In the wild: seeing your work in the real world

Finding your work in the real world is a thrilling experience for a designer. But tracking it down can be a hunter’s task

I’ve been led astray by curiosity and an inability to understand the perfectly logical inner-workings of Melvil Dewey’s mind, and now I don’t know where I am or how to get out. I’ve been eaten by a library.

All I wanted to do was find a book I’d worked on a few months back. It had a low print run (a beyond-niche title; it’s an avant-garde experimental book on avant-garde experimental music), so the publishers couldn’t spare me a copy. But that’s not going to stop me getting a look, feel, sniff of it! I’ve created something, I’ve contributed some tiny pixel to the world, and I want to see how it fits. On my computer, the book exists without context or use. It isn’t alive until it’s been set free, having to fend for itself at the mercy of the readers.

So outside I went, far from my desktop, far from the publishers and the proofs and the printers, to find my book cover. Outside. In the wild.

At least, that was the plan. It turns out that the wild doesn’t always do what you want it to, and is unwilling to just offer up any old book you fancy without messing you around a bit first. Stupid wild.

Trousers on, hair sort-of-brushed, my safari started in the bookshops of York. Or rather shop. Even though our little city has an enviable abundance of second-hand and specialist bookshops (one sells nothing but books on trains and/or the old testament), none of them are likely to stock my particular bounty. Which is a shame, as I’d rather been looking forward to JR Hartleying my way around town. I’ll do that one day. Looks heartwarming.

So into Waterstone’s I went for a frantic/nonchalant rifle through their shelves. I hunted high, I hunted low, I pestered the staff, I spent far too long getting distracted and tutting at the silly sub-genre-ifying of fiction (“cosy crime”, good grief). But my little paperback ego-boost was nowhere to be found. I consoled myself by sitting in one of their standard issue Randomly Located Comfy Leather Chairs, chuckling a hearty chuckle at the new Tom Gauld book. I left moments before I was asked to.

Wandering the streets, trying to furrow an idea out of my brow, the obvious finally struck me: an academic book, a book for academics. The university library would have it! By jingo, I’m right! And so off I popped, ever so proud of my incredible skills of deduction. And now here I am.

And … my book isn’t. Not on the shelves, not on loan, not on that little trolley of books that haven’t been put back yet. I’ve looked all over the place, in music, arts, geology (damn you, Dewey), but the trail has gone cold. There is nowhere else to look, not today.

It’s okay though. I know my little book is out there, somewhere, living the dream. Right now, some chin-stroking avant-gardeners are probably sat huddled in a dimly-lit, wood-panelled room, waving my book around while they argue over who’d win in a fight: Alvin Lucier or John Cage. Hopefully one of this party has actually read the book, but hey, I’m not the author. I’m content for it to simply be used as a gesticulation wand.

My printly progeny will throw itself into my path one day, maybe years from now. Right now, here I am, trying to figure out where they put the exits in this bloody library.

Never mind. I’ll just wait for a search party to find me. In the meantime, I’ll explore the treasures in this labyrinthine concrete bookcase. Everywhere I turn, there’s something I wasn’t looking for that’s worth finding. There’s the satisfying heft of the quarto art books, more effective than any gym equipment; drawers full of curious old maps charting the muddy veins of WWI trenches across Europe; modern art monographs, their lustre undimmed by half a century of sticky fingers. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t lose myself anywhere near the science fiction shelves – I could spend days poring over those covers. I may not be able to admire my own handiwork today, but this is a lot more fun.

Now that I’m part of the process, I see all of this differently. A forest of books, each one a designer, sat idly wondering whatever happened to that one cover they did that time.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com, @gray

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