Images and Visuals: Behind The Scenes on an Illustrated Book


“I’m always preaching about the importance of gathering visuals and displaying them together., so that you can actually see who you are, aesthetically. In fact, my next book was sold to Penguin based on that…” – AUTHOR AMANDA BROOKS

There’s no getting around it: we are in the visual age. Where once it was all about the word, today it’s all about the image. Photographs are as much a part of the textural fabric of our lives as the social media tools that capture them. In a world cluttered by information, visuals simplify life. They cut across languages and borders, both geographically and aesthetically. They are the default alphabet of our modern life.
(Images above from a forthcoming London guide book, currently in production.)
Our visual intelligence is now so refined that many of us are communicating largely by images rather than words. We are even able to recall the images we’ve seen, much like conversations. I was in a New York publishing meeting recently, and the editor not only recognized every image or photo shoot I referred to, but knew which magazine they had been published in. Diana Vreeland would have been proud. An interior designer friend in Sydney has the same recall: she can look at an image and pinpoint which designer / website / book / magazine / fashion collection or era it comes from. I go to her whenever I think of an idea for a book and want to see if it’s ever been done before? Odds are, she will recall if it has.
Even my professional website, above, is largely visual-based ( LINK ), despite the fact that I’m a writer who does photography on the side.
Former New York creative director-turned-author Amanda Brooks has recently written about the influence of visuals and images in her newly re-designed blog I LOVE YOUR STYLE . (Beautiful, btw; just look at her ‘visual board’ on gardener Vita Sackville-West above.) “I’m always preaching about the importance of gathering visuals and displaying them together so you can actually see who you are aesthetically,” she says.
Now this may seem obvious but many of us don’t do it, believing we actually know our style. But collating images and visuals, whether via a blog, Pinterest, Instagram or even a clippings file, can lead to much more than understanding your aesthetic identity. In Amanda’s case, it has led to a new photographic book deal with Penguin.
And in the following paras, I’ll show you how images have been influential in deciding the ‘look’ of several new book projects.
You’ll see why visuals really are leading the way in the modern world.
For a long time, I was a word girl. A journalist. Visuals were something the photo editors took care of Then, I began contributing articles to Australian Vogue Living as a freelancer (not as the editor, as stated in a publisher’s blurb recently). The Melbourne editor, Helen Redmond, was famously lovely, but I’ll always remember something she once said to me. We were talking about Vogue Living’s high production values and she said that any intern who worked for them needed to be so aesthetically savvy that they could be trusted to go to the markets and find “ten perfect potatoes”, if they were required. (This was in the days when Vogue Travel and Entertaining was part of the Vogue stable.) Isn’t that fantastic? I’ve always remembered that. The Ten Perfect Potatoes Standard. It was the design version of ISO 9001:2015.
It made me realize that the ‘look’ of something can be as important as the story around it.
Now I remembered this quirky Vogue mantra recently because for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to design several books. And often I’ve felt I’ve not been living up to the ‘Perfect Potato’ standard.
It has been a brutal learning curve! And here’s how I got through.
When you’re struggling with anything, study the best. See how the pros do it. And one of the best photographers and visual manipulators around, in my insignificant opinion, is the New York-based Australian photographer Robyn Lea.
Robyn’s book The Milan Book, above, is a visual work of art. A publishing masterpiece. I kid you not. Here are some page designs, above and below…
There’s a fantastic video about how the book was produced from Robyn HERE, but there’s also fascinating post about how it was designed HERE.
The pages of this sumptuous tome feature (wait for it) varnishes, laser cuts, UV varnishes, almond scratch and sniff varnishes, hot stamps, reliefs and bas-reliefs, black silk screen prints details, letterpress inserts and silver laminations, among other effects.
Incredible. And that’s not even touching on the beautifully composed photographs.
Robyn (who is a new friend, so I hope she doesn’t mind all this!) has also recently produced the bestseller Dinner With Jackson Pollock: Recipes, Art & Nature, published by Assouline (2015). This is another extraordinarily beautiful book where the images have taken centre-stage.
And then there’s the new book A Day With Marie Antoinette by Flammarion —HERE.
Instead of another dry ‘insight’ into MA’s much-covered life, this mostly-visual book goes behind the antique armoires and lush bosquets of Versailles to show the exquisite details of her dresses, interiors and lifestyle. It shows whimsical things such as Marie Antoinette’s dress books (which catalogued all her outfits), the design details of her wallpapers and interiors, and even the beauty of her topiary. (Not that she cut it herself.)
It’s absolutely fascinating. A real design gem.
I suspect even Miss Marie Antoinette would have been impressed.
It’s one thing to look at pretty pix; another thing to understand why they affect us so much? One of the reasons is that images tell a story, mostly through their composition but also through their layers, colours, patterns and lines. The best images are as carefully put together as any photo shoot directed by Grace Coddington.


Look at the stills for the BBC’s new series on the Bloomsbury Group, A Life in Squares, above. I loved this image because it shows everything from the wicker chairs loved by the Edwardians to the pragmatic colour palette preferred by writers and artists and gardeners at this time. (They didn’t go for Schiaparelli pink that their high-fashion friends were wearing!)


Images like this offer invaluable insights into how visuals are put together, whether for a book or a film. They show how the designers and producers are aiming for integrity as much as beauty.




The next step is to gather your own inspiration, for whatever project you’re working on. (Or even for your own personal files.) You may think you’ll never need your carefully curated visuals for anything. But I’ll show you why you will.


Recently, I’ve been designing the pages for my illustrated biography about Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock. The biography covers the years 1896 to 1980, but the main section focuses on the Edwardian years, so I had to understand Edwardian aesthetics and even Edwardian colour palettes. A Life in Squares, above, helped to clarify the ‘style’ of writers and artists in this age, as did the Charleston magazine. (Isn’t this a gorgeous cover?) I then crystallized this colour palette in a rather whimsical way, using roses from our garden.


(This rose page eventually became one of the back pages; it was too pretty not to use.)

I also drew upon the visuals that Amanda Brooks used so cleverly in her Vita Sackville-West post, which showed the legendary gardener’s aesthetics. Vita was not only the same generation as my subject Joan Lindsay, but — like her – was a writer and a gardener.


(I loved the greens and golds and chocolate browns, so reminiscent of the castle tower and Vita’s famous gardening boots.)

Then I came across these visuals via Instagram (will find credits and post here), which showed just how beautiful the colours green and yellow can be. (NB Yellow is set to be BIG in fashion in 2016!)


I realized then that yellow would brighten some of the pages of this biography, especially those that featured old sepia photos, which can often look ‘dull’ if used in abundance.

But even then, the shade of yellow was wrong. This is the title page. The daisies were a reference to picnics, but it was all wrong. (The ferns are a mural in Joan Lindsay’s writing room.)
This was an early design, relegated to the bin.
(You can see I don’t even care about the editing at this stage! I’m too busy trying to get the page designs right.)
So then, I went back to that old fail-safe: the collage.
Here are some simple, pared-back collages that featured Joan and people she knew — Sir Laurence Olivier; the Murdochs — and the picnics she went on as a girl to Hanging Rock. (Which influenced the story.) But you can see that it still featured the greens and golds, albeit in a softer way.
In the end, the book featured an unusual palette: leaf green, yellow-gold, pink, plum, pale blue and beige/grey (for the old photographs).
I would have never thought it would work, but it does, because they’re not only the colours of Joan’s Edwardian childhood, when she set Picnic at Hanging Rock, but also the colours of the countryside where she lived; the sky; the landscapes, and her beloved garden and the flowers.
So you can see how images and visuals come into play in all sorts of different ways.
I’m also working on an illustrated guidebook to London, which doesn’t feature pink or green (although they do appear, as the English love those colours), but rather the signature colours of the city—the bold reds, the beautiful navy blues and the rich blacks.
That book, too, has been a vertical learning curve in the lessons of design, and the power of images. One thing is for certain: I will never smile wryly about The Perfect Potato Philosophy again!

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