On being inspired by the books you design

Being a designer allows you, temporarily at least, to inhabit the fascinating worlds of those you work for. Just be careful of the old inferiority complex. 

j-rampley-illustration-final

One of the great things about being a designer – particularly a book designer – is that you’re constantly exposed to a diverse array of industries and subjects. Every job opens up windows to peculiar corners of the universe and little educations in big subjects. For example, on my desktop syllabus right now I have titles on history, film, economics, psychology, art and architecture.

That last one I’m particularly excited about. I enjoy dipping into all of these subjects, but it’s always particularly satisfying designing something that you’d want to own. As my creaking bookshelves would attest, architecture lands squarely in the intersection of all of my interests and wishlists and daydreams.

One of my favourite pastimes is fooling myself that, deep down, I am a frustrated architect. All the signs are there. For a start, I design books, which are, when you think about it for not too long, just tiny buildings. And I love reading about architecture, and looking at it, and I have some incredibly passionate views about concrete. Heck, I spend most of my time inside architecture! You simply cannot beat real world experience like that, it’s invaluable.

And yet, my actual attempts at architecturing always seem to fall some way short of my aspirations. Every now and then I’ll watch Grand Designs and start making ambitious loft-conversion plans in my head … but then it occurs to me that I don’t have the constitution for all of that planning permission and refinancing and weatherproofing nonsense, let alone the obligatory random pregnancy. Even at a more manageable scale, my efforts fall flat: my Lego edifices usually end up looking like angry filing cabinets; a herringbone sofa-fortress, held together by the unbreakable bond of love between father and son, was immediately condemned and had to be levelled to make way for teatime; and an attempt to build a replica of the Barbican Estate using nothing but Potato Waffles was abandoned after the versatility of the construction material was found to be seriously overstated.

It turns out that architecture is hard. Maybe I won’t update my business card just yet. I’ll stick to the books for now.

And here I am designing one for an actual not-pretend architect. It’s exceedingly intimidating. They generally make fantastic clients – you could never wish for more meticulous or considered feedback, and they understand the importance of paying contractors promptly – but I keep being struck by this nagging feeling of inferiority. They’re an architect, for crying out loud, surely they understand design on a completely different level? Who am I to offer anything to them? I make paper look agreeable, they build cities. They must think it’s so quaint, me moving these little letters and pictures around on a flimsy little book, like I’m the work experience boy who’s put out of harms way in the corner of the building site while the grown-ups get down to the important job of making the world happen.

Which is absolutely fine by me. All of these authors, all of these experts in their fields, I get to play in their brains for a short while, be a custodian for whatever incredible things are growing there. As long as I keep my cool, resist the urge to yelp “I WANT TO BE YOU WHEN I GROW UP! WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SORT OF BRICK? CAN I WEAR YOUR HARDHAT?” and maintain this mutual pretence that our professions are in some way comparable, it’s all good. One of the great things about being a designer – particularly a book designer – is that you’re constantly a little bit in awe.


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

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