Sunday, April 25, 2010

Producing books that didn't exist until I created them

Producing books that didn’t exist until I created them
By Walter Haan,,

The online version of The Sunday New York Times has a book review today of Design and Truth by Robert Grudin, an American writer and philosopher. According to the review by Alice Rawsthorn, “The moral of Mr. Grudin’s book is that designers should be true to themselves…and never compromise. ‘Good design enables honest and effective engagement with the world,’ as he puts it. ‘Poor design is symptomatic either of inadequate insight or of a fraudulent and exploitative strategy of production. If good design tells the truth, poor design tells a lie, a lie usually related, in one way or another, to the getting or abuse of power.’”

Mr. Grudin finds examples of good, honest design in everything including Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I was glad to see that the Mr. Grudin included a written document as a positive design example. As someone who has published nonfiction and children’s poetry books, I actually was inspired by a quote from a Dutch designer, someone who had designed Dutch coins among other things:

“I’m a designer. That means I work for the future—the moment I produce what’s been made in the past, I cease to be a designer. Making things that don’t exist yet—that’s my profession.” The quote is by artist Bruno Ninaber-van Eijben and appeared in the magazine Holland Herald, Volume 16, Number 9.

I felt the quote spoke to me personally as I labored as a “designer” under tight, abnormal corporate staff restrictions. There was so much that wasn’t allowed by supervisors who wouldn’t recognize good writing or design if it hit them on the head. Two examples: One editor of a children’s periodical for kindergartners scolded me for not putting two fingers of space between each word in headlines because that was the way children were taught when printing on a blackboard. But my favorite example is when I was scolded by a supervisor for designing a two-color poster when he wanted a one-color poster. The two colors he saw were black and gray. He was clueless that it was a one-color job, with the gray created by halftone screening of black. No one should have to put up with corporate idiots like that.

I escaped these idiots by starting my own publishing firm, Southfarm Press, in 1983. I have edited, designed and published 43 books for the firm, plus two others for a university press. Some of them have received critical praise from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal and consumer magazines and newspapers. These books, these written and visual objects, will be around forever, somewhere. My wife and I published them because larger firms would not.

I was also inspired by my working for almost three years for an educational, supplemental book publisher in New York City. I’d go home at night on the subway and frequently saw middle school and high school students carrying dog-eared copies of our books. The firm only employed 34 people, including nine in the shipping department and seven salesmen across the country. I was impressed that such a small group of people could have such an impact on books that children learned from.

Making things (books) that didn’t exist yet. That has been my profession for 26 years. Copyright © 2010 by Walter Haan,,