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From the Designer’s Desk: Jeff Wincapaw

The March edition of our From the Designer’s Desk series brings us fresh insight from the inimitable Jeff Wincapaw, design director at Marquand Books.  (Special congratulations to Jeff for his work on Building Seagram by Phyllis Lambert, which won the Designers & Books inaugural design book of the year award.)

Why did you pursue design, rather than, say, painting or architecture or sculpture?

Before entering art school I had little appreciation or understanding of graphic design. My passion was sculpture and photography, and though I’d always admired architecture, I never considered it a lifework ambition. I wanted to be a “fine” artist. Graphic design, on the other hand, offered realistic career paths, and hopefully, gainful employment with a steady paycheck. Aside from practical inclinations, what spurred my interest was a survey class on the history of Graphic Design. The compositions of Laszlo Moholy Nagy and El Lissitsky had a big impact on how I viewed design, in particular, typographic arrangements as an art form. It was this experience and a broadening exposure to contemporary design trends that nudged me into the field. Of course, I still have a hankering for applied arts, and when not designing books, I’m often found in the metal shop crafting furniture out of scrap iron and reclaimed wood.


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?

Of course not! Well, okay, it’s happened, but I would describe this as designer’s remorse, and it’s best to look forward, not back, unless to critique the work from a technical and production standpoint. There is always a different, and perhaps even better solution, but if due diligence is applied at the front end of a project, good things happen, and the resulting book will be successful.


Is your work on a book project usually more of a slow, progressive effort, or is it moved forward by unpredictable moments of inspiration?

I would say it’s both. My typical approach begins with reading, note taking, and sketching, which can be a slow process. Sometimes the subject matter provides immediate inspiration and obvious forward momentum. Unfamiliarity with the content presents more of a challenge, but it’s an opportunity to learn something new, which in itself brings energy to the design process. The pace varies from project to project, and regardless of the timeline, the book needs to be finessed and fine-tuned every step of the way.


Do you feel that a book’s design can, or even should, play an assertive role in how a reader experiences the book, 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 influence of the design?

Subject matter dictates design, and decisions made should reflect the content as well as the client’s taste. Every book is different, with its own set of problems to solve. The end result should be a book with its own personality and unique characteristics. As long as the design is well suited to the subject matter, it makes little difference whether the designer’s hand is front-and-center or mostly invisible.


What is your favorite font?

There are typefaces I admire, but rarely use, such as Helvetica and Didot. Monotype Grotesque is perhaps my all-time favorite, and one I’ve used on a few occasions. Developed in the 1920s, it still feels contemporary, almost 100 years later. For practical reasons, I gravitate to typefaces that feature full character sets. With illustrated art books featuring a wide range of reference material, it’s a real advantage to have fractions, small caps, and well-developed glyphs.


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?

It’s rare for me to design a text only book such as a novel, but it does happen from time to time. I consider reading a novel and an illustrated art book as two very different experiences. Readers can get lost in a novel, pouring over pages, perhaps reading an entire book in one sitting. An art book full of illustrations, essays, extended captions, entries, notes, bibliographical text, sidebars, and so on offers multiple entry points, and would rarely be read cover-to-cover, and most likely not in one sitting.

With a novel, it comes down to two things, the reading face and the cover design. The text needs to be easy on the eye, so choosing a readable typeface and setting it properly is key. The cover is the primary design challenge with so much riding on it. The door is often open for a provocative, conceptual design and there is seldom a discussion of politics or provenance when selecting or creating cover art.


Who are your favorite book designers?

There are lots of gifted designers out there and I love some of the work coming out of the Netherlands. Two designers on the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum are Irma Boom and Claudia Ott. Boom delivers a bold, tactile, often complicated object with every element considered and executed to perfection. There’s brevity in Ott’s design, with crisp typography and ample whitespace centering the focus squarely on the content. The work of Jan Tschichold in the 1920-40s continues to be an inspiration.

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