Senior designer Matt Broughton shares his book-designing wisdom after sixteen years at Vintage
After nearly two decades in the job, senior designer Matt Broughton says there’s still no better feeling than getting glowing feedback for his book covers for Vintage Books. But his career in design is one that almost never happened, having jumped straight from school into a job void of creativity. Finding himself bored and unchallenged, Matt enrolled in an art foundation course and didn’t look back. Describing his role as one you “live”, Matt admits that even holidays become inspiration for new cover concepts. We find out about a role in which perusing galleries and browsing the company’s in-house library are just as important as computer-screen time.
Senior Designer, Vintage Books, Penguin Random House (2001–present)
Freelance designer, Routledge Academic Publishers (1997–2001)
Freelance Designer (1996–1997)
BA 3D Design, Manchester Metropolitan University (1991–1994)
How would you describe your job?
My core responsibility is to make sure Vintage covers grab your attention, with the overall aim of creating a beautiful product. The majority of work I produce myself, but I am also regularly outsourcing work to photographers and illustrators, as well as handing over jobs to freelance designers.
New briefs come from the editorial team monthly, and the designers will get together and decide who will work on what. Once briefed, we usually discuss the project with the relevant editor to work out how to approach the job. For new fiction, we commonly have a manuscript to read, whereas non-fiction tends to be more research. There is constant contact with editors and publishers, and sometimes with authors themselves. Getting approval can be complex, but equally it can be as simple as getting a quick ‘OK’ in response to a jpeg.
It’s great to have such a creative position, and when you have an idea that comes together and you get a positive response to your work, there’s no better feeling. Being a designer is a job you live. You don’t switch off when you’re on holiday, because you’re always in search of new creative ideas, ways of working, typography, colours, patterns – the inspiration is endless.
What does a typical working day look like?
The majority of work is studio-based and at the computer, however I tend to do a lot of practical work – drawing, painting, printing (it’s quite common for everything to begin with pencil, ink and paper) – which I find suits me more. Research is a big part of the job and is done in a multitude of ways: visiting galleries, exhibitions, book shops, our excellent in-house photographic and graphic research library, online picture libraries and social media such as Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest.
Social media has added a new facet to our work – maintaining an online presence has become an essential daily process. It’s a good way for the public to gain insight into the background to our work. Our CMYK Tumblr site has its own Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Part of the change is that we now regularly produce GIF animations and other moving image for online use. Each year we produce a three-minute video for Penguin Random House Presents. It showcases our work and is art-directed by the team and created in-house.
“It’s quite common for everything to begin with pencil, ink and paper.”
How did you land your current job?
I’ve worked for Vintage for sixteen years. I had been designing academic book covers for Routledge when a friend recommended me to my current art director – I was invited in for an interview and offered the job. It was a good time for me to move on, as I was in need of a fresh challenge. My previous job was very much nine-to-five, but as I’ve found out, trade publishing is a job you live. I sometimes stay late in the office, but commonly take projects home to think round the problem, or sketch something out with some music on. I regularly do some form of work at the weekends, even if it’s just planning.
How collaborative is your work?
The Vintage design team consists of an art director, deputy art director, four senior designers, a regular designer and a junior. We also employ a picture researcher and studio manager. Each designer works across the various imprints: Vintage Paperbacks, Jonathan Cape, Chatto & Windus, Harvill Secker, The Bodley Head, Yellow Jersey Press, Square Peg. It’s also important to work closely with the production department to get the best finishes on our covers. Deciding on special inks, foils, die-cuts or case coverings, special stocks can be a key part of the process.
Our picture researcher finds brilliant imagery for us, however it’s quite common to do the picture research yourself. It’s a time-consuming part of the job, but worth involving yourself with – the more you learn about photographers and image resources, the better. Clearing rights for anything you use is part of the process.
Sometimes we commission photoshoots, which can be a complex procedure. Each book we work on has a set budget which we need to try and keep to. Certain books we can allocate more to, which allows the option of a photo shoot. In this case we could be hiring costume or props and searching for locations. Shoots can be a lot of fun, but you need experience, since you need to make sure you have all possible angles covered on the day. We also keep ourselves up-to-date with, new designs in other publishers’, contemporary artists and illustration and photographic agencies.
“After school I chose to get a job instead of going to college, but over time I found that it lacked the creativity I craved.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable part is admin. Writing out briefs for commissions and clearing images can be pretty tedious when you have creative work to get on with!
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
It’s hard to pick one project since we’re constantly working on 20 or 30 live projects at any one time. But I enjoyed putting together the Philip Roth backlist series, and most recently ‘The Correspondence’ by J.D.Daniels (especially because I enjoyed the writing). However, I’m also drawn to non-fiction, so Franklin Foer’s ‘World Without Mind’ and my Vintage Classics Raymond Williams series gave me great pleasure.
What skills are essential to your job?
Typography and image-making skills. It’s advisable to be well-read. A willingness to be independently creative – you need to ‘live’ the job.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Indesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Final Cut Pro; sketchbooks, drawing pads, ink, printing materials, painting materials, calligraphy, photography equipment. I tend use a digital Leica nowadays, but I’m only just getting used to it, as I always used 35mm and medium format cameras before.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I excelled in art at school but lost interest around A-levels. My parents instilled me with a strong work-ethic and after school I chose to get a job instead of going to college, to get experience and learn what it was to earn money. Over time I found the work dull, and that it lacked the creativity I craved. So I enrolled in a foundation course – and that changed my world.
How (if at all) has the subject you studied been useful to your work?
I studied in Manchester, which was a great place to meet creatives. I wasn’t that convinced by my course, but the skills and thought processes I learnt were invaluable. Around the same time I read a piece in The Face magazine about Penguin Modern Classics, and that got me thinking. After my degree, the digital publishing revolution was in full swing, so I joined a few courses to get computer literate, and made my way to London.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I managed to get an internship at Cosmopolitan magazine through a friend of my sister’s, which introduced me to the idea of deadlines and quick turnarounds. I’d also managed to get some freelance work at Routledge academic publishers, and it was there I was offered my first full-time cover design position.
Could you do this job forever?
I’ll always be a book designer in some way - I can’t imagine being anything else. Whether it’s for a company, as a freelancer or for my own personal enjoyment, I’ll always have some sort of project on the go.
“For anyone looking to get into book cover design, there’s no better starting point than going to a bookshop and getting a sense of what stands out.”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a book designer?
For any students looking to get into book cover design, there’s no better starting point than going to a bookshop and getting a sense of what stands out. Find out who designs what, but more importantly get to know who publishes what. Most people know the big publishers, but less is known about the individual imprints. Internships and work experience are definitely worthwhile, if only to get an introduction to the language of publishing and to understand how the design team fits within the company framework. Oh, and read a wide range of literature. Fiction or non-fiction, you can never get enough of the printed word!
This article is part of a feature on Vintage Books.
Interview by Indi Davies
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