Design Desk

From the Design Desk: Book Design Process: An Interview with designer, Matthew Rezac

This fall, we are beyond excited to be publishing a monograph about Brian Eno’s visual art practice called Brian Eno: Visual Music. The stunning tome was designed by Andrew Blauvelt and Matthew Rezac. Blauvelt and Rezac met at The Walker Art Center in 2004 when Rezac began a 2-year stint as a design fellow in the graphic design department led at that time by Blauvelt. I recently caught up with Rezac and asked him some questions about the process and experience of designing this spectacular book.

Brooke: How did you begin such a massive project as this—a 400+ page book with more than 850 images, multiple contributors and a larger than life subject?

Matthew: For me, book projects, regardless of size, always begin by digging into and understanding the content. In this instance, that involved reading the books’ essays, organizing and evaluating the massive amount of images given to us, and watching Eno’s many video works that were to be included.

On the creative side of things Andrew (Blauvelt) and I began by having several conversations and brainstorming sessions where we would just talk about what the book could be and should be — as well as what it should not be. For instance, we knew early on that it wasn’t possible to recreate the experience of viewing Eno’s time-based video or installation works in a traditional book format — any attempt to capture those experiences would require a high-end app-based ePub. However, we were asked to design a book — not an app — so we decided: if this was going to be a book we wanted to embrace that idea fully and make it a book, in the classic sense. Concurrent to these thoughts we knew the design needed to be content-appropriate — the first Brian Eno monograph demanded a seriousness to it; it needed to be timeless not trendy.

In these very early stages we didn’t touch a computer or talk design specifics, it was all about figuring out the broad strokes. Once we decided to embrace the “bookness” of the book everything else fell into place fairly quickly.

Brooke: How did the art edit and sequence go? What role did you have in either of those, presumably monumental, tasks?

Matthew: Chris Scoates and Brian Eno had narrowed the project selection before Andrew and I were brought on board. However, the specific image selection within each project was a design decision — based on image quality, pacing, page composition, etc.

The book sequencing itself was lead by Blauvelt and myself as it was a direct result of our assessment of the book’s content. After reading the essays we came to the conclusion that Scoates’ essay, which is a comprehensive look at Eno’s entire career (and has connections to everything thing else in the book), could act as a framework that all of the other content could then be hung on.

To map it out we made very a simple outline where Scoates’ essay spanned the length of the book — the image blocks were then placed in proximity to where they are mentioned in this main essay. The additional contributor essays were also sequenced this way — placed either in relation to a topic mentioned in Scoates’ essay or to project images that had already been sequenced. This simple outline was then translated into page-by-page thumbnail layout and the rest is history (more or less).

Brooke: Were you able to collaborate directly with Eno at any point? If so, how did that process work? What kind of, if any, comments did he have on the design?

Matthew: Unfortunately, no — all communication with him or his team was filtered through Chris Scoates. Eno did offer minimal feedback on the designs when asked (mostly about the covers and always communicated to us via Scoates), but overall he was very hands-off with the creative side of the process. The book was Scoates’ initiative and, while this was never explicitly stated, I think they both wanted to keep that apparent — this book isn’t “Eno on Eno,” it’s a curator’s examination of an artist’s career.

With all of that said, I should note that Eno and his team were extremely helpful when it came to the practical matters (like content or image requests). If we needed a different or additional project image, a new film scan, a video file, or whatever, they were very quick to respond.

Brooke: How did you come up with the concept for the book’s striking printed cloth case?

Matthew: Once we had decided to embrace the “bookness” of the book we knew that we wanted to explore the use of traditional materials (ribbon marker, book cloth, uncoated paper, etc.), but not necessarily in ways one would expect.

We also knew, early on, that the cover would most likely involve one (or more) of the many colorful and striking images from Eno’s generative works. However, the thought of these beautifully textured images being produced in a highly manufactured way (on a coated sheet and then laminated) seemed so completely wrong. We wanted to retain the images’ texture somehow and the book cloth had that ability.

In the end there was something about this translation from the screen/pixel pattern to book cloth texture that also made perfect sense — from the pure digital to the classic analog.

Brooke: The fluorescent end sheets are such a fantastic and fun surprise when opening the book. What inspired those?

Matthew: The design throughout the book was intentionally restrained, and at times it becomes almost invisible, allowing Eno’s vibrant images to claim the foreground. However, we saw the endpapers as an opportunity for a design moment — there was no agenda for this space so we were free to do whatever we wanted. The fluorescent idea, in general, was a nod to the bright colors in Eno’s light- and video-based works, which utilizes RGB-based colors that cannot always be reproduced in CMYK. The specific (pink) color was chosen based on the final cover art — we wanted something that made sense with the cover imagery but also something that wasn’t expected. There were several cover proposals passed around to Scoates, Eno, and Chronicle, and each image variation had a completely different fluorescent color attached to it.

Brooke: Did you learn anything new from Eno’s art and process that would inform your own creative process?

Matthew: I was aware of Eno’s “rules-based” or “systems-based” approach as a design student, mainly due to one of my teachers referencing the Oblique Strategies on a regular basis. That stuck with me and they have been a frequent reference in my own practice over the years — they can be extremely helpful in the ideation phase of a design project, especially if you need a break from your usual thought process. The Oblique Strategies are the perfect wild cards.

So, although I didn’t learn anything entirely new in that regard I was exposed to a number of Eno’s projects that I had previously been unaware of, the most notable being the early video works. These aren’t readily available to the public (on the web, in gallery, or otherwise) and having the time to watch them several times was inspiring in ways that, while not immediately apparent, was still significant.

Brooke: Do you think other designers would find inspiration from Eno’s process, and would you recommend this book to designers for that reason (that is, if they need a reason besides that it’s a beautiful book about a unique, creative person)?

Matthew: Yes, definitely. You can certainly trace a direct line from the “rules-based” and “systems-based” designers of today back to Brian Eno. Personally, I can’t help but think of Eno’s process when looking through the Conditional Design Workbook that Valiz published this past year. And, on the flipside, I’m often reminded of “the Eno aesthetic” when surfing through design-based Tumblr posts — whether it’s intentional or unintentional, conscious or subconscious, I see a lot of aesthetic or formal gestures out there that seem connected to Eno in some way.

And while his artwork isn’t “client-based design work” it is, on a base level, very refreshing to see a design or system-based process applied to work outside the realm of your typical communication/design problems and solutions. He’s using elements that print designers and, more often, new media designers use on a regular basis (color, composition, time, motion, sound, etc.), but he’s using them in different ways with very distinct results. That alone is worth investigating.

Matthew Rezac runs an independent design studio in Minneapolis, MN. Andrew Blauvelt currently serves as the Walker Art Center’s Curator of Architecture and Design and Chief of Communications and Audience Engagement. They have collaborated on the design of two projects for Chronicle Books: Brian Eno: Visual Music and Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, published in 2011.

Brooke Johnson
Senior Designer

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