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UHoP 2018: Q&A with Berenice Smith, graphic designer

UHoP 2018: Q&A with Berenice Smith, graphic designer

By Holly Miller |

Berenice Smith is one of our winners of The Unsung Heroes of Publishing 2018. We asked her a few questions about her work as a graphic designer, freelancing and her creative process. For a complete list of #UHoP18 please see more here.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work. Did you always want to be a designer?

I live in beautiful Cambridge and wanted to do something creative. I was always drawing and painting as a child. I saw a programme about being a commercial artist when I was about 13 and was inspired then. I went on to work in design for marketing and publishing, and have a Masters in graphic design and typography.

What do you regard as the most challenging, and the most gratifying aspect of the work you do?

When design creates a solution. Businesses or publishers might be struggling with attracting an audience or the tech looks ugly on a website – something that is an obstacle. Design can solve those issues by providing a workable solution that appeals visually. I like to cite shower controls – a well designed shower control stops one being scalded! But many controls are a complete mystery! It’s the same with books and websites.

You’ve worked on some exciting projects, including designing for brands and books. Tell us about your creative process.

They are all very interesting and varied. My creative process starts with getting to know the people behind the product, the potential customers, current customers and the competition. I rarely sit down and draw something immediately – I might have an idea but it has to work with the brief and the overall aims of the project.

I like to encourage clients to also be hands-on by being open about their ideas, and use a silent voting system for problematic decisions so people collaborate equally.

A clear, detailed brief and understanding the contract are also important. There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a piece and falling out over fees or a forgotten clause. Communication and clarity are as important as the design.

Do you see certain themes emerge when you are being briefed by art directors or editors?

There’s a lot of movement towards storytelling at the moment. I see a trend of ‘behind the scenes’ footage and wanting to involve the customers or readers, which is exciting. I love that narrative and engagement. And I like to share my skills, so it sits well with my philosophy that my clients should come away feeling like they’ve had a positive learning experience and gained a new design.

I also see reliability as an issue. Good designers who understand typography, correction marks and the implication of missing deadlines are gold dust. I don’t think there’s enough of us around! I used to run a design and production studio for weekly and monthly magazines, so the cause and effect of bad service is something I’ve experienced and problem solving is part of my nature.

Do you have one piece of advice for any up-and-coming designers wanting to work as freelancers?

You are worth it! Never work for free as a way to build up a portfolio for business clients. If you’re great at what you do and have the skills, education and a portfolio to evidence this, then charge a worthy rate. It can be very frustrating when some people happily trade on cheap sites but these aren’t the clients for you. If you are struggling to make ends meet or wondering whether to make the jump into freelance, then think about a part-time transition. It will allow you space to pick and choose a little more, which is much less stressful.

What are you reading at the moment and what’s next on your to-read list?

I’m reading Bookmakers: British Publishing in the Twentieth Century by Iain Stevenson. I have an exhibition coming up at the Cambridge University Press museum about the work of John Peters, who was a typographer, designer and part-owner of the Vine Press and I found this book during my research. It’s the story of a hundred years of book publishing from the elite beginnings of private presses to deregulation. My next book is a battered Shell Guide to Cornwall by John Betjeman. We’re going on holiday to the south west in September (I get very grumpy if I don’t get to Cornwall often) and I love a vintage tour guide! Betjeman writes a lot about the ancient monuments, and so lyrically. I do read fiction too – I like a good ghost story!

You can find Berenice Smith on Twitter.

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