I’m teaching Design in the MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia this summer. Since I began this venture, I’ve been paying more attention to really well-designed picture books, like CAT SAYS MEOW by award-winning graphic designer, Michael Arndt
. He took a break from his busy schedule to answer some questions…
Q. Michael - Can you explain your love affair with design?
Hi Elizabeth, or should I say "Meow"? Thank you for having me here. How much time do you have?
I have always liked to draw. I am the youngest of 5 children. My grandfather was a sign painter and would hand letter all his work with sable brushes and paint. My dad was a landscape architect and 4 out of we 5 kids studied design. Whether nature or nurture, we all liked to draw. I wanted to be an illustrator but through a series of circumstances ended up majoring in Graphic Design instead at the University of Cincinnati. Unfortunately they didn't have an illustration program so the first couple years there I spent trying to transfer to a school that did offer illustration. My design professors at UC campaigned for me to stay, saying that Graphic Design was a perfect foundation from which to go on to do several things in the visual arts field, even illustration. It turns out they were right! By the time
I graduated I was hooked. Friends call me the consummate designer because I eat, drink and breathe it. It really is a love affair. Architecture, package design, interior design, furniture design, you name it. I love it; I surround myself with it; I search the world for it; and love to create it. I've been known to search for months for the perfect food and water bowls for my dog and cat (of course they ate and drank in the meantime!) I happen to be one of those people who believes that good design enhances our quality of life and our environment has a profound impact on our life experience. For a designer that is even more so. Beauty in, beauty out. And let's face it, who doesn't like to be surrounded by things that they find beautiful AND that function well?
Q. I like to think I’m a type geek, but I have a feeling your passion is above and beyond. What are your thoughts on type?
Graphic designers are communicators. I am fascinated by all things visual and all things relating to communication and so type falls perfectly in the overlapping middle area of this Venn diagram. I also love and respect words and language (my own native English and foreign languages). Type, in our culture at least, represents individual letters and sounds (the components of both written and spoken language) and therefore a method of writing and reading. Type makes thoughts and speech visual and tangible. It is also an entity unto itself with its own history. For example, it reflects the medium which created it (serifs come from the process of chiseling stone as well as painting with brushes). The form type assumes I believe can even reflect the sound that it makes. The sinewy curves of the letter "S" somehow mimic the "S" sound itself. The rounded curves of a lower case "m" almost seem to be an illustration of the two lips that in fact create the "M" sound when they force air out of the mouth. Type also has it own visual character derived from size, proportion, weight, color, texture, and shape. There is an inherent beauty in all its varied permutations. Type even reflects trends and time periods. Most interesting and fun to me is the fact that each letter, and in turn each typeface, has personality! I don't think it is a coincidence that the individual letters are called 'characters' as I see the characters in the Roman alphabet as being almost anthropomorphic. Their proportions approximate human ones and therefore there is a pleasing familiarity to them. Not only does type represent the denotative meaning of a word, i.e.: the letters C-A-T arranged in that order represent a feline animal in English, but the typefaces are definitely connotative as well; that is, their visual form suggests different attributes and personalities. The possibilities to then use this to communicate a message are endless. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Type to me is really just shapes or pictures and therefore the visual iteration of them tells its own story. I always like to say, the style of a typographic message should by itself communicate its content, even if you cannot the read the language in which it is written.
Q. You combine the sounds each animal makes to come up with the shape of the animal. You’re dealing with design and human senses on so many levels in this book. How challenging a project was this?
The designs weren't as challenging as you might think as that is what I do on a daily basis: use type and image and juxtapose them or even combine them conceptually and physically to create a synthesis of image and meaning. What WAS and continues to be challenging is coming up with which animals to feature and deciding what their sounds are! Not every animal makes a sound and if it does, it is not necessarily easy to transliterate that sound into human speech and then into letters that can be readily agreed upon. In fact, some of the animals in the book "go" instead of "say," meaning their sounds comes from their body like the rabbit thumping (its foot) or the squirrel chomping (on an acorn) whereas the others "say" things with their voices. Interesting anecdote, some animals had to be changed in the editing review process to conform the spelling of their sounds to traditionally agreed-upon spellings in English of what their sounds are. For example, I originally had the horse NAAYing phonetically. I then agreed to change it to say NEIGH based on historical precedents in children's literature. In the case of animalopoeia, this meant not just changing the copy but redrawing the corresponding animal itself from scratch. Luckily my editor, the designers at Chronicle, and I all were happier with the new horse. The "I" supplied a nice white blaze and the "H" became a tasty piece of hay. We also modified the hummingbird and rabbit due to changes in spelling. This resulted in the hummingbird gaining a flower and the rabbit losing a set of whiskers!
Q. Did some of the animals come more easily than others?
Definitely. The dog was the very first animal I came up with as anybody who knows me personally knows how much I love (read: am obsessed) with dogs, especially my own dog Clooney, who for the record—since this is an interview—is the cutest and best dog in the world. The cat was next and he/she (I haven't assigned it a gender) was very easy, perhaps the easiest. Cats say meow and "M" is a perfect set of ears, "E" and "O" are nice, round, eye-like characters, and what better letter for feline jowls than a "W"? The cow was likewise fairly easy and quick to come to life. The most challenging from a design standpoint were probably the chick, the rabbit, and the turkey. And in case anyone was wondering, the frog is my personal favorite illustration, just because I like the range of fonts used.
Q. This isn’t your typical picture book - what was your journey to publication with CAT SAYS MEOW?
Thank you, Elizabeth. A lot of reviewers have in fact called it unique-and I think they mean it as a compliment! I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I am neither a writer nor a traditional illustrator. As a Graphic Designer I naturally come to this with a different perspective and approach I suppose. animalopoeia (lower case intentional) started as just a cat and dog from which I had planned to create a small line of letterpress cards that I had planned to market by myself. After drawing the cat, the cow came to me fairly quickly and once I had expanded beyond pets to then farm animals, it was fun to see how many I could do. I quickly had 6, then 12, after a while 18, and by the end of about three months, a nice round number of 24. At that point I realized that both the number of animals and the format (Cat says meow, Dog says woof...) easily lent themselves to a familiar children's book format. I figured I had nothing to lose by putting together a prototype using an online book printing and binding service, and mailing it off to Chronicle Books along with a brand presentation, something I also do routinely in my 'day job.' I only sent it to one publisher, Chronicle Books (and told them such in my cover letter), as not only have they been my favorite publisher for years but I thought they would be the right ones to publish it if anybody were to. Luckily they agreed! I fully realize how truly lucky and unusual my story is (first book idea, first proposal sent, only one publisher submission) and live every day in gratitude and a bit of residual disbelief!
Q. Graphic design covers so much in our world - why did you concentrate on a picture book?
Yes! Graphic Design is EVERYWHERE in our world and the kids of today are more visually savvy than ever due to exposure to well-designed, smart visual interfaces from companies such as Apple Computers, apps, websites, etc. Why did I concentrate on a picture book? In a way it naturally evolved from the greeting card idea, but truth be told, deep down inside I suppose I always wanted to be an illustrator and in the end do a children's book as it is such an ideal project! The soul's desires have a way of rising to the surface! With picture books I get to be (actually am probably required to be!) fun, imaginative, simple, creative, different. Best of all children's book creators get to create a piece of someone's childhood and even learning experience. Librarians and teachers (our unsung heroes in my opinion) have been without doubt the biggest supporters of "Cat Says Meow and other animalopoeia" for its educational aspects. At first that surprised me (after all, I have no formal experience in childhood education) but on further thought, I realized that educators and designers have actually the same mission at the end of the day. To communicate information in a way that is simple, clear, interesting, and ultimately... memorable. When viewed that way, it starts to make sense that a graphic designer could, would and maybe even should do a children's book. Actually, there is long tradition of graphic designers who have done children's books from Saul Bass to Paul Rand to Bruno Mari so I am in illustrious company and honored and humbled to be so.
Q. Have you caught the bug? Will we see more fun works like this from you?
The bug has caught me and swallowed me whole! It is a dream from which I hope to never awake! Yes, with any luck you will see more. I already have more in the animalopoeia series in various stages of design and proposal and several more books, most of them—but not all—for children. Ideally any book I might do would be enjoyed by people of all ages as many reviewers are saying "Cat Says Meow" is. The common threads I aim to incorporate in future books are my love of design, animals, language, philosophy and desire to create something different, meaningful, and educational. The work that excites me most and that I admire from others is potent in concept and content but clean, clear, and minimal in its execution.
Thanks for the interview, Elizabeth. This was fun! That's all for meow...
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