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Robin Brooks, book designer, is also an artist and a writer. She stands here before one of her sculptures.


Robin Brooks, book designer, is also an artist and a writer. She stands here before one of her sculptures.

***NEW–Listen to an exclusive Interview with Robin***

MP3 File

The Beauty of Books

I came to be an artist as part of surviving an extremely abusive childhood. Silence was mandatory. The denial of my being in the presence of others, I hoped, might stop the abuse, bring love instead.

I came to express myself silently in any way I could. My mother was an artist, and my first art lesson came early in life. I drew and painted and wrote profusely what I was not allowed to express verbally.

Nature was extremely important to me. There was a small thicket that I went to as a child to escape what happened in the house. In that thicket, that wild place, were a boulder, a stream, and a tree with eight trunks growing from one base. There was a space in the middle of these trunks and an opening between two of them through which I climbed to reach this little room of my own, safe and comforting. Here, I came to be able to listen to the love of the tree and of the boulder and stream. I came to be able to open myself to the messages of nature.

Over a couple of summers and Christmas vacations, my twin sister and I worked at my dad’s company. We worked with the advertising director, creating promotional materials. When I graduated from college, majoring in studio art, I chose graphics as a job related to art. In those days – 1975 until, for me, 1989 – the tools of the trade were a drawing board, ruling pens, flexible curves, and rapidographs. In my first job I did typesetting, camera work, illustration, copywriting, and paste-up for circulars like Montgomery Ward, Woolworth/Woolco, and Food Mart.

In 1977, I went to New York, to the School of Visual Arts, to take courses in Graphic Design and Illustration. From there I worked at a company for a couple of years, and then from 1980 until the present, I have worked for myself, either freelancing or in my own business. All these years I did overall graphic design, from designing the logo and all of the pieces of Xerox Learning Systems’ largest marketing kit to websites, ads, logos, newsletters, books, and even a town flag.

As time went by, I began to feel I needed a change to something with more meaning and in which I was working more with just “civilians”, rather than in the business world. Finally, last year, I made this change to designing only books, memoirs in particular and books on spirituality, art and poetry. This work was not entirely new as, over the years, I had designed books for Viking Penguin, The Waldorf Schools of North America, and for private authors. I had always loved these projects.

Memories of the Spanish Civil War book cover design

Memories of the Spanish Civil War book cover design

In designing memoirs specifically, my creativity is inspired by truth, by the realness of the author’s deepest inner voice, by her or his soul coming through the writing, and by reading how that person grows over the course of the narrative. I am also inspired by the quality of the writing itself. I love good, strong writing, and I am especially inspired by words that are reflective. I want to feel that I am the witness, too, in learning from the author’s story. That learning can come in so many ways, in a memoir about the Second World War or in one about the trials of having a child with learning disabilities and anywhere in between.

Sometimes I read several passages of a memoir, along with hearing or reading a synopsis of the book. Sometimes, if I feel it’s necessary, I read the entire book from beginning to end. In order to tune in to the writing, after I read what I read, I close my eyes to let the person and the nuances and the overall message of the words sink in. I let my inner eye sense the personality, as if I were meeting that person on the street. I listen with my intuition, as I came to listen to the voice of the trees or of the river.

As I am not an illustrator, I don’t usually come up with visual images, pictorial images. Instead, the sense of the design comes through as subtle feelings. With the design, as with the fonts, I look for what matches my intuitive feeling. First I do an overall search – a scan – for the font for the body text. I zero in on a few, always seeking to match the vibration, the energetics, of the font to what I feel in the writing, in the story. When there is no discordant buzz, when there is only that sublime feeling of peace, of recognition, I know I have what I am looking for.

From the typeface of the body text, I move to the selecting of the chapter titles. Sometimes I use the same typface. Sometimes I conduct a new search. After finding the right sense of “peace” again, I begin to design the structure. Centered, pushed to the left or right. Italic, bold, plain. Large or small. Bold or soft. The quantity of white space. I am extremely intuitive. I make these decisions and create the design based purely on my intuition until I have created what I feel is the most respectful and reflective of the writing and the message. By the time the design is finished, I have created for the work its most natural home.

I used to create three designs, but I have found this both confusing to the author and counterproductive. Invariably the first design that I see is what an author chooses. There are often slight changes. Sometimes there are none.

A couple of things for a memoirist to keep in mind are that it is important to have a copyeditor and the text is best arriving at a designer’s door completely edited. Something to keep in mind specific to me is that I design the interior of a book first before the cover. I want to get to know the person before I choose the face he or she will show the public.

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