FROM DAVID MACAULAY: Whether it’s Roberto Innocenti’s completely realized and thoroughly convincing portraits of life in different eras, Gary Kelley’s spare and haunting paintings, or the playful nibblings of Monique Felix’s mice, we soon realize as we look through the pages of this catalog that we’re in for a treat. Chris Sheban takes us on a journey that toys with our imagination at every turn, and, as usual, Etienne Delessert offers us totally original and beautifully crafted imagery–whether for an original story or for a new take on an old tale as in The Seven Dwarfs. These are just a few of the wonderful pieces of work from a virtual “who’s who” of international illustration. They were created for books published by The Creative Company, a modest company based in Mankato, Minnesota. Perhaps you are not familiar with them? To understand just how unique the contribution of this house is to the publishing field, it is worth taking a moment to look at the bigger picture.
In most publishing houses, the critical task of selecting new material is increasingly relegated to something called a publishing committee. When the people who must select new material don’t know what they’re looking for and have few instincts to trust, they tend to huddle together. This makes it harder for the accountants to assign blame when a book doesn’t fly off the shelf or meet bottom-line projections. The larger the committee, the greater the anonymity. While this procedure doesn’t preclude the possibility of coming up with a winner–a book that is both good and commercially successful–it does at least guarantee the book a reassuring level of mediocrity. Such a book is much safer to publish and easier to sell than something that might require any kind of thought on the part of a potential reader or buyer.
What distinguishes the few houses like The Creative Company from the rest of the pack is that they continue to rely on individuals–two of them in the case of The Creative Company, Tom Peterson the publisher and Rita Marshall the art director–to select which titles they will publish. These are people with the knowledge, confidence, and conviction to trust their instincts. Having made their choices, these same people then shepherd the books through the often long and demanding publishing process. It all sounds logical enough, but at a time when it is possible to count on one hand the number of publishers left who think of books as more than just products with the shelf-life of milk, such common sense seems almost visionary.
For the sake of discussion, it might help to think of a book as having four parts: the story or information, the illustration or decoration, the overall design, and finally the material of which the object is made and the care with which that material is assembled. I’m not generally a fan of separating the components–it seems a disservice to the book–but it does help us appreciate how complex the process of creating a book can be.
Beyond the extraordinary art, what further distinguishes The Creative Company’s books is the attention bestowed upon the written word. Each story is carefully crafted by author and editor to convey meaning in rich, concise language. From the haunting tale of Rose Blanche, to the lighthearted travels of the young Victor Dickens in I Hate to Read!, every word becomes an important detail.
The quality of the content, both art and story, is equaled by the way in which it is presented. Reading a good book can be tremendously satisfying. Turning the pages of a book designed by Rita Marshall is sublime. She invites us into a world of order, of subtlety, of sumptuous economy. No area of a page is left unconsidered. This doesn’t mean that the entire page is filled up with stuff. It just means that all the space, including the often luxurious margins, contributes to the success of the reading experience by ensuring a pleasing and respectful union of words and images.
In addition to presenting impeccable choices and arrangements of type, the pages are often enlivened by small details. These may include tiny icons taken from the larger pieces of art, the highlighting of a particular letter, or even the simple decision to write out the folios instead of using numerals. One of the things you immediately notice about a book from The Creative Company is that the pages of typography are just as beautiful, as effective, and as rewarding as those given over primarily to illustration. By achieving this level of consistency, the designer makes it possible for the reader to move effortlessly between pages of pure text and pages of pure illustration. There is no disruption to the experience, even as the means of communication change.
Given the effort that goes into the selection of content, both verbal and visual, and then into the design that connects them, it is hardly surprising that the production of a Creative Company book is treated with equal care and attention to detail. From the look and feel of the paper, to the saturation of the ink on each page, to the richness of the material that covers the boards, every decision made along the way is intended to take full advantage of the extraordinary range of sensory pleasure a book can offer.
If you enjoy this catalog as much as I think you will, I suggest that you let the pleasure serve as an hors d’oeuvre. For the real feast, sit down with a book from The Creative Company and start turning the pages.
Text by David Macaulay, January 2002