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Andrew Pettie – designing nonfiction

Andrew Pettie talked to Nikki Gamble In The Reading Corner about designing nonfiction.



Andrew joined Nikki Gamble for this episode of In The Reading Corner to talk to us about his book Listified and explain the importance of good design and particularly the difference it makes to readers.

Interview Transcript

Nikki Gamble

So in the reading corner today, I’m pleased to welcome Andrew Pettie. We’re going to be talking about his work with What On Earth Books and Britannica Books today. And our main conversation is going to be about design. So, first of all, a big welcome to you.

Andrew Pettie

Ah, thank you, Nikki.

Nikki Gamble

I want to start by asking you about your journey into children’s books. I’m fascinated by the roots that people take to come into children’s books.

Andrew Pettie

Yes. I’m something of a late arrival, so I spent most of my career, 20 or so years, working in newspapers and magazines. My role was as an editor, say a magazine editor, where you were doing both commissioning the articles and thinking up the ideas, but also working on the design in terms of what’s going to be on the cover, how are we going to lay the issue out.

I worked at The Telegraph as the Arts and Culture editor. About five or 10 years. So yeah, that was my background. So, I think the seeds of what I’m doing now in children’s publishing were still there. It’s that kind of curiosity about the world, this love of making things clear to people and, particularly in a daily newspaper, you’ve got to grab people, you’ve got to grab their attention.

You’ve got to make them care. You’ve got to get them engaged in your story and visuals. Images and design are probably the first. You do that. Now over the last few years, working with what on Earth Books and Britannica books on, children’s nonfiction, it’s the same skills.

You’re trying to engage a younger audience and they’ve got a huge thirst for information. So it’s a great readership, but also of course they’re younger. They have fewer points of reference. And so that clarity and also, I think that engagement they’re a tougher audience because they’ve got a million distractions.

So I do feel in a way that all of the skills, both visual design and commissioning and editing, which is all about presenting information to readers in a way that they’re going to engage with, was a really good preparation to then going into children’s nonfiction.

Nikki Gamble

Would it be true to say that working on something like The Telegraph, for instance, there must already be a house style in place? When you’re starting a new list or coming to a young list like this, you must have more control over what the look and feel of a product are going to be.

Andrew Pettie

Yes, that is a good point. And it’s both more challenging and difficult, and yes more creative and exciting. So, you’re right, a well-established newspaper like the Telegraph is 150 years old, so there’s a whole design aesthetic, a series of fonts, a look and feel.

It was interesting working on redesigns. How do you update that and keep it modern and refresh it without losing its core design values.? But you are right. Coming to a new book, it’s a brand-new book, a brand new concept you might have brand new illustrators that you haven’t worked with before. A new concept for the book is exciting because of all of those decisions, right down to the point size and the font you’re going to choose, and the colour scheme, and then which illustrator or combination illustrators. How are you going to use photography? All those things you are deciding from scratch.

In fact, I’ve just been working with the same team with What on Earth and Britannica on a new, very exciting children’s non-fiction magazine called Britannica Magazine. But we have just finished the introductory issue, and that was exactly what you just described.

We had. 52 pages to fill a nonfiction magazine for children aged seven plus. And it was just a completely blank page, and it was quite scary but also really thrilling because, every design decision about a whole issue and how it would be organized and presented, we had to make from a blank slate.

It is just an evolution. You can’t sit down at the beginning and flat plan The issue took us six weeks probably, and the magazine at the end of those six weeks looked very different from week one. But you just have to go through the creative evolution, don’t you to work out what it is that feels right?

Nikki Gamble

Tell us about some of the other projects that you’ve worked on with What On Earth and Britannica.

Andrew Pettie

The biggest one of last year was a new book called Listified. The subtitle is Britannica’s 300 Lists That Will Blow Your Mind. So, it’s nonfiction, it’s amazing lists about the universe, all factual. And the job, was, again, tied to my journalism career because, I felt the brief was for me and as the editor and writer and overseer of the book to be like an investigative journalist, but for children.

So, I thought I’m going to go around the universe and ask the questions, that say my nine-year-old daughter May would ask. I remember one of the examples: we were having a conversation about astronauts jumping on the moon, they can jump quite high, three or four meters. And my daughter May loved this. And so, she said, oh, that’s interesting, but how high can you jump on other planets? And I thought, oh, that’s a good question. So, I went off and researched that, and I found out.  One of the lists is how high you could jump in the air if you were standing on all the different planets. In fact, there’s a moon of Saturn called Enceladus where you could jump about 42 meters up in the air, you’d be up in the air for over a minute before you came down. So that was one of the 300 lists. So, we have, how long it would take you to drive through space to the moon in a car;15 things that would happen to you if you fell into a black hole. There are lists about dinosaurs and animals that, all the things that kids that age interested in. I think lists in terms of arranging information, both visually on the page and as you read it to yourself, make things easier to understand.

We all love lists. So, I think it was actually part of the whole point of Listified was to say, here’s a load of really interesting and amazing and fascinating things about the universe young readers will love but presented in the most digestible and engaging form possible. So in terms of the words that meant, we’re going to have these lists that are very easy to read and straight to the point and short ones and long ones.

And you can read the book in any order, and it’s that kind of thing, you dive into it. But also, with the illustration and the book’s design, again, to make it colourful, fun, engaging, and accessible.

I did it all in the first lockdown. And, I think the result was to create this one-stop shop for kids. They could just dive in and, within two pages, find something fascinating.

Nikki Gamble

We’re going to have a look at the book together. We’re starting with the title page.

Which is Listified, its vertical and has an exclamation mark at the bottom. And it leads me to my first question, which is about the choice of font for a book.

Andrew Pettie

I think it’s a really important decision. If you get it right, then the whole book comes together, and it feels like the design and the illustration is part of that. So, we spent a lot of time at the start working out the right balance, particularly the book, I think here where it’s nonfiction where it’s presenting information, and it’s a Britannica book, so we need a combination of authority and clarity, but also, it’s a children’s book, so it’s going to be fun and engaging.

And that’s partly, as you say, why the title Listified is arranged on its side. It’s in these quite bold block capitals with an exclamation mark. It has a silver reflective cover, and the title’s very big and bold along the spine. So, the whole point is it really stands out and grabs you. Hopefully, you’ll see it on the shelf and say, ‘Oh wow, what’s that?’

 Nikki Gamble

It’s not immediately obvious that you would put it running down the page, but it’s such a long word that actually, if you tried to run it across the page, you’d lose a lot of impact.

Andrew Pettie

It’s true. So, it’s partly necessity but also lists have the numbering running down the side. There’s a verticality about lists.

Nikki Gamble

It’s not the only font that’s used, is it? I think the main text will be written in a different font. Do you think about things like having sans serif fonts for children reading? Is the readability of it part of your thinking?

Andrew Pettie

Yes. And what’s interesting about the difference between serif and sans serif fonts is that people often think that having sans serif is clearer. And it can be, when you’re, thinking of very young children or perhaps small text in a panel where you need to make it simple.

However, our brains really respond and find it easier to read the curves of a serif font. It is interesting if you get those two sets of fonts, identical passages, and print them out side by side, and sometimes a serif font with a stronger weight is easier to read because the letters are more distinctive. And it can get tiring to read a sans serif font for a long period of time. It’s fine if it’s a big, simple text, like a book for Four- or five-year-olds, then you want glasses to be very simple and clear. But certainly, in newspapers, and a magazine, if you have a long-read feature and it’s in sans serif, it’s exhausting.

Try it. Honestly, it’s a fun experiment.

Nikki Gamble

I’m on the contents page now, and this is an incredibly colourful book. But is there a danger in being too colourful? Do you place restrictions on what you will and won’t use?

Andrew Pettie

That is a good question. I think whether it’s design or colour, clarity is the first thing. If people can’t understand what they’re seeing and make sense of it visually, they move away from it.

And the reverse is true if something leaps out, whether it is an image or a spread with a headline, if it suddenly makes sense to you, it draws you in. I think it is a problem if it’s too colourful or too many clashing colours or if the assembly of different elements is confusing. The other thing, I think is hierarchy. And that’s certainly a huge thing in newspaper magazine design. Where do you want the reader to look first? And every designer should be looking at the spread or the front page and saying, they’re going to look here first and then here.

And you’ve thought about that reading experience. Whereas if you throw too many things onto the page, colour’s one of them and the reader doesn’t know quite where to look or why, then, their brain naturally is slightly resistant to that, and they’re more likely to turn the page and move on.

So yes, you can use bright, bold colours, but know which ones and how they will fit together over the course of the book. You know your colour palette. On a page, you can have illustrations and images, but you’ve got to think about the hierarchy.

Then obviously, you can have some busy and exciting things and use a combination of colours; as with the content page, there are lots of different colours on this spread, and yet you would feel the tones are all of the same palette; they’ve been thought about together.

If you picked a whole different set of colours, particularly the left-hand page, which is a full-page illustration about different things that you’ll find inside the book, it could feel a bit too busy and overwhelming.  All these things are in your armoury, but it’s got to be in the service of what you are trying to engage the reader with.

Nikki Gamble

I’m just reading the subheadings. I’ve just been looking at those as we are talking, and they’re also very engaging. Brainwaves to toenails, tardigrades to super smart dogs.

Andrew Pettie

Children, like anyone, appreciate, and they notice the level of detail you go to. So, throughout all the lists as I was researching them, there were often more facts and more amazing stories than I could fit in the lists or tangential things that I discovered along the way.

I was in discussion with Natalie and Katie, the two editors I worked with who made the book brilliant. And they were saying, look, these are great. We don’t have space on this, so why don’t we add footnotes at the bottom? So we have a whole series of asterisks, marking something else that’s not actually included in the main list but is this interesting aside or a little joke of mine. Or sometimes we have similar things where we say, oh, there’s a connected list in another part of the book – little tunnels basically to take you to other parts of the book.

Nikki Gamble

I’m looking at a section on space on a page called The Expanding Universe. Is this a photograph that I’m looking at?

Andrew Pettie

This one’s an illustration So what we’re looking at is a visualization of the Big Bang and what that might have looked like.

Nikki Gamble

There is a mix in the book of photographs and illustrations. It must have been digitally created to get that effect, I’m guessing. But I’m interested to know what sorts of discussion you had around when to use photography. What does photography do well, and what does illustration do well?

Andrew Pettie

 Oh, that’s a good question. A brilliant Spanish artist called Andreas Lazano did all the spot art and the illustrations.

There are amazing facts throughout the book, but they’re also fun, and quirky. And we’ve got some, crazy lists and eccentric lists and funny lists, they’re not all just about information. So the illustrations are great to bring across that personality and that sense of humour.

One of the facts was that a tyrannosaurus Rex would be able to swallow 15,000 hamburgers in a single gulp. So Andreas drew a wonderful illustration of this T-Rex with a huge plate with millions of hamburgers, and he’s got a napkin around his throat about to tuck in. That’s that personality and warmth and humour that an illustrator can bring out.

 Where photography comes in – this is a good example; it’s the big bang and although this is an artist’s illustration of what the big bang might look like. Sometimes you need the precision of what does that look like? For example, one of the lists is five amazing rock formations that look like things like a camel, and of course, you just need photographs. I need to see exactly what that looks like to understand what you’re talking about.

Nikki Gamble

I like the idea of having personality in the books, coming in through illustration.

I think one of the things that I really appreciate in the books coming from What On Earth and Britannica is where there’s a fantastic photograph, give it its space.

Too often you see them framed and small, and you think if only that photograph were bigger. There’s so much to be seen in the detail of it.

Andrew Pettie

I think that’s true, if you’ve gone to the trouble of finding and selecting a great image, as you say, that’s the first step.

And then you need to make sure that it’s as big and clear and bold as it needs to be. Not giving images their full due on the page. They also crop too tightly. And so they don’t give the image room to breathe, including shots of people,

And in this book, there are lots of full-page images and as you say if it’s a great photo and you think it’s worth the money you paid for it then you give readers a chance to properly enjoy it, engage with it.

Nikki Gamble

I’m scrolling through and I’ve just been wowed by another, I’m guessing, digitally created image here.

Andrew Pettie

No, I think this, that’s a photograph. This is called a Mission Nebula. So it’s in deep space. So it’s amazing what it looks like.

Nikki Gamble

And this is a good example of what we’ve been talking about, where you have devoted a whole page to that picture.

Andrew Pettie

It’s just so easy. And you think with that age group, to see, a proper picture of the Milky Way is extraordinary. And obviously this age group they’ve got that childlike wonder. They’re discovering the universe for the first time. There’s a great list about lightning, about all the different kinds of lightning bolts. And that’s got a great photograph. There are these amazing facts about how a bolt of lightning is five times hotter than the surface of the sun, and yet only as thin as your thumb. So a bolt of lightning is only two or three centimetres wide. Lightning’s amazing when you see it properly. And a great photograph reminds you of that.

Nikki Gamble

It’s something that we’ve already talked about but this page this is literally bringing character to a book where you’re talking about the different kinds of stars and the stages that they go through. Whether it’s an average size star, a red giant or a planetary nebula, they’ve all been given a characteristic of age and vitality which brings the humor

Andrew Pettie

So these two lists are about the life stages of different types of star. But often it’s the kind of thing that can be presented to children a slightly ‘textbooky’ way, It could just be presented as a diagram and the suns all look similar. So Andreas did a great job here of giving each sun a personality. The older sun with the red] giant has a walking stick because it’s near the end of its life and it I think it helps communicate the idea of the different phases a sun goes through. From a child’s point of view, you flip open this page and it feels wow, this is fun. This is making me chuckle.

Nikki Gamble

Were there any of the lists that were a challenge to you as to how to present them?

 Andrew Pettie

Some of the human chapters. The final chapter is called Game Changers. And it’s about extraordinary people throughout But of course, young readers won’t have heard of necessarily those people.

We might be introducing a lot of them for the first time, even though they might be famous to us. So I think Andress does a really good job of picking the right people to illustrate using photography, trying to dramatize some of the scenes from the lists. So one of them, for example, is incredible journeys featuring12 people who went on epic adventures. This is people who walked all the way around the world or went to, did intrepid things at the North Pole or the South Pole. But one of them is, you probably heard a Sacha Dench, who’s a lady who was used to fly with swans and follow their migration patterns in a paraglider that had a motor behind it. And so that image across the whole spread. That’s the illustration that Andreas picked. You’re like, wow, wonderful. Look at this lady flying with swans. Extraordinary. He picked the right person to bring to life for the illustration.

Andreas did a brilliant job with the illustration. Here’s a great example- one of my favourite illustrations from the book, there’s a list of unusual rules. These are crazy laws that exist all around the world that are actually true. A lot of them are very funny. But the best one, which is the one that Andreas chose to illustrate was that it’s illegal in Arizona to allow a donkey to fall asleep in your bath after 7:00 PM.  And the reason this is illegal to this day in Arizona is because this happened in 1921. Someone allowed their donkey to fall asleep in the bath in a town called Kingman. And a river flooded nearby, and it flooded through the town, and it washed the donkey and the bath down the valley. And it was a mile and a half down the valley where eventually the donkey and the bath came to rest and the towns people went off and they rescued it and the donkey was fine. But the whole thing was such an ordeal so they passed a law, so that will never happen again. So a great, mad story, that’s also true. But the illustration Andreas has done is hilarious of a donkey lolling in a big bathtub snoozing. You just see that before you’ve read the list and think, I don’t know why that donkey’s having a nap and a bath, but I want to know. And that draws you into the list.

Nikki Gamble

So we’ve been talking a page by page look at the book, but at some point you must come together to think about what this looks like in its entirety. And is there a consistency there? There probably is because you’ve set up certain rules to begin with, but it might be more to do with whether there are enough surprises and the pacing of it. Do you have to make adjustments at that point?

Yes. That’s, another very good point. For each chapter, there are around 40 or 50 lists. So you know, there’s balancing in terms of length of lists, we need short, snappy lists on some pages. There are others that are written where each entry is a little story or anecdote in itself.

We need a pacing between, funny quirky lists and information led ones we needed ones based on illustration, we need some with imagery., I think there was a balancing both within the chapters and then also between the chapters.

It was easy, for example, to bring personality to the animals chapter and humour than it was to say a natural world. I suppose we were conscious of perhaps having to work a bit harder on some chapters, so they had all the elements we wanted, but I think we got there.

It was just a case of once you had feeling for a chapter you could replicate it across the others.

Nikki Gamble

 I have to say that this is a project that I would have loved to have been working on in lockdown. It would certainly have kept me entertained as it obviously kept you entertained through that period.

Have we got any other, interesting books to look forward to in 2022. Yes. The thing we’re working on now is to do with infographics, I think that’s another very interesting thing where people understand things visually first. Explaining something to someone visually is often shortcut to their brain. There are some children for whom words aren’t always the quickest way to help them understand. I think it’s really interesting to really push those design values to create a book where a child just opens each page looks at a spread and just says, wow. And that whatever the insight or, wow moment that you’re trying to communicate, if they can just get that at a glance which you can do with the illustration and great design, then they’re learning in the most immediate way possible. So that’s the kind of thing we’re working on next.

It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you, Andrew. Thank you so much for joining me in the reading corner. Oh, likewise, Nikki. It’s been a pleasure.

In the Reading Corner is presented by Nikki Gamble and produced by Alison Hughes.

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