Tree Abraham: Book Designer
When approaching a new book cover design, where do you start?
My process is always the same. I start with whatever materials the publisher provided—sometimes this is the entire manuscript to read through or maybe only a few paragraphs or sentences about the book. From there, I create a mindmap with blooms of imagery, themes, adjectives, quotes, places...anything to trigger directions to pursue that embody the voice of the author and could be conceptually clever, building upon it with my own research on the subject matter. Mulling over the mindmap, I get an intuitive taste for the book. I begin visual research, through my personal archives and sources like Pinterest, gathering imagery that match that taste. Then I go swimming and the water in my brain whirls into ideas. I crudely make thumbnail sketches of different cover routes and assemble mood boards for each that include a hodgepodge of type, color, and image treatments to inspire the maturation of the sketch into cover.
How did you become a book designer, is it something you set out to do?
My first degree is in international development and global studies, where I concentrated on environmental sustainability and urban adaptation to climate change. I spent time living and working in the foreign service and with non-profit organizations in African and Asian countries before deciding to return to uni for design. I think I have been a designer all my life, I just didn’t know the word for it nor did I know how enriching a career it could be. Art kept finding me and at a point it became obvious it was a passion that could never fully be realized on the periphery of an unrelated career.
I had been exploring the art of visual diary and stumbled upon the sketchbook of Isaac Tobin. I loved his collage work, but also discovered that he was a book designer. I think it was the first time I was introduced to that as a career and it was singularly the area of design that appealed to me. I think it is serendipitous because I felt that way before I fully knew what book design entailed and at a point where ebooks seemingly threatened it as a profession, but upon entering uni and dabbling in all forms of design, books remained the most akin to my artistic strengths and thrills. And because I knew that from the outset and vocalized it, I was able to gain experience in the field throughout my three years of study that jump-started a career in a very exclusive industry.
Where do your commissions come from?
Publishers. Small, medium, and big publishers in Canada, the UK, and America. And sometimes projects or collaborations for friends and independent authors.
You’re a Canadian who’s studied in the UK and now live in New York City, and I know from your Instagram feed that you like to travel, so where’s home?
This might sound trite, but home is in me, it really has to be when you move so often. But, I certainly feel more at home in Brooklyn, with my roommates in our sprawling old house, than anywhere else I have lived. It has everything I could have never dreamed and I hope to stay.
How do your travels influence your art?
For me, travel is the act of seeking out wonder and beauty in the world. The energy I feel when I find it is the same energy I try to exude when I am designing. The more often I connect to that feeling, to all feelings, the more I have to pour into my art. More concretely, with every new country, I am exposed to new aesthetic combinations through the craft, textiles, and architecture of a place as well as culturally to different expressions of humanity that expand my visual language. I also collect ephemera everywhere I go that is helpful for reference and collage work.
What other design work do you do?
I almost exclusively work in books, both covers and interiors. Occasionally I will find time for personal passion projects that involve novelty gifts and prints. But mostly, I am focused on working on my own proposals for books that I would like to author and illustrate.
Your work often incorporates text, how important are words to your creative process? Do you ever work with music too?
Words are vital to me. I love words more than images, and I love their meanings. I always have dictionary.com open on my computer to confirm the subtle differences between words and discover more precise ones. So much of my personal work is crammed full of tiny ramblings because I have so many complex things that I want to transmit that cannot be fully expressed in images.
For covers, my creative process always begins with words that I later translate into images, but the words rest at the front of my mind throughout the process to keep the design in perspective. Technically, words also form shapes on covers. The way they relate to each other and the negative space around them informs how I will sculpt a design.
I often listen to music when I am getting into the groove of design. I like to choose the right rhythms depending on the medium I am working in. It creates this trance-like state where my movements and decisions remain fluid and the designs are able to evolve in unexpected ways.
You also mix analogue and digital, how did you develop this technique?
Well, I began as squarely analogue and favour work that is a reminder of the beauty and imperfections of the human hand and the tactility of real life, but naturally in design, work must pass through the computer to be proliferated. When I entered design at the University of Brighton, I wasn’t thinking any of this. I thought that design was computers and type and shiny things. But Brighton prides itself on being a more traditional art school in its approaches and the tutors very much encourage returning to traditional mediums and experimenting with as many processes as possible. Sometimes the most impressive effects are better achieved through the real than digital simulations. I also interned under many British cover designers who were doing the same. Because each cover reflects a different author and must distinguish itself from the masses, book design lends itself to generalists who can employ a range of processes in new combinations. As I found my voice within design, I naturally integrated my illustrative and handmade art practices back into some of my design solutions.
Which other artists and designers do you particularly admire and why?
Too many! An ever-expanding list. I won’t mention other book designers, because it might just be a list of all book designers (there are few of us and we are all magicians). But one of my favourite artists is fellow Canadian Leanne Shapton. I very much aspire to be a Renaissance person with many diverse pursuits. Shapton is a stunning painter, but she is also a writer, a publisher, a book designer...her work is meditative and understated and permeates mediums. I love the photography of Masao Yamamoto, how mysterious his subject matter and processes are and how he treats each photograph as an unrepeatable object. Matisse for everything ever. And lately in the book world, I have fallen for the works of Yumi Sakugawa who is so earnest and refined with her graphic novels.
What else should we know about your work?
I can’t speak for all designers, but I love being asked about the reasoning behind my work because there is always a story beyond something looking pretty. Every detail is informed by particular meanings. And if it is personal work, there are usually additional layers of easter eggs and connections embedded within that most could only begin to deconstruct through enquiry and great attention to detail. I think creative trends are a necessary part of being a successful designer, but I am more concerned with how to use my designs to communicate something deeply human and tangible; to take a unique insight and present it in a way that can resonate with an audience regardless of their artistic sensibilities. I want the idiosyncratic to unearth a universality.
All images on this page ©Tree Abraham