Michael Dyer — Remake Design
Michael Dyer is someone I had been wanting to talk to for a long time. I first became aware of him through his work with David Zwirner Books. As an ongoing student of design and typography, I tend to seek out the credits in books that stand out to me or resonate in some way. It just so happens that Dyer’s name kept appearing over and over in instances such as this. So, naturally, once I decided to start interviewing people in between projects, his was one of the first names that came to mind.
How and why did you decide to become a book designer?
My education was pretty formal and very influential for me. Without it, I couldn't do what I do. I was at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. in the mid-to-late ’90s, and received a pretty tightly unified, very focused curriculum. Many of my instructors went to school in Basel or at Yale (in the 80s when Yale was very Swiss- influenced.) My color theory professor had Josef Albers as her teacher; Dorothea Hofmann did a drawing workshop at our school; and so on. I sort of received an implicit view of the world as much as I received design training. So I was very fortunate and got a quite solid, old-school design education: lots of work by hand, lots of critiques, lots of iteration. Book design proper, however, is a very difficult thing to attempt while in school, and therefore I think it’s equally difficult to decide to focus on doing books professionally while still in school. I’m fairly certain I needed to learn about book design from a book designer and in a professional practice context—not an academic one.
So, the second half of my education more or less occurred during the two years immediately following school, when I worked in the studio of one of my professors, Antonio Alcalá. Studio A did a lot of book work, so that is when that seed was planted. I worked on exhibition catalogues for the National Gallery of Art and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; I designed historical books for Time Life Inc; I worked on a book about ancient Japanese ceramics; it was very nice; I learned a great deal. Working with Antonio was as important or more important than school.
At some point I made the decision to focus on books in my own practice, although I still do many other types of design (branding/identity, lots of other print work, exhibition and environmental design, etc.) I think book work is the most enduring thing a graphic designer can do, frankly. I also think it's among the most important and fulfilling. And a major reason I design books is because I read a lot, and because I still believe books are the fundamental and best conduit for most types of knowledge and information. My life is filled with books, my living spaces are filled with books, and so it’s pretty natural for me to work on a lot of them.
What is your favorite part of the book design process?
Maybe the point when the book’s design system becomes clarified and it’s apparent that it will work across the entire thing. Often this means sample pages have been hanging in the studio for days, and I have not grown tired of them or found serious problems with them. It’s after I’ve gone through many moments of thinking I’ve “solved” it and then found all those solutions insufficient (although I dislike the whole characterization of design as “problem solving.”) The design emerges slowly, as something reasonable and clear, that I can live with and not pick apart. It’s a whole. When I’m onto something and getting somewhere it feels solid and coherent. It literally has to exist on the walls—as spreads I’ve pinned up—for at least a few days before I really know what to make of it. And, of course, all the preceding versions of a given design went through this same process of evaluation and were discarded at some point, sooner or later. So that feeling of having things mostly settled, it’s nice—a combination of excitement and relief.
How closely do you work with the editor(s) and/or artist over the course of a project?
It depends on the project, but usually pretty closely. With many of my clients, we’ve worked on multiple projects together, and, over time, I think everyone begins to feel very cooperatively involved. The dialogue is really important. It really is a collaborative process, but it’s a very specific type of collaboration; it’s not just anything goes, of course. And it’s tremendously important to trust and respect the people you work with.
What is the most challenging thing about designing a book?
Being satisfied with the design on my own terms. It's always an approximation.
How does the content you are working with inform the typographic treatment?
Well, this is dependent on the project. Although to some extent the content always informs the typographic treatment, of course.
On the Donald Judd Writings book, for example, we initially considered setting it in Helvetica, which we use on most Judd Foundation material. But the book is over a thousand pages and is virtually all text, so we abandoned Helvetica pretty early on, and then tried many serifs, finally selecting Bembo—500 years old, still can’t be beat. In this case the content absolutely dictated the typographic treatment: the font, the typographic grid, the setting, everything.
On other projects, the typography can afford to be more plastic, or to bear more conceptual weight, or to be used more independently in a compositional or expressive capacity. It depends.
I do tend to stay away from typographic treatments that feel, to me, fussy, gratuitous, or excessively self-conscious. Maybe if the content really called for something extreme and specific I would consider it, but I think styles of in-vogue typography, like everything else, go in cycles, and while a general awareness of those cycles might be unavoidable, the cycles themselves are usually negative, or at least regressive and blandly reproductive. I was in school when so-called deconstructivist typography was in its waning days, and that whole situation eventually made me suspicious. Not so much of the work itself, some of which was very beautiful when it had been done by the best people doing it, but the mentality that fostered so much copying and thoughtless duplication. One or two people could go that route with the work; no one else could do so without looking silly. Typography (in these cases where everyone just does the same fairly conspicuous thing for very empty reasons) then simply becomes fashion, and it’s too important for that. Content isn’t grist.
What is it like working with David Zwirner Books?
DZB is really great to work with. Working with them functions on a few levels, starting with the people there: they care a lot and are extremely good at what they do. Everyone sets a really high bar. Of course, David Zwirner also represents very strong artists (and estates, foundations, etc.) so the work is being done for and with fantastic artists. It's been a tremendous experience, working on books for shows of Giorgio Morandi, Bridget Riley, Fred Sandback, Donald Judd, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Josef Albers . . . and I really enjoyed working on the Brooklyn Rail book, Tell Me Something Good, which is a type of text-heavy, content-rich book I love. And the ekphrasis series has been phenomenal. These are small paperbacks—we've done 12 now — that are either somewhat obscure texts, or maybe an initial English translation of a book, or a new piece of writing . . . really, the scope of possible content for each book in the series is quite broad, which is one of the things that makes them so good. So the breadth of the work I've gotten to do with DZB is quite extraordinary and one of the best things. The first book-like thing I designed with them was actually the inaugural DZB catalog—the catalog of all their books at the time—and it remains a special piece for me.
Where do you see books fitting into our current and future cultural landscape?
I see certain aspects of culture and how books relate to it as rather set and largely immovable. Hopefully. I think that the book remains, and will remain, a primary channel of most types of significant human communication for a long time.
On the other hand, the reduction in quality of books is a cause for concern, and it undermines their value and their authority. This is happening across the board and is motivated by haste, carelessness, and, above all, profit. Print-on-demand, shoddy binding, bad paper, a loss of techniques and materials, and a decline in general craftsmanship are some of the things that play a part. There are a lot of bad books out there. Books I had as a child that I now get for kids I know — the new versions are always worse. I bought Ben Ratliff’s book on John Coltrane recently because I could only find the newer paperback edition. The quality of everything was as low as possible, and it was really unpleasant to read and handle. I slogged through a chapter, sold it, and waited a while until I eventually came across the earlier hardcover first edition, which is a real book.
There are a lot of cliches about books acting as a bulwark against the rising tide of digitalization and its attendant qualities of transience and alienation. I think these points are generally true, if obvious. We are now finally getting to the point where people have started to become suspicious of their phones, of social media, of massive tech companies, maybe of the internet in its entirety. This suspicion is healthy and warranted. It's hard to speculate on the future cultural landscape, but I think a lot of people feel that many major "advances" in communication of the past years were actually built on sand; not just sand, but quicksand—it's actually dangerous. I think that books—although this function certainly isn't limited to just books—can act as a stabilizing force and a thread of continuity in such an environment and time. Books are positive, on balance, in a world where many things seem easily disfigured or weaponized or made negative. They are also lasting, tested, and known.
What is your favorite art book of the last year?
Anni Albers' On Weaving, which was recently reprinted in a new edition, is pretty fantastic. The original version is nice too.
Why does print matter?
There is a neglected ethical dimension to the work that designers do. We produce material—physical objects, often, but this applies to non-physical work as well—and the existence of those things has to be justifiable. I think a lot of it isn't. For me, being justifiable means clearly moving culture, understanding, and knowledge forward somehow. It's a productive process in that it produces; it's creative in the most basic and literal sense, so these things need to be worth the resources and effort that go into them. I've often told my students that this ethical dimension of our work is also implied in the knowledge that, empirically, anything we create is a commentary on the world. It is so in that it proposes the world is better off with this thing we have created in it. I don't think this is a grand, metaphysical claim—I think that if you make a book, say, then that book exists in the world, and the world is fractionally altered by that book's existence. So the book better be good. I think this is a fairly serious consideration. The world becomes more like the things we put into it, be they apps, plastic bags, books, websites, weapons, music, art, or anything else. Piece by piece. Designers need to make decisions carefully. If I'm creating something, I'm not only saying the world is better off with this thing in it, I'm also saying the world in some tiny way should be more like this thing. This isn't idealism, it actually grows from the opposite direction, from material reality. The world is a collection of things, and designers add to that list, for better and worse.
Print matters because it has the potential to be one of the more valuable contributions designers can make, as seen through the above lens. Obviously tons of print is quite literally future garbage. But some isn't, and within that percentage are some really important ideas. Print's durability, its deep roots, its sophistication and subtlety, its infinite variety, its physicality, its condensation of complex systems of information and ideas into a unified object . . . these are reasons why it matters. There is a reason that movable type is often considered to be the most significant human invention. And movable type was of course created for use in books.