Sachiko: a book journey

graphic design blog

We new this was going to be an important book from the beginning, from the moments the acquiring editors first took a look at the manuscript submission. As the development timeline of a book can be quite a long, it was months after the acquisition that I as Art Director/Designer got my first real look at the manuscript. Editor Carol (@carolchinz) was having lunch with the author at the start of the editing process, and had invited me along to be a part of the discussion, a part of the book. My first words to Caren (other than “such a pleasure to meet you”) were “I’m so glad this side of the story is being told.”

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story is a book on just that. Sachiko Yasui was 6 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. This story, so elegantly, carefully, caringly written by Caren chronicles Sachiko’s life from just before the bomb blast when her family was struggling with poverty already, to her life after everything she knew was destroyed, her country was reeling, resources were at a minimum, and so many of her family members were dead.

This book is not written to argue the point of the atomic bombs. Were many many lives saved around the world because these bombs were dropped, bringing WWII finally to an end? How long would the war have lasted, how many more lives ruined if it had continued? None of us can know the answers to these questions. This book was written to describe the effects of the atomic bombs on humans, to chronicle Sachiko’s path to peace after, through a battle against cancer, to becoming a peace advocate and speaker later in life. This book is written to spread understanding and peace.

So…yeah, I had some big shoes to fill here with the design.

In that first meeting with Caren we talked about symbols, recurring themes, how the book started, and Japanese aesthetic as we understand it. What parts of this to bring into the book design, what to leave out, what the most important part of the book is, the overall feeling a reader should have when diving in, what sorts of images we will have. Very few family images survived from the time of the bombing, and very few images were taken after the bombing as there weren’t many cameras or money to acquire new cameras in the aftermath.

This conversation led me to knowing the design had to be clean, simple, respectful, weighty, laid out in a manner as to be easy to read, while avoiding cliche and stereotype. Gobs of color weren’t needed. What we needed was to bring as much focus to the emotion of the images did have. So the minimal color palette was essential—calming, warm, inviting, with the occasional touch of orange to grab attention and bring us back to the stroke of destruction, fear, and anger that is the reason for the story.

And of course the interior had to complement the cover design:


We had to look into Sachiko’s eyes on the cover to immediately draw in the reader, which meant we needed a portrait, which meant we had three surviving images to choose from. This image was taken after the war, after she had survived radiation sickness and her hair had grown back. The orange swash was added to represent the violence of the bomb that ripped apart lives. (And also as a less emotional utilitarian aspect, it helped even out the background color so the white title was easier to get to be legible without heavier photoshop effects. Yes, we deal with both the emotional and utilitarian in design. It’s not all concept & emotion.) The crease in the photo is normally something we would clone out to keep the front smooth, but in this case it gave a hint to the struggle of the story, so it was necessary to leave.

The orange became my highlight color throughout, from the striking orange page 1 to start the book to the little divider on the folios of each page. The recurring tree on select pages shows protection, resilience, growth, and family. Here are a few spreads from the inside:


Interspersed throughout Sachiko’s narrative, as a nonfiction educational publisher we needed to include historical information. As Americans we’re quite aware of the European side of the war, less so about what was happening in the Pacific, in Japan. The information had to be accessible but not distracting to the narrative, so in the design I ended the chapters, where there was already a pause in the story, with a full-spread sidebar of historical information pertinent to that chapter. The sidebars are on warm gray pages to separate them from the white pages of Sachiko’s voice.


The tree motif was inspired from a pair of camphor trees in Nagasaki that somehow survived the blast amidst otherwise total destruction in the area, and are alive and thriving today. These trees I saw myself on a trip to Nagasaki earlier this year, when a group of us went to meet Sachiko in person, and I stood in awe. As author Caren said on this trip (the editor Carol and I made this journey with her, along with a small group people who had been vital to bringing this book to reality) we brought Sachiko’s voice back to Sachiko, who had lost much of her ability to speak due to a stroke a few years ago. And here she is, sheltered by the camphor trees once again, speaking this time in print to help bring peace to our world:


I was lucky to be a part of this book journey and community.

proving itself

graphic design blog, musings

Does design have something to prove?

Sure. Design proves an idea. Design proves its worth by both enhancing the idea and staying out of the way at the same time. Design proves itself. Silently.

Think about it: are you more apt to notice something that is hard to read or bizarrely out of place, or something that is well thought out, not confusing to read, and flows correctly. It’s the former, of course. You’re more apt to notice the thing that doesn’t work because it impedes your understanding.

If something—anything—is properly designed, that allows the purpose behind the idea to shine through. Like an interstate system that allows for smooth flow of traffic during rush hour or your favorite vegetable peeler you can use without your hand cramping up, you use it because it works. You use it without thinking about WHY it works. It just does. Same goes for book design— you can read a book and enjoy it because it is well done and legible without thinking about WHY it is legible. And that proves the worth of design.

So it’s a bit of a double edged sword, really. To do a good design job, what you do shouldn’t really be noticed. You see the personality of the work, not the personality of the designer who helped shape it from the initial idea. (Also, while this is about design, I’d be remiss to mention that same goes for good editing—necessary, and invisible if done well.)

When you get to work with artists like Floyd Cooper on gorgeous picture books about baseball (Something To Prove by Robert Skead, published by Carolrhoda Books, 2013), what the reader should notice is the story and how well the art & words complement each other to tell the story. On this project my job as designer and art director was to help guide the artist to the proper feel, content, and composition while leaving room for text on the page—not to add a bunch of self-serving design elements that distract from the story. Anything added needs to match the feel and the idea. Which is why the main text in the book is simple & legible, and the display type resembles old baseball game posters—to enhance the story & the experience, help the reader travel into the time & place.


( And also, the title type resembles old baseball posters because it was fun to break out the 100-year-old stamp sets and spend some time at work with inkpads and paper instead of on the computer.)


from the top of the world

graphic design blog

Here’s something I’ve designed recently—Tales from the Top of the World, a book about climbing Mount Everest, focusing on the experiences of ‘Mr. Everest’ Pete Athans. Reading this book will simultaneously make you:
1. want to Climb Mount Everest
2. never ever ever want to climb Mount Everest
3. have immense respect for those who have attempted and accomplished this feat.

I kept the layout fairly simple to show off the photography, aiming for a high-quality magazine feel. And as every bit of climbing Everest has an element of danger involved, I’ve so used a thin red line motif in various places and ways throughout the book.

identity redux one

graphic design blog

And…here it is, new personal identity pieces. I’m much happier with the redo than with the original.

(There’s an invoice design too, just not shown here. That would have been too much white in the display. But, since this is an identity package, you can get a good idea of what it looks like based on the other pieces. Funny how that works.)

brochures are fun

graphic design blog, musings

Why are brochures fun? My thoughts are these: they generally have a short lifespan, so you don’t have to worry about them looking to trendy and not holding up in time. They can be a chance to try a new technique or design idea. And even if you end up hating the result (admit it, that happens sometimes) you won’t have to live with it for long. But it’ll be there, in your file of past work, to look back on and laugh and chalk up to a learning experience.

Here’s a companion brochure to the IPS identity I posted earlier. I like this one, it was fun. I don’t look back on it and laugh. Instead I look back on it and think “Hey, can I do more collateral work with this identity?”

standing the test of time, mostly

graphic design blog

This is OLD. I still like it though. Are there things that could have been done better? Sure! But as a whole the look and feel fit the topic and it still makes me want to listen to music outdoors in my community, so it’s a success. I do like to remember this how it should have been—on a heavier uncoated paper that would give it more of a natural feel—than on the paper the printer used; a glossy lightweight stock. They donated the paper and printing though, so it’s hard to complain too much!

new imprint, new logo

graphic design blog

A new logo for an older publisher acquired by my publishing employer as a new imprint. The Darby Creek imprint is comprised of chapter books and YA easy to read fiction.

First, sketches, narrowed down some and scanned from my sketchbook:

I seem to remember being really excited about the electrical outlet version at this point, but the reason why escapes me. Reading is that spark of electricity to get the mind going, maybe?

Then I narrowed down the sketches, cleaned up a bit, and sent to all involved parties for input:

Favorites at this point were the fishing pole and the top script. More discussions followed, resulting in the winner:

Cover logo, spine logo, and title page logo are done. And it comes in white, too!

Here it is in use: