Knopf—Martha Stewart Living—The New York Times. Book cover design—magazine design—interaction design. From analogue to digital, there are few professional challenges Barbara deWilde hasn’t turned her hand to in her inspirationally shape-shifting career. We quizzed her about her design evolution in the run-up to the release of the new Laurie Anderson album, Landfall—designed, of course, by deWilde.

Artwork for Laurie Anderson, Landfall

Your reputation was first established around your work as a book cover designer for Knopf. What’s the secret of a great cover?

With every design that’s entered into a design competition there is a submission form that the designer needs to complete, and on that form there’s a “statement of purpose” question. I think I’ve always answered that question the same way. The purpose of a cover is to attract attention. Period. Great covers all seem to say “Pay attention to me!” though they often say it in different ways. Some express the book’s content with a design that isn’t seen often in the genre of publishing and so the audience is surprised. Some designs are tactile and scream to be picked up, some are formally original. I believe there are limitless ways of attracting attention and designers who stay in the game a long time keep discovering new ones.

Book cover design for Knopf, Quarrel & Quandary by Cynthia Qzick

You led the redesign of Martha Stewart Living in 2001. What’s the best thing about working on a print magazine? And what’s the most frustrating?

I can’t say that I wanted to work on a print magazine, but I did want to work at Martha Stewart Living. I was a fan. I loved the company, I was a gardener, a crafter, ok, not a cook, but someone who loved her home. I think it’s important for designers to have a passion for or an understanding of the information they’re bringing light to. If you’re a book cover designer, you need to read the book. If you’re an editorial designer, you research the story. At MSL, we worked in teams (art director, stylist, editor, photographer) to create the features that appeared in each issue. So, if the story was on making lampshades, the team made the lampshades. Other mags report on outside sources, at Martha the work was home-grown. At the end of the photo shoot, the art director was a de facto expert and could easily lay out the narrative, because they knew the story beginning to end. I can’t imagine a better process. Gael Towey gets the credit for that structure. Now that I work in digital product design, I work on a cross-discipline team too, so it feels familiar.

The most frustrating part of working in print: it’s financed with advertising. Don’t get me started.

Album cover design for Nonesuch, Gidon Kremer, De Profundis

You then went to study interaction design at the School of Visual Arts. And since 2014 you’ve been working as a Lead User Experience Strategist in the Digital Design Department at The New York Times. What does that involve?

The simplest explanation of what I do: I design digital products with Times journalism that people will pay money for. On the latest product, NYT Cooking, I work on the team that transformed the recipe content from the archives of The Times into a searchable recipe database. Since the 1950s, when Craig Claiborne began creating Food and Dining articles, The Times has accrued nearly 18,000 recipes. By transforming those recipes into an app with tools and video, The Times has a new avenue to bring people to their site and to ask for a subscription. I worked with researchers, technologists, business folks and journalists to make this product. Next month, I’ll begin exploring a new product in the Parenting category.

Interactive design for Tapioca app

Can you tell us something about your work on the Tapioca app?

My languishing thesis project! Tapioca is a reading app that helps people break text into small pieces and tap to advance/read it on a phone. The idea came from a project by Robin Sloan called Fish, a tappable story app about really loving and paying attention to what we read. In a digital reading experience, users often scan and scroll, but don’t savour the written word. I thought there might be a parallel between this kind of “tap” reading and attention. Could seeing fewer words and tapping them to advance help people with dyslexia?

The initial results were promising, but I ran out of time and steam when I got my job at The Times.

Archival image, The New York Times

Are analogue and digital design complementary arts? Or are the processes involved so radically different that it’s better to begin by describing the dissimilarities?

I do think it’s easier to focus on the dissimilarities. In digital design, you create for users who interact with the product freely. Designing for and with human behaviour can be so humbling and difficult. You need to research, listen intently, make prototypes, make them again and again. I am forever confounded by how I believe a person will interact with my app and how they actually interact with it. By comparison, analogue graphic design feels very dictatorial, top-down. I, the designer, have made this thing (this book, poster, package); now you, the audience, receive it, read it, enjoy it! It’s a one-way street. No one gets lost.

You’ve designed some wonderful bits of cover art for Nonesuch music artists such as Bill Frisell and Steve Reich. Do music and design have much in common as practices?

If I were a musician, I could give you a better answer. Designing involves listening to a problem and taking a leap of faith to arrive at a solution. I think one thing the practices may have in common is that leap of faith. Perhaps, we both begin with an understanding or an idea and then start placing limitations around it. We both need to work from uncertainty to certainty and to be comfortable with ambiguity at the beginning of the creation process.

Album cover design for Nonesuch, Bill Frisell, East/West

And now you’ve done the cover for the new Laurie Anderson album. Can you tell us something about how the artwork for Landfall came about? What does it capture about the music, or is that not the point?

Laurie is the most versatile artist I know. She can move from drawing and painting to musical composition, from writing to performance and back again with such ease. Landfall had a wealth of artwork associated with the piece, and like other projects there were many possible cover directions. What I like about the one she chose is the hand-drawn title and the wash of water and the feeling of the flood and the storm. The piece is unsettling and I think the artwork carries a bit of that emotion. She photographed that particular drawing as it distressed over time and I used the sequence of the changing images in the LP packaging.

I can’t say that the goal of music packaging is to convey the music, sometimes the label prefers to express the personality of the musician. What is unique to Landfall is that the artwork, everything really, was all made by Laurie, so it transmits both.


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