Can design thinking transform your publishing strategy?

Design Unplugged panel

Wednesday 13 November saw another packed house at the Century Club in London, for the last BookMachine Unplugged event of 2019. Hosted by BookMachine Editorial Board member Sophie O’Rourke (Managing Director, EMC Design), the evening gave us a chance to focus on design in its broadest form: not just about the visual aspects of book design, but about design thinking as a concept. Sophie’s panellists were Belinda Abbott (Head of Faculty, Design Thinkers Academy), Dean Johnson (Design, Technology and Innovation Consultant at activrightbrain), and Donna Payne (Creative Director at Faber & Faber).

What is design thinking?

Sophie set the scene by explaining what design thinking is. When we’re at our desks, juggling competing demands and multiple schedules, it’s easy to focus on what needs to be done right now, rather than stepping back and thinking about the end user and their needs. In publishing, design is sometimes seen as a separate part of the process, something visual that happens near the end, but if we work in this way we lose out on the full potential of designers’ creativity and problem-solving skills.

Design isn’t just about making things look pretty – it’s about having a practical understanding of the whole project and how to create it from the very beginning. Design thinking is a methodology, a form of problem solving that focuses on the end user and that has the power to transform a whole cultural mindset. “You don’t have to be a designer to think like a designer,” Sophie explained. Anyone can benefit from this mode of thinking.

The design thinking mindset

At the Design Thinkers Academy, Belinda Abbott and her colleagues train people to implement design thinking, at individual and organisational levels.

“What is design?” Belinda asked us. “If creativity is the generation of ideas, and innovation is how those ideas are turned into value, then design is the process that connects the two.” The design thinking mindset places people at the centre of the process, because we’re the ones who will be using whatever is designed. And while a lot of research in this area may be brand new, design thinking itself has existed for thousands of years. Every manmade object has an intentional process behind it, and we are surrounded by design everywhere we go – whether good or bad.

Describing the “pathological curiosity” that designers are gifted with, Belinda explained that they are driven by the question “Why?” Designers are innately empathetic, and they want to fix and improve things. The UK Design Council has a model that visualises the stages this process goes through, laid out as a ‘double diamond’. In first half of the process, designers look at all aspects of a problem that needs to be solved, carrying out lots of research until the problem has been clearly defined. In the second half, all the possible solutions to the problem are explored until the final output is reached. “Fail fast, fail early” is a key mantra in the design process: as Belinda explained, it is far better to produce several prototypes of a solution and discover their flaws, then to create one highly-polished, high-budget finished product that doesn’t work.

In short, design thinking is about transformation, and as such, it can be applied to all aspects of life.

Valuing our designers

Dean Johnson’s work as a consultant takes him across a wide range of industries, but he began his presentation on a flattering note: publishers are fun to talk to because we are genuinely interested in stuff. Instead of looking inwards at ourselves, we look outwards for new ideas because that’s what drives our work. Without outside content, we wouldn’t be able to succeed at what we do.

One of the problems when talking about design is a prevalent misconception that anyone can be a designer. Dean explained that creativity on its own is not the same as design; this tied in exactly with Belinda’s outlining of design thinking as a distinct discipline with a strong theoretical foundation. In order for design thinking to flourish in an organisation, design management needs to come from designers, rather than other types of team member. One reason why Dean found Mad Men so compelling was that it showed designers actually in the meeting room where decisions took place – their opinions were explicitly valued.

If we value our designers, give them space to create multiple ideas and question first principles of a situation, and allow their voices to be heard, then we will truly benefit from all they have to offer us.

Creating the right cover for each book

Donna Payne’s interest in book design was stimulated at a very early age, when she would visit the local library with her grandmother. Looking at the Catherine Cookson sagas, Donna’s nana would ask, sceptically, ‘Does this girl look Scouse to you?’ A desire to create better covers for these books was the starting point for a career which now sees Donna as Creative Director for Faber & Faber.

Faber is particularly known for its poetry list, with its instantly recognisable typographic design, but they also produce a huge range of fiction and non-fiction titles. Stephen Page, Faber’s Publisher and CEO, recently sent an email to all the staff celebrating the best year in the company’s history, highlighting the “original thinking in taste and design” at the heart of all their activities – which made all Faber’s designers celebrate.

Recent years have shown an increased appetite for beautifully designed books, with a closer focus on the reader’s experience rather than the retailer’s preference. Donna took us on a tour through some recent high-profile covers, such as Leila Slimani’s Lullaby: this title presented a challenge by combining the pace of a beach-read thriller with a literary writing style, and Donna’s design played more to the literary character of the book, in comparison to the US publisher’s cover which spoke more to the mass-market aspect of its appeal.

We also saw a complete selection of covers for the Faber 90 short story collection, bringing together 20 of their best short stories, by different authors, from different periods. Each book cover was created by a different designer, working under minimal guidance: their instructions were to read the story and respond to it in their own way, using colours from a set palette that ran across the whole series. The result? A set of covers that are totally distinct from one another but that also sit together harmoniously.

By giving us these glimpses into design processes and decisions, Donna illustrated how book covers come into being at Faber: through collaboration, respect for the editor’s understanding of each title, diplomatic communication with authors and agents, all combined with the designer’s creativity.

Three cheers for our designers

Sophie rounded off the evening by bringing together the key messages from our panel of expert speakers. Her conclusion was that she would like any designers in the room to feel really confident and valued for the many skills they have, and for non-designers to think about the amazing resources they’ve got sitting next to them in their design colleagues.

Stay tuned to all the BookMachine channels for news of next year’s events – we’ve got lots more in store for 2020!

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