Art Direction with Chad Beckerman
Associate Art Director, Book Publishing
New York City, New York
Chad Beckerman studied Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, but what he really learned while in college was how to problem solve. This is essential in his line of work as an Associate Art Director at Harry N. Abrams, a book publisher in New York City. With his job comes a lot of juggling of projects and personalities. That said it helps to have a healthy sense of humor and people skills, which you will observe in The Career Cookbook interview. Read on to understand the responsibilities of an Art Director, the importance of book jackets, and pick up tips on how to be better prepared for the publishing industry.
*Editor's Note: Since this interview was conducted Chad has been promoted to Art Director.*
CCB: What did you study at the Rhode Island School of Design?
CB: At RISD I studied Illustration which was basically a concentration
in medieval practices of painting and drawing. But most importantly
the department teaches you to think and solve problems visually.
This is in my opinion almost more important than skill. The definition of
illustration is very broad. It is constantly being redefined every
day, from animation, textile illustration to book design.
CCB: Have you been able to apply anything that you learned there to your job?
CB: I think if I hadn't had that education I wouldn't be able to do my
job, without being able to think on my feet. Every day I have to solve
some visual problem very quickly like what to do for a jacket
illustration for a novel or a picture book. Sometimes for example on
picture books illustrators don't think about their jackets only their
interiors, which is sort of surprising. Sometimes you have to piece
together their style from the interior. You would do a sketch. As an
Art Director or designer if you can sketch your ideas that helps out a
lot because you can communicate much more efficiently and more on
their level. Visual people seem to go that way. It's like doing a
movie poster. You are doing one image that sums up the whole entire
book without giving the story away.
CCB: What is art direction in terms of your work? Is it design and
layouts of books?
CB: Yes, it's both. Art direction by definition is the direction of
art. From the design to layouts, searching for illustrators, directing
illustrators on their illustrations and directing a staff. Everyday is
a new experience. I might be working on a couple of picture books or a
novel or maybe an inflatable pillow for our latest book on sheep.
Usually I have a list of at least ten things I need to do for a day. Some
are rush items, some less so. It is my job to balance all of these
projects and be able to give everyone’s project the attention it
deserves. Which is not always an easy task but it is something I pride
myself in being able to accomplish. Every book deserves the best.
Mainly you are here to make sure everything looks great, trying to
bring out the best possible end result from your illustrator. Constant
optimism is the way to go. You want to build good relationships with
people. That is a big part of art direction. I would even go as far as
to say it is the most important part of art direction.
CCB: So you have to have people skills?
CB: If you don't have people skills or know how to relate to people
you could probably do the job but you aren't going to enjoy it as
much. All you do is talk to people. You are still doing a lot of
design, but you are also either managing a staff or talking with
freelancers or your illustrators. I don't talk with authors as much
but once in awhile I will. You have to understand you are doing their
books and it's your job to make their books look good.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in publishing?
CB: It took me a little while to find out what I was good at. One of
the things I found easy is being able to work with people. I
discovered that when I was a TA (Teaching Assistant) at RISD, setting
up class or helping with painting. I enjoyed that and thought maybe I
should go into teaching and that aspect really helps with being an Art
Director. Helping bring out the best in people’s work. You are in a
sense a little bit of a teacher to your designer and hopefully not as
much to your illustrators. (Laughs)
CCB: What appeals to you about working in this field?
CB: Candy. (Laughs) Around the holidays publishers get a lot of candy.
I think the whole reason I went into the art field is that I knew I
like to make things, to be part of something physical. At the end
of a project you get to hold onto something you helped make, that is
so rewarding. I think that's something that is sort of archaic now a
days but it's kind of great. This might sound odd but the first thing
I do when I get a new book in from the printer is I smell it. There is
nothing quite like smelling the fruits of your labor. The fresh ink can
give you a headache. But it’s a great feeling. Much more rewarding than
CCB: How did you break into the industry?
CB: With a bit of brass and luck. Summer after RISD, I was wandering
around Providence doing odd jobs when a former teacher of mine Judy
Sue Goodwin-Sturges suggested I go to her. She is an illustration rep
for children's book illustrators. I also put together a portfolio last
minute of novel jacket designing, which is almost shameful to mention
now. After hanging out in the College Hill Bookstore on Thayer Street
I fell in love with novel jacket design. During this meeting Judy Sue
saw that I was passionate about hopefully being able to do this kind
of work. She directed me to Elizabeth Parisi who is still an Art
Director at Scholastic. In my head I was going in there to show my
illustration work and get some work from that as a freelancer. At this
time I hadn't taken myself as a designer seriously. She just happened
to have a job opening and she offered it to me after about two
interviews. I remember I got the call just as I was boarding a train
at Grand Central. Oddly enough two years later I received my second
offer for a job at Grand Central as well. I worked at Scholastic as a
Design Assistant for about a year and a half and then moved on to be a
Designer at Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Connections help as well as being shameful about publicizing your
work and yourself. My advice to someone trying to get in the
door is if you don't have any inside connections be relentlessly
passionate about your work. People will take notice.
CCB: What does the position of Design Assistant entail?
CB: To be honest you are doing pretty much everything the Art
Director doesn't want to do. I worked on a lot of series books so the
design was already set for those by the Art Director. I was just
carrying it through, doing a bit of busy work. But as this might sound
boring it wasn't. It helped me learn the bookmaking process and how
to design. I tried to make everything my own, making the work
more personal. Even if I just picked a font for a book that was something.
You are doing a lot of assistant work with phone calls, scheduling,
and office work. That's a lot of fun. (Sarcastic) But again on the
positive side I began to learn about the inner workings of the
publishing business and how design plays its role. At HarperCollins,
Greenwillow Books I was still with a major company but Greenwillow is
much different than any imprint in publishing. They have that small
house feel which is really nice and personable. Greenwillow was and is
a family in every meaning of the word. I was there for about four
years. And I was sad when it was time for me to move on.
CCB: The new job was in the same capacity?
CB: I started as a Designer and was later promoted to a Senior Designer.
CCB: What happens as you are moving up the ladder, are you getting
CB: I found at Greenwillow what was great for me to be there was my
Art Director Paul Zakris. He encouraged me to go for projects that I
wanted and to make them my own. Meaning if I saw a project that I
wanted go to him and ask for it or come to him with ideas for it. I
did that for a lot of projects. Paul in this sense was a good teacher
for me. I find this to be a great quality in an Art Director. Once I
started taking projects that I really liked I started becoming very
close with them. That's when I started realizing that I could
illustrate the novel jackets through digital media as well as design
for them. Thus taking on two roles as Illustrator and designer. I've done
around ten jackets in about the last two years. Again, if I can give
any advice to someone new to publishing be it editorial or design, it
is be enthusiastic and passionate about what you do even if the projects
aren't what you want at the moment. Make them your own, put yourself
into your work and you'll see that you enjoy your work so much more.
CCB: Once you left Greenwillow you went over to Abrams?
CB: I came over in January 2006. That's when I received the title of
Associate Art Director.
CCB: How did you learn about being an Art Director?
CB: I am learning about it everyday. I watched what my last two Art
Directors have done and picked up things that I like and that I don't
like. Obviously it's different than being a Senior Designer or a
Designer because there's a lot more responsibility. Now I'm more
involved in the day to day business of books. Watching what people do
and making sure that they can do the best job they can. In a way this
brings back my TA experience. It's the same mentality because I am
helping assist illustrators and a small staff.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as an Art Director?
CB: Usually every day starts with a good bout of swearing and throwing
of things. I come in, sit down, close the blinds (like to work in the
dark), and do my swearing. Usually no one is there when I'm doing it.
Then I play a little poker and have a cigar so it’s now about
noon so I get some lunch. (Laughs)
The typical day is going through the workload, what is on the table that
needs to go out to production. Then say if I needed to find illustrators
I would start going through manuscripts and trying to pick illustrators
that I think go with the project, which is a lot more commercial than one
might realize. A lot of people think that kid's books must be easy.
They are only doing a couple of pages and kids they don't know any better, right?
That also goes for writing as well not just pictures. A lot of people think they
can write kid's books because there are few words. I think one of the
hardest things in the world to do is write a kid's book that is good.
If you have a writer that is very popular then it opens up the door to
find an illustrator that is not as popular because you have the writer
to back you up financially. He or she's already established so now
maybe is the time to bring on a younger talent that you can start
CCB: Is that just to break in new talent? Is it a cost thing?
CB: It's both. It's insurance. You have to remember it's a business.
By having a more established writer or illustrator to headline the
show you can get more people in the building to buy tickets. But this is not
always the case. Sometimes you just want to make a nice book.
CCB: Once you have the manuscript how do you decide on the illustrator
that will compliment it best?
CB: First I go through illustrators and art styles that I like because
I'm going to be working with that person and I really want to believe
in their work. Then you have to find some style that fits the text.
Say it's a period book you want to find an illustrator that has a
style that will go along with the time period of the book. I will
present two or three possible illustrators and the editor will
decide which he or she thinks fits the project. Ultimately it comes down to
them and what they like. Of course I can offer my opinions to help
sway the final judgment.
CCB: Can you talk me through the design of books and what your role is
from beginning to completion?
CB: To get the best design possible you have to read the book so that
you can get a sense of the story. What time does it take place in?
Whether this is a fantasy? And if you are going to call upon an
illustrator or a photographer. How is the book going to be layed out.
What fonts work with the book? Are the fonts readable for the age
group? These things you have to think about while reading it.
I just did this book called Hell Phone for Amulet Books. It's
basically this book about a kid buying a cell phone and this person
keeps calling him that's the devil or a demon. It's called Hell Phone,
bad things happen. The editor kept saying two words, campy and
iconographic. This called for a very simple kind of jacket. My
solution was I put a cell phone on the cover and had flames coming off
it. Very simple, very campy, a little hokey but it's an eye catching
image that the age group can relate to. I also designed the interior
of the novel. This doesn't happen in a lot of houses where the jacket
and the interior are done by the same person, but I like doing them
both. I like the whole thing to have a cohesive feel to it. Especially
in interiors because I think a lot of people have the interiors drop
off and not think they are as important. I think they are just as or
maybe more important. I learned this from Scholastic because they do
some amazing interiors. My thought is once you buy the book you are
going to spend the most time with the interior so you might as well
make it visually interesting.
I know a lot of boys aren't into reading for whatever reason. I
remember feeling a satisfaction in reading and getting to the next
chapter head. My theory is that you want to make that chapter head as
interesting as possible so there is excitement to get to the next one.
With picture books it's more about the illustrator and the writer and
their vision of what the book is. You do however pick the fonts and
how it's going to be designed and such. You want it especially for the
age group to be understated.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as an Art Director?
CB: Well, you have to be good at working with people. You want to be
inspirational in your design. You want to have a strong design sense
and know what kind of designers you have. If you have a designer
working with you they are going to feel confident working with you
knowing that you are going to stand up for their design, their ideas.
That's what I'm trying to do with my designer in getting her to bring
her ideas forward. I think that's a good quality of an Art Director.
Another one is having a good eye for illustration and details. Being
organized is huge because you have a lot of things on your plate.
Being a good problem solver is huge. I am constantly having to solve
problems whether its how to get the damn color copier to work or how am
I going to design this jacket for a new novel.
CCB: Does art direction differ on what type of book you are working on
whether a children's title or adult?
CB: A picture book I look at it as needing less attention as far as
design. It needs much more attention in art directing the work, the
art. So that it fits with the text, leaving enough room for it. That
the illustrations are actually working with the text.
CCB: Is it tricky finding out what images go with the text?
CB: For a novel it's trickier because there is only one image to sell
that book. You have to make it dynamic. Especially with novel jackets
they are always changing, with the style that is in. Right now this
chick-lit half face half hand is sort of in and is going out. I hope.
I hate jackets with stock images. A lot of people use stock art for
novels. If I can avoid using stock art I do because I think it's a
little dry. It could be better and doesn't have as personal a touch.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming Art Directors?
CB: Become a lawyer. It pays more. (Laughs) And your shoes will always
be shiny. But seriously folks, do work that you want to do and find
out how to do that. I think anybody wants to see somebody go after
projects and make them their own. When you become more involved in a
project you are going to become better. You are going to enjoy what
you do and go home at the end of the day feeling like you did a great
job because you just made yourself part of this and your name is going
to go on this. I'm really proud of the fact that I'm making this art.
CCB: As far as trying to break into the industry how would you advise
about going to do that? Do you have to possess a certain type of
background to begin with?
CB: I didn't have a direct design background, meaning I wasn't in the
graphic design department at RISD. What I did at RISD was take a lot of
classes outside of my major. I think that helped me a lot. I took
photography, design, and animation classes. I got a feel of a variety
of things which I think helps a lot in art direction because you are
dealing with a variety of things. That includes technical knowledge
about computers and how things work. That's huge. You’re only as good
as your knowledge of your tools. Somebody once told me that, whether
you are a carpenter or designer. If you know your tools your work will
be better for it. I had the knowledge of working with design programs
but it wasn't until I started working in publishing that I figured out
how to be able to use them for publishing's day to day work. Which is okay.
As far as breaking in, if you don't know anyone working in publishing
then look at the publishers’ websites, they offer jobs all the time.
Also it helps to know who is designing what. This information can
easily be found in books. So if you call up or email an Art
Director it helps if you know their work. For example Dear Mr.
Beckerman, I loved your design on the Last Apprentice
which you did at Greenwillow Books. An ego boost to a wary designer
will always keep you on the top of the list. I'm just saying. (Laughs)
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
CB: Doing something that everyone is going to like but doing what I
like first and then making everyone else like it. You want to be happy
with what you make at the end of the day no matter how small.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far apart
CB: Having something you have made at the end of the day. Plus
designing books helps you look very well read. It helps fill the holes
on your book shelves. When people come over to your home it looks like
you did a lot of reading. Even if it is only children's books.
Or if your couch leg is a bit too short you can use the books you worked
on to make it level again. That's a nice aspect of it. (Laughs)
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
CB: That I have a job.. (Laughs) Once I tell people I design book
jackets one of the most common responses they have is, "You do the whole
jacket?" What do you mean? I'm doing this front jacket but this back jacket is
killing me! I'm calling in somebody else. I think a lot of people
don't understand that there are people who have to design these books.
They just think that they come that way. (Laughs)
CCB: What surprised you the most?
CB: How much I love my job. I am constantly surprised how fast five
o’clock comes around. Also I am surprised in how I've handled the job
since taking it on. It is a big leap for someone my age (At least
that's what I told myself at the beginning). I just turned 28. That is
fairly young in the book publishing world for an Art Director. I
think the management thing was the biggest surprise. I was doing all
these things before but it wasn't under the same heading or
responsibility of it. At the end of the day people weren't coming to
me. I'm very happy with where I am and how I have been progressing.
CCB: What are your career aspirations?
CB: Publishing domination by age 29. Or I would also settle for
expanding my freelancing, doing more novel jackets. Not as a designer
but rather as the illustrator. Learning the job I have now is
basically what I have coming up career-wise.
* To find out more about Chad's work: http://www.chadwbeckerman.com/