A career in... design, with Jack Smyth

A career in... design, with Jack Smyth

As part of #WorkinPublishing week, Jack Smyth from William Collins and 4th Estate talks to jobs in books about his career as a designer.

How did you start your career in publishing?
I was studying my graphics MA in Kingston University and doing the Penguin Design Award as a kind of side brief. I was introduced to book designer Nick Castle by a tutor. Nick and I had a chat about the project and then I told him that I’d been re-designing some classic book covers as a personal project. I think I must have been all sorts of enthusiastic, because Nick put me in touch with the art department at Little, Brown where I came in as an intern which was amazing - such a good team to work with. When the internship ended they gave me a junior role, mainly because I kept bringing in biscuits.

What led you to a career in design?
I fell into it by accident. I didn’t study art or design at an undergrad level, but managed to somehow get a job doing the art/design at Tower Records in Dublin, and fell in love with it. It was a good start because I had to just learn everything by doing it and there was no one else to guide me so I had to solve most problems on my own. It was also a heavy and varied workload, designing stuff for different record labels and kitting out the stores all with stuff I made by hand.

How did you progress into your current role?
I was just really into it! I’d had a lot of jobs before this one, many of which were pretty bad, so I knew how lucky I was (am) to work in something like book design. A bit of enthusiasm goes a long way I guess.

What skills and experience are needed for roles in design?
I think being pretty nerdy helps. It helps if you’re REALLY into the intricacies of a pattern, or up for spotting weird colour ways or pouring over all the elements of type. There are no shortcuts to producing a good cover, so I think you need to be willing to stare at a blank portrait rectangle and keep working at it with all the tools you have until you’ve got something right. Also, skin so thick you don’t need a coat in winter - 75% of the job is taking negative feedback and trying to break that down into its elements in order to turn it into positive direction. But mostly, being nerdy.

How do you continue to learn and improve your skills?
I think that there are so many incredible book designers working right now that it’s easy to stay motivated. You can’t possibly look at the work being produced by other designers and NOT be scared/inspired/motivated by jealousy to try catch up with them even a little bit.

What advice would you give to someone trying to start or progress their career in a design role?
I think to just have fun and produce work that you find interesting or enjoyable. I would also say to be cautious of the rules or guidelines of design that are often taught in university. By that I mean to perhaps be aware of them, but not to follow them to the letter. Design rules are great in theory but can be quite restricting in practice. I’m a big fan of personal projects too - if someone has a project they’ve set themselves outside of work, I want to hear about it all day.

What is your favourite piece of design work that you have worked on?
I’m not sure if it was my favourite, but certainly my most challenging was the paperback of One of Us by Asne Seierstad. It’s a devastating non-fiction book which focuses on Anders Breivik’s mass shooting in Norway. I really struggled with this one because I was so affected by the book itself and wasn’t sure how to represent it. I did so many crap visuals for that one, but luckily the editor Antonia Hodgson was a real help in directing me and I think we achieved something simple and effective - a grid drawing of an ‘X’ for each murder victim and the ‘O’ of the title for the killer.

This blog is published as part of #WorkinPublishing week. You can see Jack's work here.