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Work / Publication

Natasha Jen on returning to School of Visual Arts and confirming a love of book design

As a student Natasha Jen never paid much attention to the design needs of her university, the School of Visual Arts. Like most, she concentrated on her own practice during those all-important years where students figure out what kind of creatives they might want to be. Fast forward a few years however and Natasha fully has the SVA’s design concerns in mind, this year designing its 2019 Senior Library for the graduating class – which means she had to impress the students too.

The Senior Library is a yearly compendium collating the work of graduating classes from SVA’s BFA in design and advertising, for which Natasha was invited to participate by department chair (and her old mentor), Richard Wilde. Returning to her hallowed halls, the Pentagram partner describes her aim was to “design this book in a really radical way,” one that “moved away from any normal expectations around what a catalogue could be and look like,” she tells It’s Nice That.

To do so, Natasha and her team’s first move was to take a step back from the usual design standards of portfolios or compendiums. For instance, to give the work ample room to sing, the designer “completely abandoned wide margins that portfolios usually place around students’ work within the book.” The designer also minimised “the presence of textual information on the page” to ensure that the focus of the viewer “remains on the work itself,” she points out.

Yet the most boldly obvious design decision Natasha made during this process is the book’s printing techniques. Using fore edge printing, the compendium’s cover and the edge of pages when placed together create a rainbow colour spectrum. “So often a book’s fore edges are left blank,” says Natasha. “Just as we eschewed traditional margins for full page spreads, we wanted the book’s full exterior to become part of the visual process as well.” Using spray painting to achieve this effect, “it was a pretty labour intensive process,” adds Natasha, “but ultimately worth it for the feeling it evokes when you take in the full exterior of the book.”

Colour too was also used as an organisational tool when putting the book together, providing a visual metaphor for the wide-spanning output from SVA too. With over 200 pieces of work in the book, the system was decided by a customised algorithm “that produces a summarised colour breakdown based on the HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) system,” Natasha tells us. By identifying a predominant colour in the graduating creatives’ work, the algorithm will then assign it a code on the HSL scale, “then sequenced through a linear colour spectrum to form the book.”

Now placed through an algorithm, printed, bound, spray painted and published, Natasha hopes the students featured “are very pleased with how the book turned out, because its design only serves to further enhance the amazing work that the book contains,” she says. “We hope they will be happy with the book as a beautiful, eye-catching object in itself, too.”

Most interestingly, Natasha concludes that this project reconfirmed her feelings on book design. “These days, fewer and fewer designers are interested in pursuing book design, because this medium is no longer dominant,” she adds. “But, there is still so much room for creativity and exploration when it comes to designing for print.”

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