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Q&A with Bobby Birchall, book designer

Q&A with Bobby Birchall, book designer

By Gabrielle Johnson |

Bobby Birchall is a London based book designer and partner at Bobby&Co. He has been involved in the design and layout of a number of beautiful books, including Blue Planet II, 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year and The Great Comic Relief Bake Off. After beginning his career working in graphic design, he discovered his love for books and decided to go freelance. He launched Bobby&Co with his wife Ana in 2006 and now works from his garden studio. We asked him a few questions about his creative process, the impact of technology on design and his upcoming projects.

Tell us a bit about your background. Did you always want to be a book designer?

After graduating, I worked for two years doing general graphics in a design studio in Winchester. Then I moved to London and worked for a company where I started on books. 

From there I moved to another studio where the work was a mix of general graphics, book design and corporate design. There I developed an extensive book design portfolio as well as doing some corporate design and exhibitions.

Twelve years ago I decided to go freelance and set up Bobby&Co with my wife Ana, and here I am today, working from my garden studio, still enjoying a hands-on approach to design and keeping busy with some fantastic projects.

Tell us a bit about your creative process. For instance, how do you start to create a cover? 

My creative process always starts with the question, ‘who is the book aimed at?’ I always attempt to point the design in the right direction from the start by making sure I don’t just input personal preference in my decision making. I try and take a more detached approach and think about what is right for the project, what visual identity is needed for it to be successful.

I tend to create an initial mental image to get started. I always sketch very rough ideas and never open a blank document on my computer and just expect something to happen. Then I move on to finding the right font and images. I like to work fast, creating lots of initial ideas and then refining and rejecting things as the creative process develops.

For book interiors, all of the above applies, but you have to also take a more practical approach to design, as most of the decisions are based on how much text and how many images you will have to fit into a fixed number of pages. It becomes more of a jigsaw puzzle, where all the elements have to fit together perfectly.

How has the business changed over the years, particularly with the increase of technology and eBooks?

Without a doubt, the biggest change over the years has been changes in technology and software. Not wanting to show my age, but I will just mention that the first books I worked on had to be backed-up using ‘floppy discs’. The software was called Pagemaker, which was followed by QuarkXpress and then InDesign. Computers were slow, with poor memory and low screen resolutions. Documents used to crash regularly, complex pages could take forever to print. Design resources were limited and the internet was dial-up.

Now, design happens much faster and the lead design times for some books have been cut down dramatically. We’ve also had to become more familiar with reproduction matters, handling some of the work that before was only done by repro-houses.

I have done some work with eBooks, but it is not something that interests me too much. From a designers’ point of view, I prefer a ‘proper’ book.

You’re working on a new project at the moment, The Great River Rowed, a book by John Pritchard, detailing his adventure in 2014 when he rowed the length of the Mississippi to raise £1million for charity. What was the thing that excited you most about working on this upcoming book?

Yes, the book is nearly complete and due to go to print very soon. The book has been a great experience from the beginning. It has been a real pleasure to work with John Pritchard and his colleagues, as well as George Edgeller and the team at whitefox.

Designing books has allowed me to meet and work with some fantastic and inspiring people over the years. In a small way, it allows you to become part of the story or adventure. You get an insider’s view of everything they went through before everyone else knows about it. It is your responsibility to take all these words, and images and put it all together so that it tells the story as the author wants it told. It also has to look good as books should last forever… 

Early on in my book design journey, I was fortunate to design several of Michael Palin’s books and from then on, travel books have always been a favourite of mine. The Great River Rowed fits into that mould, an epic travel adventure and a really inspirational account of a phenomenal achievement.

What tips would you give someone just starting out as a freelance book designer?

You need to be prepared to put in long hours, to be flexible with your ideas and be able to adapt your style to fit the different requirements each publisher has. Patience is essential, as some projects can take months in preparation and production, with many changes during that process. You need to work fast and be able to handle several projects at once. 

Working freelance allows you to manage your time better and find a good work–life balance, at least in theory, although sometimes it feels as if I spend far too much time in front of my computer.

You can find out more about Bobby Birchall and his work by visiting his website.

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