able to, it is design. I love it. Those who work within this part of the industry are so skilled. They are so talented. I envy them. They make the words on the page come to life. You could have the greatest content in the world but if you don’t have a coverthat accurately conveys what’s inside, or inside spreads that make the book easy to read, then who is going to buy it?
You know what they say: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.
But is that true, and as an extension of that, does the view of a book’s cover remains the same over time?
In fashion trends come and go then come back again, and it is likely no different for books when it comes to design trends. But one thing that fashion doesn’t have to contend with (to my knowledge) is how technology affects those trends. The introduction of eBooks, reading on smartphones, audiobooks, open access, these are things that have changed how books are seen and consumed around the world. How exactly is that, though, and what trends will the future hold?
This is the topic that BookMachine Unplugged will be delving into during their next event. BookMachine Unplugged: Talking Design will take place on Wednesday 20 June 2018 and will look at how technology influences book design and the three visual trends you cannot ignore.
In preparation for this event I had the chance to speak to the host for the evening, Sophie O’Rourke, Director at EMC Design, and ask her a few questions. If you find what we discussed interesting, then check out the details of the event and maybe even come along to meet Sophie (and me).


1. First off, can you say a little about EMC Design and the various services you provide?
We’re a design agency dedicated solely to publishing within the Educational and English Language Teaching industry. We have a large and very experienced design team, currently 23 designers (but recruiting), who work on all manner of products: from series concepts and design environments; covers; production of large multi-component courses; to infographics and complex realia (real-life example text used in classroom instruction). We can also typeset in multiple languages– including Russian, Arabic, Greek as well as Maths and Scientific equation setting. We’re a pretty skilled bunch of designers who have both a technical and highly creative ability when it comes to editorial design.
We also have a publishing services team who are responsible for quality control. These are teams of experienced production editors, project managers and art-buyers who commission artists, research imagery (including permissions clearance) and commission audio, video and photography.
2. The company started with just one man (Mike) undertaking freelance work and has expanded from there, therefore what advice do you have for those thinking about freelancing and how best to maximise their potential to be successful?
We’ve always had the motto that you are only as good as your last job, something that we still refer to each and every day. If you go the extra mile – like we do – it’s a sure fire way to build up great client relationships which helps to grow and sustain your business, however big or small you may be.
3. Can you quickly outline the ‘typical’ design process for a book?
It depends on the point at which the designer gets involved in the project. But in a very quick nutshell, it’s about analysing and understanding the brief. This tends to prompt us to ask a lot more questions to whoever is commissioning us. We will then brainstorm a load of our own ideas (if it’s a concept stage) or if we are responsible for the production we will get straight to work.
For any project the setting up stage is really crucial, so we ensure that the files have been technically set-up in a production friendly way, this helps to avoid problems at print. And then we get started on the various passes. Depending on what type of book it is there can be anything up to 13+ proof stages (if it’s a complex educational product), but we tend to go back and forth a number of times building up the look and feel as we go and making any alterations to the text as instructed by the client. There’s lots more we can say about the process and we have written a whitepaper with BookMachine about all of this which you can read here.
4. What are the 3 most essential skills needed to be a successful designer within publishing, and what sort of person might be well suited to it?
Someone who has an obsessive eye for detail is crucial.
Someone who enjoys solving problems and doesn’t give up when things get difficult.
And finally a natural flair for creativity helps, but there’s also a lot that can be taught and learnt as you go along.
5. How does design for publishing differ to other forms of design? (E.g. such as food packaging etc.?
Compared to most other genres of design, editorial design is about stamina. Being able to add creative flair and maintain consistency and accuracy over 100s of pages is a major skill that is underestimated. And this is something that editorial designers have to be able to do that other areas of the design industry don’t.
6. How different are the approaches to designing covers for fiction than non-fiction titles, such as the educational ones you work with?
In our opinion they don’t differ. We use the same approach to distilling the brief and making sure that we create something that looks amazing. We use the same software and our designers would approach interpreting the brief in the same way.
7. Do you read the books you are about to design a cover for, or solely go by the cover brief?
Sadly we don’t have time to read everything we design covers for. Most of the work we do is for the education market and the covers for these tend to be series, so understanding the course concept and the branding guidelines is really important. And then working out how to roll out the concept across multiple titles.
With a fiction cover you don’t necessarily want to read it because sometimes your personal like/dislike for the book/characters/writing style could actually hinder your approach. And if we’re not guided enough by the editors/publishers you may actually design a plot spoiler! So it’s really all about the brief and making sure that this has been written with the end user in mind and it has enough detail in it for us to get the gist without hampering creativity too much.
8. Does designing for digital editions alter how you go about the brief and, if so, how?
In our experience the digital edition, if there is going to be one, needs to be encompassed as early on in the briefing and concept stages as possible. Things that you can do in print don’t work as well in digital and vice-versa. So if you don’t have the budget to create two separate editions then it’s very important to factor this decision into the briefing process so that everyone can be mindful of the limitations and opportunities designing for both formats will have.
9. There was a Guardian article last year that discussed the different approaches to US and UK covers for a number of books, which ‘general’ style do you prefer and why?
For us there is quite a big difference in visual appearances of US designs all round, not just the cover. For example, in educational materials the US have single columns compared to double (which makes for a fun reversion if you are going from double to single!). They also tend to request much cleaner pages with less architecture, for example navigational and side bars, elaborate headers and footers.
Covers tend to be darker and less colourful – but that’s quite a generalisation, so this is to be taken with a pinch of salt. Internally US pages tend to have a lot more white space, which for us as designers is preferable. Sometimes though it can be really fun to be given the opportunity to embellish every page and go to town a bit more on the design. So I wouldn’t say we have a preference as a company, but there are certainly designers whose personal style is better suited to one market over the other.
10. Finally, should you judge a book by its cover?
It depends if we’ve been involved in designing both the cover and the internals 😉
But yes, I do. A poorly designed cover reflects badly on the author and publisher. It sends a message that it isn’t important and that we don’t really care if you’re engaged or not. So I am 99.9% certain that a great cover design will positively impact sales and the overall reading experience. It’s also not just about the cover design; paper choice and the finish on printed books are also really important. Something that feels nice to touch and hold is going to be far more emotive to someone picking it up and pondering about whether to buy it or not. I’ve been known to buy books because I loved the cover so much, not necessarily to read the book itself!


This discussion was just a teaser of what will be covered at the BookMachine event. If design is your thing, or you simply want to learn what the next visual trends within publishing will be and how they’ll be influenced by technology, BookMachine Unplugged: Talking Design on Wednesday 20 June 2018 has you covered.
As someone who’s worked in editorial and marketing down the years, being able to contribute to discussions on book design has been integral to each role – from putting together design briefs for the books I edit, to writing cover copy. Now’s your chance to learn more about the design process and future trends, and maybe even impress your current or potential employers with your knowledge of what’s hot and what’s not.
A huge thanks to Sophie for her time and I hope to see lots of people at the event,