Making the Transition from Design Student to Working Professional: Brian LaRossa, Art Director

This is episode one of a series of edited conversations between David Karlins and working communication designers on the theme of making the transition from being a student to becoming a working professional. The conversations explore the challenges of making that transition, the insights of people who have made that transition decades, years, or even months ago, and observations of the relationship between one’s passions and talents, making a living, and changing the world.

In this installment, David speaks with Brian LaRossa, an art director at Scholastic Inc., the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world. Brian also teaches at CUNY, manages his own font foundry, and participates in Adobe’s Type Advisory Council. He has written many essays about the culture of Design which can be found on both Medium and Design Observer. In this interview, he spoke with us about his role as an art director, delivering “reading experiences” as a designer, the importance of empathy in design, how junior designers should navigate work conversations, and how he began writing.

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DK: First of all, I think it’ll be very valuable to hear about what it’s like to be an art director, and what’s involved specifically with your job, what hard skills you use, and what soft skills are involved in what you do. My feeling is that in the role of an art director, there’s a certain universality to what you encounter there.

BL: For starters, I’ll explain that in book publishing “art director” means design manager. I am responsible for “directing” the “art” that’s being created by the illustrators that I hire, but I am also charged with leading a team of designers.

In describing what I do let me start at the beginning of the book design process. So, even before an editor has acquired a manuscript, when they’re running the profit and loss statement, and putting together their acquisitions pitch for Finance, Sales, and Marketing, I start pulling together art samples from illustrators who I think could be a good fit for the book, if it ends up being acquired. If the pitch is approved and the manuscript is acquired and one of the illustrators I presented is approved, then I reach out to the illustrator to pitch the book and present the terms of the deal e.g. the royalties, advance, subrights splits, scope of work, and schedules. Sometimes the illustrator passes, sometimes we negotiate the terms — especially if they have an agent — and sometimes they accept the terms as they are. Once they agree to the terms we begin moving towards beginning the book’s design.

Sometimes I design the books myself, I try to design one book per season. We publish books in three annual seasons — spring, summer, and fall. I’m responsible for roughly 17–18 books a season, so then approximately 52 books a year, one per week on average. To design most of those books I line up a designer on my in-house team, or I hire a freelance designer for a flat rate. No matter who is designing the book, the time between lining up the illustrator and the first step in the book’s production schedule is spent working on design prototypes. We play with possibilities for the architecture of the interior, the palette logic, the title typography, the cover concept, and if it’s a series we begin developing the series branding. The first step in the book’s schedule is the pre-layout. A pre-layout is when we take the copy-edited manuscript and pour it into an Adobe InDesign document. In book publishing, we call Adobe InDesign documents “mechanicals.” The pre-layout is a mechanical setup at the book’s trim size, where we’ve styled the typography, made sure the text hits on the appropriate pages, and included the art specs on the pages where each piece of art will go. “Art specs” are directions that describe what we’d like the illustrator to draw. When the pre-layout is done we relay it to the illustrator and they use it to create the 1P sketches — “sketches” being rough approximations of what each illustration will look like. The pre-layout allows the illustrator to visualize how much space they have for each illustration. In some of our more poetic picture books we don’t include art specs and instead leave room for the illustrator to respond to the text as they see fit.

Once the illustrator delivers the sketches — hopefully on time — we pour them into the mechanical, and then route a PDF of it for feedback from me, the editor, and the proofreader. When the PDF is done routing I relay our collective notes to the designer and illustrator who both make their respective revisions. That revision/review cycle happens 4 times — 1P, 2P, 3P, 4P — until we have a well-designed book with finished art in place. In the later rounds the book can go to a leveler, to set the reading level; an authenticity reader, to review for potentially offensive content; and/or a subject expert, to review for factual accuracy. Once everything is approved we flight-check the cover and interior mechanicals, package them up, and relay them to the manufacturing department who sends them off to the printer. The printer sends print or digital proofs which we review and eventually approve. Once approved they print the book. The printed book travels by boat and/or truck to our warehouse where it is held and then portioned out to bookstores or directly to customers all over the world. When we’re close to running out of inventory, the Demand/Planning department will let us know we’re about to reprint, and at that point, we have an opportunity to make further corrections to the book, if any errors have been spotted since the first printing. That’s the book design process from end to end, except for the cover. The cover design process is a whole other, far more political, process that happens concurrently with the interior’s design.

Another layer of my job is making sure the reading experiences we’re crafting are appropriate to each book’s target customer. You might think children’s book publishing is all the same, but there are a lot of subsegments of the children’s book market. Young Adult, nonfiction and fiction picture books, readers, novelty books, graphic novels, etc. The larger group I belong to is specifically focused on hardcover books, with full-color interiors, for children who are 0–9 years old. A different group in the company makes the books for kids who are older than 9. Even within the 0–9 group, we are tailoring each book for even smaller segments, for example, 6–8 year olds. You end up being very specific. Two of the imprints I’m charged with overseeing are named Branches and Acorn. These imprints are for emerging readers and are used as teaching tools in a lot of classrooms, in addition to being purchased by parents. Because these books are used in a classroom we make sure each of those books is also a particular reading level, in addition to being appropriate for a particular age. In elementary classrooms, teachers have very specific benchmarks to qualify a text as belonging to a particular reading level. We have to be cognizant of all these factors as well when we are designing our books.

DK: Every realm has its own language, workflow, culture, technology, and techniques, right? Talk about how that plays out in your experience.

BL: Absolutely! There are so many different modes of working across design. Sometimes you hear people online lament that there’s no real connection between UI/UX designers, and designers who are working in print. I stress to my students that there is common ground — the common ground is reading. At the end of the day all communication designers, no matter their medium, are crafting reading experiences. Empathizing with the reader is paramount to graphic design, whether you’re designing a website or a workbook.

In book publishing, text must be legible and readable. It is a baseline requirement. And it happens via a mastery of typographic principles. That baseline requirement supports the higher concerns — the cover strategy, the cohesiveness of the overall design direction, the details within the illustrations, and making sure that the book is lively, inviting, and competitive.

Empathy has become a buzzword within the design industry. I always tell my students that a customer-needs mindset encompasses more than the end-user of the product, it also includes the team members that you work with. As an art director, my first customers are the editors and marketers that I work with every day. If you’re a designer, then your art director is your first customer. Douglas Davis puts it really clearly in his book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design when he says, “think like they think.” Whether you’re designing books or websites, you really need to empathize with all the stakeholders that are involved from end to end. It’s not just about the brilliance of your design. It’s also about how you present it, how you talk about it, how you collaborate with people, how you’re able to involve them, set their expectations, and guide them through the process.

When speaking with my students I always stress the importance of project management and taking care when setting a client’s expectations. In my opinion, a design brief works best when it comes from the designer rather than from the client, because a lot of clients don’t have the language to put it all together. So you begin by interviewing the client — I say “interview” but it can even be a casual conversation — and then you pitch back to them what they said wrapped up in a design strategy. Along with that package, you outline some of the solutions you plan to try. It doesn’t mean you’re not permitted to try directions that aren’t described in the brief, but describing the beginning of your thinking allows you to get early feedback from your client, which can help save time in later rounds. If you’re able to work out some of your client’s preferences in text, or through conversation, it’s a very efficient way to rapid-prototype. I mean, what I’m describing isn’t a replacement for the actual rapid-prototyping — the design process — you should still sketch and brainstorm with your design tools in hand, I’m just saying describing and discussing strategies with your client prior to that step will focus your efforts and increase the likelihood that you’ll hit closer to the mark with your first round of solutions.

A big trap that I see a lot of inexperienced designers fall into, is where the client has them working up to round 19 of a project. “How do I get out of this?” They often ask. This is why it’s so important to set expectations. Define a firm structure. If it’s freelance, in addition to the brief you need to provide a schedule, and a fee structure. Schedules should describe both the length of your working periods and the length of your client’s review periods, so for a four-round schedule, you’ll need eight-time segments. Oh, and use business days, don’t include weekends in your day counts. There are many approaches to pricing. I recommend The Graphic Artist Guild Handbook, Pricing and Ethical Guidelines and Jessica Hische’s The Dark Art of Pricing.

I like to advise students/designers to set a flat rate that covers the four-round experience and then say that you’re going to switch to an hourly rate after that. Because then you’re not freaking out if they go beyond 4, and they have an incentive to not go to 19. And it’s all part of setting up expectations and the structure. If you’re in-house, controlling the number of rounds is a little more complicated, but it’s still about clear communication with your clients in combination with managing expectations, schedules, and budgets.

At the end of the day all communication designers, no matter their medium, are crafting reading experiences.

DK: What are your thoughts on the transition from school to a professional environment? Just some of the cultural things that a student can expect to find in a professional environment. They really shouldn’t be completely different; we do our best to simulate them in the classroom, but there’s no getting around it. It’s different. What thoughts do you have about that?

BL: It took me a while to learn the rules of corporate culture and understand the expectations. I think a safe rule of thumb is to just be kind, considerate, and communicative. Little things, like making people aware of your days off, and making sure that you’re responding to emails in a timely manner — little things like that go a long way. I’ve had situations where a junior designer on my team didn’t ask for help when they should have because they wanted to solve it by themselves. They didn’t want to reveal that they needed help — they felt like they shouldn’t need help. Not asking for help can turn a small problem into a big problem very quickly. You really have to have a team mindset. It comes back to open communication — it comes back to building trust.

A lot of times I see junior designers clam up, like: “I don’t want to share what I’m designing yet. I don’t want to share it because I want to keep working on it. It’s not perfect yet.” They feel like they’re expected to deliver the creative genius. I always encourage designers, especially students starting out, to view the design process as fundamentally collaborative. I try to emphasize that the best ideas are floating in the space between you and me. We can only reveal them if we work together. It’s not inside you, or me, and it’s okay that you don’t have the answer. We need to figure it out together.

I wish so much that every entry-level designer is lucky enough to start out with a manager who’s patient, willing to teach, and who allows room for mistakes. I was lucky enough to have an art director like that for the first eleven years of my career. His name is Jaime Lucero, and we’re still close friends. He taught me that it’s really important, when you get to that level of managing a creative team, to leave room for failure. Maybe the word “failure” isn’t clear here, and also a little too harsh. What I mean is, room for early design solutions to fall short of their goals. Because if the expectation is that every design solution be flawless, and there’s no room for failure, no room for falling short, then your team is going to freeze up and stop experimenting. None of them are going to feel comfortable trying design solutions that they’ve never tried before. They’re going to play it safe, and safe design doesn’t get it done.

I always encourage designers, especially students starting out, to view the design process as fundamentally collaborative.

DK: I think it’s important for students on the verge of, or thinking ahead to, transitioning into the working world, to understand that it is often the case that their talents and passions, and causes they care deeply about, should not be abandoned, but that you have to find venues outside of paying work, often, to fulfill them. What’s your experience with that?

Staatliches, a font from Type Brut and available on Google Fonts.

BL: I’ve always invested my free time into creative practices after-hours, outside of work. In the beginning, I had an art practice, and regularly exhibited my work with galleries — mostly here in Brooklyn. That eventually gave way to experimental poetry, which evolved into type design. In 2014 I created a type foundry named Type Brut. Type Brut explores art history through the design of free display typefaces. I designed some of the fonts on the site. I also represent a display face named Sélavy that was designed by Nina Stössinger. Erica Carras and I also designed a font named Staatliches for Google Fonts. Since 2016 my primary extracurricular creative outlet has been writing. It started out on Medium and at this point, I’ve written a total of 22 essays about the culture of Design for Design Observer and AIGA’s Eye On Design.

Eventually, writing also led to teaching. I do believe the opportunity to teach was connected to me putting my voice out there as a writer. It began when Douglas Davis took a chance on me and invited me to teach portfolio at CUNY City Tech. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to teach typography at Fordham, and for several semesters now I’ve taught “Critical Issues” at CUNY City College. The Critical Issues course is essentially an opportunity to teach designers how to read and write with a critical eye, and with passion. How to write about their craft and how to think about the issues that are facing our profession. How to identify the places where we need to improve and grow, write about those places bravely, and call for change. I really love teaching that course.

Recently I’ve also been working on a novel. I’m up to 40,000 words. The research I’ve done says you need to have a minimum of 60,000 words before it’s pitchable. So I have a ways to go. But I’ve been clocking 1,000 words a week. We’ll see. The story is about a book designer. To my mind fiction can also be a form of criticism, so it doesn’t feel too foreign from the essays. There’s a lot of room in fiction for commentary, observation, and critique. I’m also interested in creating a window into what it’s like to be a designer for non-designers.

Bottom line, extracurricular creative practices can be exceedingly rewarding. Especially when your job as a designer is to deliver on briefs and collaborate all day, and respond to feedback and criticism, it can be really nice to have a creative space that’s all your own. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

DK: Thanks so much for taking the time to share these experiences and insights! I think students, and really, anyone in the communication design world will find them helpful.

David Karlins is an adjunct professor of design and digital and written communication at NYU and CUNY, and author of 40 books on digital design technology and culture. His courses are distributed through LinkedIn Learning and other channels.

The following links to the rest of the episodes in this series are here:

Graphic and web designer. Freelance writer. Loves technology, reading, and building things.