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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Why You Like Nonfiction From Clarion

Here is a Q and A with Joann Hill, Creative Director at Clarion

Joann Hill is the creative director at Clarion Books, a house known for both its award-winning picture books and its commitment to producing handsome, thoughtful nonfiction. She could weigh in on other genre, but our subject here is nonfiction, so let’s start there.
Joann — how did you come to be first a designer, then a creative director?
Since childhood I’ve always loved books and words, and that led me to an appreciation of typography. I went to Parsons School of Design. When I graduated, I fell into a job in children’s books and felt as if I’d found my place.
What is the difference between the two jobs?
 As an art director and now a creative director I manage the designers on my staff and freelance designers rather than doing a lot of design myself. I give them an idea or concept or we come up with something together and they create the design. I miss the designing sometimes but the designers I work with are so talented they are always surprising me and that is a thrill.

What are the kinds of decisions that are in your hands, versus those made by the author, or editor, or marketing people?
 I work very closely with the editor to decide how the book will look. We talk about the age of the intended reader, the length of the text, and the quantity and quality of the images provided by the author, among other things. Our marketing and sales people are consulted on the jacket and decide how the book will be marketed.

In your mind what are the hallmarks of strong nonfiction design?
It draws the reader into the book, it echoes the time period of the subject, it hints at the conflict of the subject. Marc, you had mentioned the concept of the physical space upon entering a book. I am reminded of a great quote from the designer Charles Eames: “The designer should be like a thoughtful host anticipating a guest.” The book design should welcome readers in and lead them through the book like a knowledgeable tour guide, highlighting the especially interesting bits.
What is a sign of rushed, or sloppy, or cookie-cutter design?
All pictures the same size regardless of their importance or quality.
What can design do to help readers experience nonfiction?
 It can turn them on to learning about history as if they were a kind of detective. If a nonfiction book uses historical images and explains interesting bits of information interpreted from them, then a child reader might visit a museum and interpret the paintings instead of just seeing them. Maybe this reader would notice the massive hoop skirt of a wealthy 18th-century woman and conclude that it must have been very hard for her to walk around and do things without help.

We began this thread by talking about trim sizes, and often people equate trim with age — big = young. Do you agree?
 Trim size is also a cost issue. A large or unusual trim size is expensive; if the text runs to a lot of pages, it is better to use a more economical size. Also we have to think about the sales of these books and how to keep them in print for as long as possible. When a book is reprinted, the quantity may be  as low as 1,000 copies; if the book is very large, in two colors with embossing on the jacket, it is hard to make back our costs. Sometimes it is as simple as "Gorgeous pictures should be big," so if we have beautiful art we want a big page to show them off.

We now have so many kinds of type to choose from, what influences your sense of which type face or faces to use in a book?
I believe in the idea that the font should come from the time period of the subject. The font could be a reproduction, of course, but if the book is set during the art deco period, I want to see an art deco font used for the title if possible.

Do you have a pet peeve about nonfiction design?
 I love to have interesting information in addition to the narrative text in the form of captions, sidebars, etc., but it is challenging to organize the spread so the reader can follow. When this is not successful the spread is cluttered and difficult to read.

Do you have a fave rave — something you love in nonfiction design?
I love all of Clarion’s nonfiction books but I recently had the opportunity to carefully review Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon by Catherine Thimmesh, published by Houghton Mifflin (our parent company). The book is a large trim size and beautifully designed. The photos from NASA are not all of spectacular quality, but the designer used some as a great background throughout. This book is packed with information, and even so it is very easy to follow.

Give us an example, yours is fine, of a jacket, or a spread, that works, tell us why.
Here is the title page from your book SIR WALTER RALEGH AND THE QUEST FOR EL DORADO. Since Ralegh was a great explorer, the designer researched maps from the era for design influence and used beautiful swash lettering for this swashbuckling adventurer: 

Here is a jacket for PICTURING LINCOLN by George Sullivan. The front jacket shows the photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was used for the penny, so we put an enlarged penny on the back cover. I hope a young reader might look at a penny differently after seeing it in this context: 

For CLARA SCHUMANN: PIANO VIRTUOSO by Susanna  Reich, we used this cast of her hand on the back jacket blown up to life size because she had enormous hands that contributed to her great ability at the piano. I hope a young reader might measure his or her hand against it for fun: 

For AN AMERICAN PLAGUE by Jim Murphy, the designer silhouetted some of the documents used and put a soft drop shadow behind them so they appear to be floating on the page. I think it lets the reader share the experience of primary research: