Our April First Friday club saw Program Officer, Ren Arcamone, sit down with freelance book designer Astred Hicks to discuss freelancing, graphic design, and the power of capturing stories in images.
Hicks has worked with most of the publishers in Australia – and a few internationally – at some point in her 12-year career as a book designer. Well-known for her beautiful hand-drawn typography and illustrative approach, she prides herself on designing beautiful books that answer her client’s briefs and the needs of their audience in creative, thoughtful and conceptual ways. She is also co-author of the Graphic Design Australian Style Manual.
Our Membership Intern, Lucie Towers, sat in on the discussion.
From studio artist to freelancer
As a graphic designer, Hicks has enjoyed an illustrious illustrative career. Recently, she has provided striking cover designs for Ferment for Good, Powers of Curriculum, In the Dark Spaces and The Zeroes Series, all of which have been longlisted for the 2018 66th Australian Book Design Awards. So, how did she step into the design world?
‘I sort of fell into it,’ said Hicks. ‘I really loved science, nerdy things, but I also loved the analysis of why stuff worked and why. Graphic design is art with a job. It’s focused creativity.’
By day, she took on jobs in studio. But by night, Hicks was taking on freelance work for trade publishers. Eventually, she was taking on freelance work every night and every weekend. Whilst the studios she worked for prized versatility, as a freelancer Hicks could spend her nights developing her strong, individual voice.
Nowadays, Hicks does much of her freelance work from home. Her studio space comprises of bookshelves, a Cintiq tablet and a desk she shares with her craft-loving son.
‘Sometimes he does versions of covers for me. But when I don’t send them to publishers, he gets very upset!’ she laughs.
Looking beyond marketplace trends
Hicks draws strong inspiration from gallery trips, book fairs and research trips. She finds Japan a particularly inspiring destination as it has a strong visual culture.
She recommends budding designers follow small-press contributors and indie zine-makers on social media, as it’s these underground makers who influence the market. In several years their designs will be on trend, so it’s best to stay ahead of the curve.
‘Stuff that was on Instagram two years ago is coming up through Kmart now!’ she laughed.
Quick tips for book designing
- Know the story – if you can, read or listen to audiobooks of the manuscript
- Pitch at least 3-5 vastly different concepts
- Justify each design decision to publishers via a 100 word rationale
- Revise, revise, revise!
Hicks’ designs are unapologetically concept driven
Design principles such as colour, line, texture, shape, hierarchies, form and balance are all important elements Hicks must carefully consider when designing a standout book jacket. But for Hicks, it is the concept of a book which most strongly informs her creative approach.
‘YA audiences are so design-savvy nowadays, so the cover design has to be deep, it has to be conceptual. You can’t just have a wistful girl on the cover anymore – you have to think more about the story. I don’t want to just illustrate a scene from the book. I want to be able to feel the book.’
The wobbliness, thickness or texture of just a single line can reflect themes, emotions, characters or plot elements from the source story. As such, each and every stylistic element on the cover relates directly to the story of the book – a design decision she extends to even the title of a work.
‘Rather than just being the title of a book, I see the type itself as a character,’ she explains, using In the Dark Spaces as an example. ‘The title is the main character. She’s squeezed between two elements, the alien and the human sides, coming together. It also represents the ships… but that’s too many spoilers already!’
Sometimes, it’s only after finishing the story that a reader may close their book, see the cover and finally understand the intricacies of its cover design. This, Hicks says, creates a wonderfully intimate wink between designer and reader.
‘As a designer, there’s this whole emotional design journey you go on,’ she smiled. ‘When you make the concept the cover, books can be so much more intimate.’