Creative Lives — “If you’re good, you’ll get noticed” – meet Vintage’s deputy art director, Stephen Parker
Stephen Parker has spent almost two decades working on everything from classic English novels to European sporting biographies, dark Scandinavian crime and American cult fiction. As Vintage Books’ deputy art director, over the years he’s learnt the importance of balancing diplomacy with knowing when to challenge a brief. And while the technical landscape has changed since he was starting out, (think cow gum and Rotring pens) for Stephen, the meeting of digital and traditional usually produces the most crowd-pleasing solutions.
Deputy Art Director, Vintage Books, Penguin Random House (1998–present)
Art Director, Bridgewater Book Company (1997–1998)
Art Director, Namara Design (1990–1997)
Senior Designer, Namara Design/Quartet Books (1989–1990)
Graphic Designer and Production Assistant, Quartet Books (1988–1989)
BA Graphic Design, Central St Martin’s School of Art (1985–1988)
Inside Vintage Books
How would you describe your job?
In addition to assisting the art director in the daily running of the studio, my role as deputy art director has allowed me to work on some of the most prestigious literary lists in publishing. This includes working across Vintage Paperbacks, Jonathan Cape, Yellow Jersey, Harvill Secker, Chatto & Windus, Bodley Head and Square Peg.
The wide range of titles and subject matter means that the work is always interesting and varied. I can be commissioning a striking illustration one day, and be art directing a photoshoot with several models on location the next. It can mean searching through second-hand bookshops for old typography, or briefing a picture researcher to find just the right painting to use on a book jacket. The books themselves can range from classic English novels to European sporting biographies, or from dark Scandinavian crime to American cult fiction.
“I am happiest when I’m creating – whether that’s coming up with an elegant type layout, or getting my hands dirty with a screen print.”
What does a typical working day look like?
I commute to work from Brighton every day, which is about an hour and a half door-to-door, but at least I always have a seat on the train, and can work, read, watch iPlayer (or even sleep!) Although my working hours are from 9.30am to 5.30pm, I tend to get into work much earlier, and spend an hour or so working on things with no interruptions (doing things like tricky Photoshop work or constructing lengthy emails and briefing notes). But a designer never really switches off – I think we are all continuously taking in visual information, turning over ideas, absorbing and collecting things for future use in our design work.
How did you land your current job?
I’ve been in this job for over 18 years, but I think I originally applied for it through an ad in the Guardian. The art director at the time was aware of some of my previous work at Quartet Books, The Women’s Press and Wire magazine.
In the studio
In the studio
In the studio
Where does the majority of your work take place?
Obviously most of the design work is on a Mac in the studio, however I like to bring other design, art and craft skills into my work whenever possible. So, for example, I may produce some hand-drawn lettering, or use some letterpress type, or incorporate some handprinted element.
How collaborative is your role?
I am constantly commissioning illustrators, photographers and even freelance designers, so a lot of the book covers are very collaborative in that sense. We do also regularly work on larger group projects within the department, such as designs for a series or a limited edition collections of books.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I am happiest when I’m creating – whether that’s coming up with an elegant type layout, or getting my hands dirty with a screen print. My least favourite aspect of designing book jackets is having your work constantly critiqued, and having to justify every element. It is an inevitable part of what we do – there are so many people with a vested interest in the final product, and they all seem to have opinions. We just have to remember that we are designers, not artists, and it is our responsibility to make a design work for whoever the market is.
Boxer Handsome by Anna Whitwham (2014)
The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Wall (2010)
The Vintage Mini collection
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months
I find the most satisfying projects are when you create something that the client (whether that be the author, editor or publisher) wasn’t expecting, and the design is well received and successful. As an example, I was recently briefed to commission an illustrator to imitate a previous illustration style for the author. I decided to ignore this approach and create my own typographic illustrations, using brightly coloured, over-inked letterpress forms (using only the two initial letters of the author’s name). Also, the José Saramago backlist redesign has been very personally rewarding.
What skills are essential to your job?
Besides the obvious computer design software skills, my role also requires a great deal of diplomacy, as well as the ability to explain and describe what you do or intend to create to others. It is also important to have an understanding of the literary marketplace we design for; lots of reading and general knowledge of the industry is essential.
What tools do you use most for your work?
These days it is essential to be able to work with InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, but increasingly we are extending our skill sets as we create more visual imagery for marketing and publicity – and using animation and filmmaking software. Plus, more traditional hand skills with pens, paint and ink are also often very useful.
Yellow Dog by Martin Amis (2003)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani
Love Junkie by Robert Plunket (1995)
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I don’t know how or why but I wanted to be a graphic designer from a very early age – there was not a single artistic or creative person in my entire family!
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I had amazing and supportive art teachers at both senior school and sixth form college, who were instrumental in allowing me the creative freedom to pursue my design direction, rather than restricting me to painting and drawing.
Queer City by Peter Ackroyd (2017)
Inside the studio
Inside the studio
What were your first jobs?
My first job out of art school was in a small, literary publishing house, Quartet Books, where I started as a junior designer. I also worked two days a week assisting the production director, which gave me a very rapid introduction to the publishing process. I was not only designing my own book covers, but also designing and arranging typesetting, organising printing schedules, liaising with illustrators, photographers, typographers, editors, proof-readers, repro-houses, printers and binders.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
The key moment in my early career was when the two more senior designers at Quartet (there were only three of us) left almost at the same time, and the owner of the company simply told me to employ two new designers. I had only been out of college about ten months – so it meant that, very rapidly, I had to learn how to run a small design studio!
“We just have to remember that we are designers, not artists, and it is our responsibility to make a design work for whoever the market is.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I am constantly learning new skills. When I first started, we didn’t have computers – everything was still done the old-fashioned way, with drawing boards and Rotring pens, cow gum and transparencies. Since the arrival of the early Apple computers, I’ve worked my way through various graphic design software. You just have to keep evolving with the technology just like every other industry.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
My job is probably better than I thought it could be. In most professions, the more senior your position become within a company, you tend to do less of what you originally set out to do. Senior managers tend to advise, oversee, organise and commission. What I love about publishing design is that we all still get to continue designing ourselves, whilst being able to encourage and direct more junior members of the team.
What would you like to do next?
I’m currently very happy in what I do, and really could see myself doing this forever – which I feel is a very fortunate position to be in.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
The expected progression would be to become the art director – however, this would probably mean doing less of my own design work which is the part I love doing. Another option is for people to become a freelance book designer – but I think personally, I would miss the atmosphere and interaction of working in a busy studio environment.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a book designer?
Publishing is a very small, specialised world of design. I think it’s just a case of trying to get any sort of work designing book covers, whether that be as an intern, entering competitions, applying for junior positions, and then just doing the best work you can. If you’re good, you’ll get noticed. And today, with social media it’s always possible to show your talents.
This article is part of a feature on Vintage Books.