October 2019 event: book design by Pooja Desai

Report 1
by Susan Keogh DE

I have heard a lot of speakers over the 30 years I’ve been a member of this organisation. Pooja Desai, who spoke at our 30 October members’ dinner, is one of the two best speakers I’ve been privileged to hear – she’s right up there with Janet Mackenzie’s famous speech at the 25th anniversary dinner. It’s a big call, I know, but for information, entertainment and insight – amazing insight into both the creative process and the way we put books together – I certainly have not heard (or seen – we had visuals as well) such an engrossing presentation in a long, long time.

Pooja is an award-winning book designer, Design Manager at Hardie Grant, and secretary of the Australian Book Designers Association. She is also a former civil engineer and make-up artist. Fortunately for us, Pooja decided to ignore the brief I’d given her (current trends in book design) and to tell us instead about the way she works, focusing on a couple of case studies and giving us a couple of her observations about design.

Pooja’s first lesson for us was that design isn’t universal, as demonstrated by the evolution of the cover of a children’s book, intended for the worldwide English market. Pooja had commissioned a world-renowned Italian illustrator, Jacobo Bruno, to draw the cover. It took half-a-dozen attempts, with the artist submitting a cover and the publishing team sending it back reworking (sometimes almost from scratch) to settle on a final design. (Can you imagine asking an author to rewrite something half-a-dozen times?) The key to all this toing and froing was, Pooja said, using ‘a gentle mix of apology and affirmation’. It certainly worked, as we could see how the final version was the best version. And yet, when the book was published in different territories and languages, the cover changed – even for the UK market (which downplayed the fact that the book featured a female main character).

Pooja’s second observation is that many departments maketh a book, the book, in this case, being another book for the children’s market; this one a fact-based book by Tim Flannery. The cover here went through around 13 different versions (three different base illustrations, eight different colour treatments then a final two refining versions). Pooja’s account of how feedback from all departments (such as the comments about the ‘toothpaste splodge’) was a great case study in communication and collaboration.

In contrast, the third lesson Pooja had for us was that sometimes things just come together, such as the book that illustrated Shaun Micallef’s collection of fairytales.

The final lesson for us was the need for a design to stand out. Pooja’s example here was a young adult/tweenager title on menstruation. The visual brainstorming journey that she shared with us – from what first came to her mind to how the intended audience saw the topic – was both hilarious and deeply impressive.

Pooja ended by recapping her key pointers for us: don’t be precious; collaborate; aesthetics are not universal; do your research; you’re Destiny’s Child, not Beyoncé; be able to critique your own work; and inspiration comes from work.


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Members at the dinner meeting Pooja Desai, book designer

Photos: Sally McInnes

Report 2: by Sally McInnes AE

On 30 October, a group of editors gathered at the Terminus Hotel in North Fitzroy for a presentation on book design by Pooja Desai, who is currently Design Manager at Hardie Grant Egmont. Pooja began her career as a civil engineer but soon made the transition to designing corporate artwork, eventually finding her niche in book design.

She ran us through the design process, from presenting her ideas to the production team as rough concept sketches, to working with an illustrator to create the finished work, and finalising production details such as the quality and materials used.

Pooja used several examples of her covers, including TALES from a TALL FOREST by Shaun Micallef for which she received the 2018 Australian Book Design Award for the Best Designed Children’s Fiction Book.

The process of developing a book design is one of continuous collaboration and teamwork. Pooja has a favourite saying: ‘There is no dream without a team.’ Building infrastructure and designing books have something in common after all!

Sally McInnes is a freelance non-fiction writer and editor and can be contacted on IPEd Editors Directory or LinkedIn.