Coralie Bickford-Smith, senior designer at Penguin Press and author of several illustrated books, is celebrated the world over for her stunning Clothbound covers. Using a two-colour palette with a foil pattern stamped onto the cloth, the designs are striking in their simplicity.
In this interview, Bickford-Smith speaks about her career with Penguin, her passion for books and illustration, and her journey to becoming a picture book author. 'I’ve always loved books,' she begins with a smile. 'I spent my childhood surrounded by books – I was obsessed with typography, illustrating and printing. I always knew I wanted to be a creative.'
Image credit: Stuart Simpson
This interest in design remained prevalent throughout Bickford-Smith’s school years. Following her A-Levels, she secured a place at Reading University to study typography and graphic communication. 'It all made sense,' she recalls. 'I’d found my people.'
Bickford-Smith chose to focus her dissertation on editions of Robinson Crusoe, inspired by the university’s large collection. There were a plethora of designs to examine, especially given the fact that Robinson Crusoe is one of the most printed books in history. 'I analysed the illustrations and the printing techniques,' she explains, 'and wrote about how printing had changed and how illustrators had presented Robinson Crusoe through the ages.'
It was a dream come true, therefore, when Bickford-Smith was asked to design the Robinson Crusoe Clothbound Classic for Penguin. 'It took a lot of thought – to not do something that was predictable,' she admits. 'I did phases of the moon to represent the time he’d been stranded for. In the book, he chisels out notches in a stick to record his time.'
'IT ALL MADE SENSE. I'D FOUND MY PEOPLE.'
Prior to her job with Penguin, Bickford-Smith worked for a publisher creating coffee table books and then on several loyalty magazines, including Sainsbury’s Pet Club. 'I had a crisis where I wondered if I wanted to do publishing for the rest of my life,' she recalls, 'but working on the Pet Club magazine was hard. I lasted about a year and then went back to book publishing.'
The journey was far from plain sailing. Bickford-Smith recalls a period when she was struggling to find work and had almost given up on her dream of becoming a graphic designer when Penguin announced a job opening. 'I got the job and never looked back,' she smiles. 'I’m so grateful that my art director took a punt.'
The Squirrel and the Lost Treasure
Bickford-Smith’s Clothbound designs are heavily inspired by Victorian binding traditions. Her interest in this style of printing was sparked at university while experimenting with the department printing press, as she explains. 'If you had a budget, the inclination was to throw everything at it. It was exciting to have limitations and that has always echoed through my work.'
These limitations include a two-colour palette and a repetitive, foil stamped pattern. The designs are particularly effective because of their minimalism. The way in which the colours are combined is integral to the final effect, as Bickford-Smith explains. 'During my design process, I try lots of colour combinations. Certain colours just ping. I send designs to the printer in black and white and it’s so different when I see the finished object. It’s a beautiful form of technology.'
'COLOUR IS SO POWERFUL'.
It is the striking colour combinations – along with the tactile quality of the cloth – that appeals so much to readers. 'Colour is so powerful,' Bickford-Smith states. 'As humans, we really respond to colour and unexpected combinations – it’s so joyful. Colour makes my work amazing.'
For those who are unfamiliar with cover design, it is a fascinating process to learn about. For Bickford-Smith however, it’s simply a part of her everyday experience. 'It’s so normal to me,' she explains. 'People say that I have my own style with the Clothbound, but I end up thinking Is it really that obvious?'
While some covers take longer to imagine, others come more naturally. For Bickford-Smith, the early stages of the design process are the most enjoyable. 'The best bit is the beginning, the reading and drawing and making a mess. Nothing beats a rough sketch.'
Image credit: Stuart Simpson
Amongst the many designs she has created, there are of course some favourites. 'Dracula is a favourite,' she states without hesitation.'I love the limitations of cloth and foil but I also love the garlic flowers – the idea that they are containing Dracula when the book is on your bedside table.'
Working on a favourite book is a brilliant experience, but it also increases the feeling of responsibility as Bickford-Smith goes on to explain. 'If you have a favourite book, it’s extra hard because you’re attached to it and you want to do it well. I’m like that with all the books really. I have a duty to the author and to the people that love the books to do the best I can.'
To come up with a design that hasn’t been tried before poses another challenge. The process involves looking at previous covers and recreating them in a fresh way. While this can be exhausting, Bickford-Smith admits, coming up with new concepts and discovering new books and authors is also exciting. 'My reading list as a designer is continuous, so I come across books and authors and stories that I would never have picked up naturally. It’s quite an amazing job for someone who likes books!'
Illustration from The Squirrel and the Lost Treasure
As well as discovering new books, Bickford-Smith has been able to design the covers of many favourites. 'I got to design Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales. I’d really wanted to do one of his covers. There’s no one new on my wish list after that. I even did William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. That book influenced me to become a designer.'
While studying for her A-Levels, Bickford-Smith’s life took an unplanned turn. A conflict of interest between herself and her parents over her decision to study art led to her alienating herself from them. After being expelled from school for bad attendance, she was then pulled back in and shown a William Blake quote about eternity. 'I remember being on the cusp of following what my parents wanted or following my dreams. That quote made me realise that I was going to regret it if I didn’t follow my dreams, so I did.'
'EVERYONE READS BOOKS AND INTERPRETS SYMBOLS DIFFERENTLY.'
Bickford-Smith became immersed in Blake's work, completing her personal project on him at school. She was particularly inspired by the fact that he not only illustrated and wrote his books but printed them as well. 'I really credit Songs of Innocence and Experience to making me take that leap of faith at a very young age and follow my dreams,' she reflects.
Blake continues to inspire her life and work today and she smiles as she talks about the printing press now sitting in her kitchen at home. 'I’ve started making mini additions of my own work,' she comments. 'I feel like I’m getting closer to the Blake dream.'
When it comes to cover design, capturing the essence of a story is important. For Bickford-Smith, however, the interpretation of images and symbols should always remain with the reader. 'Everyone reads books and interprets symbols differently,' she begins. 'Some people have asked me to explain all my covers and symbols but I don’t want to do that. There’s no rule. No wrong or right. It’s about your experience and I love that.'
Coralie Bickford-Smith's books
Having read and designed so many books, Bickford-Smith became a published author herself in 2015. Her debut illustrated book, The Fox and the Star, went on to win Waterstones Book of the Year. 'It was realising my dream,' she states. 'For it to be acknowledged as Waterstones Book of the Year was mind-blowing.'
Bickford-Smith talks about writing and illustrating books as a child. 'I loved nature and woods, but I got to a certain age and then I was just drawing all the time,' she laughs.
'ALL MY BOOKS ARE ABOUT THESE TINY MIRACLES IN NATURE.'
Ideas for The Fox and the Star started to form after her mother died during the first year of university. 'I wanted to tell the story of lost love and finding it in your own heart and accepting it,' she reflects.
Since 2015, Bickford-Smith has written three more books: The Song of the Tree, The Worm and the Bird and The Squirrel and the Lost Treasure which was published in August. 'I always knew I wanted to do a children’s book,' she muses. 'All my books are about these tiny miracles in nature, in the world, and in your own self-growth. It’s nice to pause and recognise these small, wonderful moments. It’s so simple but it’s for adults too. I’ve used the nuances of language to elevate the concept but the images are really naïve.'
Illustration from The Squirrel and the Lost Treasure
The aim was always to present something that could be understood by readers of all ages. To receive feedback from those who have read the books and found comfort in the images and language is 'a wonderful moment', says Bickford-Smith.
Books have an amazing power over many of us. For Bickford-Smith, the goal is to get books into people’s hands, through her illustrations and her own writing. 'I love books and it’s wonderful that people are picking up books because of something I’ve done. Whenever I come to those points in my life where I wonder what’s next, it's often a book that helps. I think it’s that way for a lot of people: books inspire and give us the wisdom we need at a particular moment to keep moving forwards.'
With many thanks to Coralie Bickford-Smith for this interview