The talented and witty Luke Bulman is the director of Thumb, a Brooklyn-based graphic design firm with a focus on architecture, art, design, and culture. He’s also the latest subject in our illuminating series of blog posts featuring book designers.
1. Why did you pursue design, rather than, say, painting or architecture or sculpture?
I was educated as an architect and have a deep interest in the discipline, but didn’t really have the patient temperament that designing buildings requires. The Canadian designer Bruce Mau as a great model, I studied with him in graduate school, he showed one could be engaged with architecture through designing books, exhibitions, environmental graphics, identity, and so on. Really, I’m more a fox than a hedgehog (referring to Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction), so working on a quicker interval and across multiple projects simultaneously suits me and the office better.
2. Maybe being a fox with a hedgehog focus allow you to develop multiple approaches, in the end, into a single integrated concept. Have you ever completed a project and only after the book was printed did the perfect (or, at least, a better) design solution occur to you?
One of the most important concepts I took from architecture was how any design project is a series of nested and inter-related scalar issues, like a Russian doll. For instance, we might think of the book’s type/page/spread/signature/binding/cover/shelf/library continuum as a set of interrelated contexts in which we work. If one is a fox, moving back and forth between these scales is natural. In a well-formed project each scale can affect the others, creating a sort of resonance between all the parts.
In the end, I’m not sure there are perfect design solutions, but surely some are better than others! There are multiple ways to satisfy demands, and the one we use is just one of the many possible good outcomes.
That said, there are always aspects that can be improved—a slightly heavier paper stock, a shade darker tone, one more image in a sequence, etc.— and these are the things that are the basis of our hedgehog work. They are also the things that give a project a certain physicality, another link to the architectural.
3. As you weigh the demands of a project and its possible solutions, does the pace of your effort tend toward slow, steady progress, or is it moved forward by unpredictable moments of inspiration?
On some projects, you know immediately what will work, but for others you have to wait and be patient. The initial idea might be just a detail, like the red markers on Lina Bo Bardi, that expands to become a complete idea (or series of ideas) that can organize the book as a whole. Sometimes the concept can arise from an approach to sequencing the material, or how the image/text relationship might work, or an approach to color. But, when the idea isn’t immediate, it’s good to be patient, knowing that the reading of the material will lead to a discovery. Mostly, it’s a matter of resisting a desperate rush to find anything that might work to find a solution that fits and seems natural.
4. When you feel you’ve hit upon a particularly well-suited organizing theme for a book, do you feel that a book’s design can, or even should, play an assertive role in a reader’s experience? Or do you feel the best book design is a kind of behind-the-scenes art – where the reader isn’t even always aware of the influence of the design?
We should know when the design should participate in the direct and focused attention of the reader, and when it should slip into a more associative and environmental approach. But in general I’d rather work on the larger movements of the book, nuanced through text/image flow as a way of modulating attention. The sound editor Walter Murch’s concept, “clear density/dense clarity,” says we should design as thoroughly as needed to adequately render an experience, but not so much that it muddies the reader’s perception. Good idea to follow that.
5. Do you design books in other genres and categories than art and architecture? If so, what are some primary differences between designing, say, a novel versus a large, glossy book on architecture?
We primarily work on books that have complex text-image relationships, but they vary in terms of subject. In each case it’s a matter of creating an environment for the text and images to communicate. I’ve never designed a text-only book, but think that the necessary sensitivity to detail would make it a very interesting problem. In the end we’re designing a spatial and temporal experience using the materials we have, image and text.
6. Speaking of text, do you have a favorite font?
I generally feel more comfortable with sans-serifs as they still signal progressivism. This is left over from my architecture studies where the use of serifs sometimes indicated a desire to refer to and preserve certain historical tropes. It still seems slightly uncomfortable to use serif type, though there really are situations where it is best for the material. The serif typeface Dolly was a big eye-opener for me in this regard. In it I saw a something that could be used today but not look archaic or worse, retrograde. We used it for Wunderkammer. Tod [Williams] and Billie [Tsien] immediately saw how well it fit the project too, which was a great affirmation.
7. Who are your favorite book designers?
Mevis & van Deursen are always inspiring—their integration of format, production, and typography are always spot on. I refer to Bruce Mau’s Zone 1/2: The Contemporary City as a model all the time. Not so much for its specific handling, but the idea that a book can be organized as an analog to its content is always on my mind. Joost Grootens work is super elegant, he’s also from an architecture background, so I find it interesting to see how he handles problems. I have a book from 1974 titled Malraux: Past Present Future designed by Roman Cieslewicz that I got earlier this year which I admire a great deal. It’s a big book, but somehow manages to have a great economy of expression.