Alphabets to Octopuses: Children’s books and designers

Every graphic designer seems to have a children’s book in them, writes hat-trick’s Jim Sutherland. Having just recently helped to create one, he considers why so many in the profession, including Alan Fletcher, Paul Rand and Milton Glaser, have decided to work – and play – in the medium

Every graphic designer seems to have a children’s book in them, says hat-trick‘s Jim Sutherland. Having just recently helped to create one, he considers why so many in the profession, including Alan Fletcher, Paul Rand and Milton Glaser, have decided to work – and play – in the medium…

As designers, often the best time in our job is when we get to play, so it’s no surprise that we like the idea of children as an audience. This was neatly summed up by George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”.

Working as a professional designer can be incredibly serious. Sometimes it seems that we all have to be grown up far too soon. So when the opportunity to approach projects with a sense of unadulterated joy arises, it’s one we grasp. Even the word ‘unadulterated’ suggests a lack of adults being involved.

Children may be a tough audience but the rewards can be tangible and joyful (how many of our grown-up clients’ faces light up when we present work?) I think there’s a parallel between the joy we feel when solving projects and the reaction of a child who sees it.

When I look at the work of some of my favourite designers, it seems that all of them have made at least one book. It’s great to see designers who are happy to turn from large corporate identities, to a small hardback book to inspire and entertain children, not to mention adults.

I love the idea that one minute they might be doing a title sequence for a Hitchcock film or IBM’s identity, and the next they’re drawing a strange frog. I think it’s this balance of serious and playful work that appeals to us all.

Bizarre animals, typography, cut paper, colours and wit all make an appearance between the pages. What follows is just a personal choice of some my favourites, hardly touching the surface of what designers have created over the years. Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments.

Bruno Munari seems to be a good starting point (see the first two images in the post, above). An amazing designer, educator, writer and publisher. His educational and book work is phenomenal. Some of my favourites include the books ABC and Zoo.

Unsurprisingly, one recurring theme is alphabets and letters. A lovely example of this is Alan Fletcher’s Ant Eaters to Zebras (‘O’ spread shown, above) and the recently published book featuring his ‘abecedarium’.

Another example is the typographic beauty of Alphabeasties by Werner Design Werks. Above is an elephant made, of course, from the letter ‘e’.

Designers have often worked with their partners, too. Paul and Anne Rand published Little One, Sparkle and Spin (above) and I Know a Lot of Things (see ‘dog’ spread, shown above).

Milton and Shirley Glaser collaborated on If Apples had Teeth (above) and The Alphazeds.

While long-time collaborators Saul and Elaine Bass worked together on Henri’s Walk to Paris (above).

Another couple of favourites from the US would have to include Seymour Chwast’s 12 Circus Rings and Get Dressed! (cover shown, above) and Bob Gill’s What Colour is Your World? (below).

Then there are those illustrators who are also obviously designers in their own right. Eric Carle originally worked as graphic designer in the promotion department of The New York Times, before going on to worldwide fame with The Very Hungry Caterpillar (cover shown, below); while Dick Bruna, creator of Miffy, was a graphic designer and illustrator.

More recently we have seen Marion Deuchar’s wonderful drawing books Let’s Make Some Great Art and Let’s Make Some Great Fingerprint Art (below).

And it’s not always just books – just look at Ken Garland’s amazing work for Galt Toys. One of the nicest identity projects ever, where he was designing the toys themselves as well as all the packaging and all the print.

At hat-trick we have been lucky enough to recently publish a book of our own, Hide & Eek! (below), working with Rebecca Sutherland. Not in the same league as the above, but it’s a start.

Perhaps we could all put more of our efforts and abilities into things to inspire children, rather than spending time discussing brand onions. It would be nice for us and, more importantly, nice for our children, too.

Jim Sutherland is creative director at hat-trick design. Hide & Eek! is out now – more details on the book (which should be read in bed with a torch) in our post on it, here. Art directed by Sutherland and Gareth Howat and designed by Sutherland and Laura Bowman, it is published by Californian publisher Knock Knock and launches in the UK in the autumn.

  • Absolutely lovely illustrations, never crossed my mind to design a children’s book but after seeing these, it’s something I would very much consider doing in the future!

  • Great collection CR, Thanks! We’re working on one now. Stay tooned :)

  • jeffrey

    Nice stuff! I also had to think of Charley Harper and Alexander Girard, they mad some great playful work.

  • Nicola Bailey

    Not to forget Keith Godard. My favorite is ‘Building buildings’ a concertina dye-cut introduction to architecture and then there’s ‘Sounds’ which is children’s book made of all types of paper stock and now used as performance art.

    Nicola Bailey

  • Jonathan

    Celestino Piatti did some great children’s books too.

  • I have those Alphabeasties alphabet cards here for my granddaughter. Been showing them to her since she was a little over one yr old. They are awesome. I am a person with a wonderful idea for a series of children’s books, but alas, could NEVER afford an illustrator, which kind of leaves me out, due to what all advisors have told me is an overcrowded market as far as getting published. It would have to be beyond excellent they say, or probably sit in a drawer for years. Anyway, what I am trying to say is I believe the illustrations for children’s books are a huge part of the work’s success. Bravo!

  • Rutchie

    Great picks of Children’s book! I’ve always tried to make one but still can’t come up with a great illustration.

  • Delightful, and it really sums up the conflict I have as a designer who is obsessed with making and writing children’s books, this has really given me the confidence to actually finish my last idea.

    When I think about my interests in UX/UI and children’s books, really it all comes down to a passion for generating human experiences and telling stories and narration’s, simply just some of the oldest traits in human creativity.

  • Great to see this feature. After working 18 years as a graphic designer (and becoming a father 3 years ago), I’m now developing a kids ‘eco’ brand featuring a range of illustrated educational products. Huge inspirations for me have always been Richard Scarry, Jan Pienkowski and Dr. Seuss.

  • Thanks for nice collection. I’ve always tried to make one but still can’t come up with a great illustration.