Magnum Contact Sheets: Design #1

For the next part in our Life Cycle of a Book series, Design Director Johanna Neurath looks at the design development behind our new Autumn title Magnum Contact Sheets.

Wow! Magnum Contact Sheets. A dream project for any book designer. OMG who wouldn’t relish the chance to revel in unseen images from some of the world’s greatest photographers, the chance to immerse themselves in key visual moments from recent history or spend time poring frame-by-frame over personal work that has never been in the public gaze before…?

To be frank I was jealous it couldn’t be me.

Although I’m still pretty hands-on, it’s rare I get to design a whole book myself these days… There’s far too much else to do…

Let me introduce myself: I run the design department here at T&H. It’s my responsibility to make sure that each T&H book goes out into the world in its very best clothes… best foot forward feeling fabulous and confident.

I’m responsible for matching the right designer to the right book, and seeing that a myriad of design decisions have all been carefully considered – all the visual details that contribute to a well-crafted book. These could be the smallest finickity things like the size and positioning of the folios (the page numbers) Or things that many people aren’t particularly conscious of like the colour of the head and tail bands or the texture of the endpapers. All these little details and many, many more make an impression on the reader – we get these things right and it gives that reader a more pleasurable experience. They’ll be willing to spend more time with the book and therefore get more out of it.

head and tail bands
Head and Tail band options for Magnum Magnum

I need to keep an overview of the whole project too, pay attention to the impact that the layout makes. A book needs a good flow, it needs pace, rhythm, drama and enough surprises to keep the readers interest right through to the end. So I spend much of my time looking at things… And meddling, improving, guiding the designers, helping them find the best visual way forward, keeping an eye on the important little details and the bigger picture.

Magnum Contact Sheets is a big deal for us all here at Thames & Hudson. It’s a big deal for the authors and a big deal for the Magnum photographers. The design needed to reflect that. We all wanted Magnum Contact Sheets to feel exciting and to look contemporary. As far as a design brief went it was pretty simple but also a big challenge: “Do this amazing material justice! And make sure it will still look relevant and exciting in 5 years time.” I am sure this book will remain in print for many years to come, and it’s no good if the design looks dated a few years down the line…

I started talking to Stuart and Victoria from Smith Design about Magnum Contact Sheets in March. March 2010.

As well as having the design of loads of photography, art and design books under his belt, Stuart Smith is a secret photographer himself, he’s worked with many photographers helping them edit for various book or exhibition projects – he understands the picture editing process from both a photographers and designers perspective. Together Stu and Vic have years of bookmaking and design experience; they have a good command of typography – a clean strong design style, respect for “white space” and hugely important for this project they know when and how to let the images do the talking. And they’re both great fun to work with. Fun is very important on such a big time consuming and complicated project.. Especially as things get more and more stressful as various deadlines gets closer!

Tea and/or Coffee
Step One: Tea and/or Coffee

Often when you begin to design a new book that has no series style or precedent, it’s like you have forgotten how to do it no matter how many books you’ve designed before. All those blank pages at the beginning of a project are very intimidating! To start with there’s a lot of faffing around; organising your coloured pencils in order of the rainbow, making tea, eating biscuits, zapping all those ancient emails you’ve been meaning to delete for ages, pushing things around an empty double page spread again and again, playing with typefaces and generally trying to keep mild panic at bay until something good pops out… But somehow the material you are working with guides you and eventually a little germ of an idea does pop out and from there – even if that little idea doesn’t make the final cut – the whole book grows…

We all (the designers that is) got very excited when we saw the gorgeously graphic smudgey brightly coloured marks of the chinagraph pencils on the sheets. And the orderly little round stickers on some of the sheets, stuck just so, and those beautifully expressive felt-tip pen scribbles and stars and exclamation marks… All these things gave away clues to the personality of each photographer. We knew that somehow we wanted to make the most of this.

Magnum Contact Sheets - Contacts

Vic started off by tracing some of the chinagraph marks from the contact sheets – and playing with stickers. At that point I don’t think she knew why, or precisely what she’d do with them… I’m not sure what Stuart was doing at the time… drinking tea and organising his pencils into a rainbow probably…

Or maybe I’m projecting here ;)

Magnum Contact Sheets - Chinagraph marks

Anyhow in the end the chapter openers came first. They were the first thing to be designed and from there the rest of the book flowed…

The book is divided up into decades and runs chronologically story by story, sheet by sheet. At one point we were considering organising the book alphabetically by photographer (but so many Magnum group books have been done that way, to do it again felt boringly predictable). And when we saw Stuart & Vic’s proposal for the chapter openers we knew ‘decades’ was the right way to go. The chapter openers/dividers help one get a sense of the history that the stories unfold – they give the reader a chance to pause and reflect on what they have seen in the previous decade – they act as punctuation, make a pace and rhythm and help define the overall look of the book, give it a visual identity.

Magnum Contact Sheets - Chapter openers

The left hand opener pages would all feature a detail from a contact sheet, and the right hand page would be a flat colour with the same chinagraph markings or stickers reversed out to white.

Their original idea was to have each decade a different colour (and the photographers name at the top of each contact sheet that followed picked out in the same colour)… But to give the book more cohesion I felt just one colour would be best – and since it felt like the majority of little stickers and chinagraph pencil markings were red, we went with that. And it’s SUCH a great red.

In this book we have the luxury of five colour printing. The majority of books only get CMYK four colour printing (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and blacK – that together make up all the other colours… But in this case we used a fifth colour to print a pure, punchy and most perfect red. Reds are one of the most difficult colours to print nicely in the CMYK four-colour process, somehow it always looks too yellowey, or too blueish or worst of all too sludgey. I’ve now seen the printed sheets from the main print run – they look delicious!

We also eventually dispensed with the photographers names on the chapter openers. As the architect Mies van der Rohe once said “Less is More”.

Magnum Contact Sheets - 'The Perfect Red'

Stuart & Vic next tackled the grid, (the invisible architecture of the page) there were a few variations until they came up with something that gave enough flexibility but would make sure the book looks cohesive. Then they immersed themselves in the imagery and started getting the images into page…

Once the draft layout was in place I did some gentle meddling… My primary concern here was to make sure the layouts really made the most of the page size and that we had enough contact sheets reproduced really large – I wanted the reader to experience as far as possible what it might be like for the photographer or a picture editor to be looking at the contact sheets through a loupe.

So from me there was the odd “switch these two and make this one BIG-G-E-R” some “did you try this one at the bottom of the page and that one at the top?” and a few “let’s take a detail here and really zoom into there”, but really the two designers knew exactly what they were doing and there was relatively little design intervention needed from me on the interior pages.

Once we were all happy here we sent PDF’s to Kristen and to Magnum to make sure everyone was happy. And once given the OK Stuart and Victoria had the task of making sure everything was ship shape – all the high res files were present and correct, any special instructions were marked on the layout for production and proofing to begin.

Once Jenny (the Desk Editor) had worked her magic on polishing the final text, Stuart & Vic did a little tidy of their own – fixing the ragged line endings, fussing about the letterspacing in the large display type, fiddling with the tracking and kerning till everything was just so

Magnum Contact Sheets - Layout

Magnum Contact Sheets - Layout

The jacket and binding case design is another story! It’s always the most contentious part of any design since it has to work SO hard. Here’s a scary factoid that freaks most designers (and sales and marketing people) out: Any jacket or cover design has precisely 0.2 seconds to win a prospective reader. 0.2 seconds to catch a browsers eye in the bookshop or online… If it hasn’t made somebody walk closer or click the mouse within that time, you’ve lost

Missed any of the posts in our Life Cycle series on Magnum Contact Sheets? Click here to read them all.

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