From the Designer’s Desk: Jo Ellen Ackerman

For May’s edition of From the Designer’s Desk we interviewed the talented Jo Ellen Ackerman on her design process.


Yale University Press: Why did you pursue design, rather than, say, painting or architecture or sculpture?

Jo Ellen Ackerman: When I was young, my father was the manager of a paint department that also carried art supplies. He would bring home pads of paper, paints, colored pencils and various how-to books about sketching and calligraphy. I pored over a Speedball lettering textbook, drawing the various typefaces. Around the same time, I had an “Aha!” moment about art and artists. I got a great children’s book of famous paintings as a birthday present. Because it was for children, who have no built-in anxiety about how art needs to be observed, it simply asked you to look at a picture and see what was there, pointing out small things the artist had done through composition and technique. The artists probably fascinated me even more than the art, and I wanted to learn more about these interesting, independent people. Looking back, it’s easy to see the intersection of these two early interests, but even while in college, I didn’t know you could become something called a graphic designer… and studied art history instead. It was only after I landed my first job out of school in a publishing company, that I understood how I could apply these combined interests.

YUP: Have you ever completed a project and only after the book was printed did the perfect (or, at least, a better) design solution occur to you? 

JEA: Not really. I don’t think there is one perfect solution to any book.  But sometimes I do see a few things I could have done differently, especially when a project is on a particularly tight schedule.

YUP: Is your work on a book project usually more of a slow, progressive effort, or is it moved forward by unpredictable moments of inspiration? 

JEA: It’s great when you feel inspired by a subject right from the beginning, and the design process moves along almost effortlessly. The enthusiasm of a curator or author is often infectious, and for me, the more I can get excited by the material, the easier it is to design.

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YUP: Do you feel that a book’s design can, or should, play an assertive role in how a reader experiences the book, or do you feel the best book design is a kind of behind-the-scenes art – where the reader isn’t even always aware of the influence of the design?  

JEA: Because I work primarily on books about art or architecture, I take a more behind-the scenes approach. I am well aware of my role—I am not the artist and I need to keep my ego in check. My satisfaction comes when the finished book is a beautiful object and presents the art and text in a clear, organized manner. The goal of a book cover is to attract a reader enough to pick it up, and then the interior has to be engaging and accessible, so that they want to follow the author along on his journey. Book design (especially interiors) is kind of an esoteric category of graphic design anyway, unlike say, poster design, so it often goes unnoticed.

YUP: What is your favorite font?

JEA: I don’t have any particular favorite, and I love the beginning of a project when I am deciding which typefaces will work best with the subject. I tend to use my stock of Pro fonts for text, because they offer the full range of accents, old style figures, etc., that art books demand. If I had unlimited finances, I would expand this set considerably. But in some cases, limitations allow your creativity to flourish. Some of the most creative book covers I’ve seen come from designers who work within a very narrow palette of type.

YUP: Do you design books in other genres and categories than art and architecture?  If so, what are some primary differences between designing, say, a novel versus a large, glossy book on architecture? 

JEA: I’ve always designed illustrated books. Even before I concentrated on the arts, I worked on science textbooks which have extraordinarily complex layouts. I’m sure conceptualizing a novel would be different, but in the end it’s a book that somebody has to read.

YUP: How can an author make a book designer’s job easier? 

JEA: If an author has any strong ideas about design, they should express them clearly upfront. That can be done either through positives “I love futura,” or negatives “I hate the color blue.” And I especially like to see books that an author particularly likes. That can tell me a lot.

YUP: Who are your favorite book designers?
JEA: I enjoy looking at my colleagues’ work, so I am most familiar with museum and university press book designers. Whenever CAA is in New York I attend the book fair, and I always look over the winners in the AAUP book show. I think many of the designers on staff at university presses are extraordinarily talented. I get to cheat a bit because I usually get to work with art that kind of speaks for it itself. But when a designer can take a fairly dry, scholarly text and make it engaging, and dare I say it, exciting, I have to tip my hat to them.


Jo Ellen Ackerman is a principal at Bessas & Ackerman, a husband and wife team that designs books for museums, libraries and university publishers.

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