Posted on Thursday, September 3, 2009 by Lindsey Westbrook
"Controlled chaos" doesn't describe it at all; the situation in the Chronicle Books design department is more like beautiful, seductive, art-directed cacophony. There are shelves of books from floor to ceiling, immersing and enveloping the staff designers in a three-dimensional portfolio-gallery of their own work. But there is also spaciousness—room to move, room to think—and clearly everyone is thinking creatively. The few available walls are covered with sketches, drawings, ideas.
Design is a crucial component of every Chronicle Books project, and presiding over this indispensable department is Publishing Design Director, self-confessed book junkie, and CCA alum Sara Schneider (Graphic Design 1997).
Chronicle turns out an extraordinary 300 to 400 projects a year, most of them designed by Schneider's in-house staff of about 20 designers. Plus four fellowship interns, we can't forget them, especially since a few former CCA students are now former interns and current full-time staff designers.
"Design is vital here," says Schneider. "Chronicle recognizes that design is a major competitive advantage that sets us apart from other publishing houses. Because of that, the designers are central to the process, just like editors, production coordinators, and marketers. Each designer is an expert in a particular publishing category, and they participate in the acquisition conversations, getting involved right from the start. But they are also encouraged to stretch outside their respective categories."
If you have the impression of a particular Chronicle house style, a signature design approach, then think again. If there's anything consistent about their products, Schneider says, it's that they are constantly surprising, delightful, each design uniquely suited to the individual project. From a French cookbook to a Rex Ray monograph to a box of stationery, each product looks like it "ought to" but delivers much more, design-wise, than you expect.
There is perhaps no other publisher that does all that Chronicle Books does. That diversity and eclecticism keeps Schneider on her toes, always learning, always stretching. She moves in a single day across the fields of art, photography, music, pop culture, food.
There's just no comparison to working in a small independent firm, although she started her design career that way. Schneider didn't actually finish her CCA degree because she was snapped up by San Francisco design legend Jennifer Morla. The choice between doing thesis at CCA with Morla or working full-time for Morla was a (financial) no-brainer, but she was definitely sad to leave student life. "Because I already had an undergraduate degree, I approached the program with the mindset of a grad student. I was on it 24/7, pulling at least one all-nighter a week. CCA is such an intensely creative environment. The professors are grounded in the professional community, but they enjoy teaching and respect the students as intelligent, thinking people. The students benefit immensely from their teachers' real-world experience.
"It's much less vocational than most graphic design programs. There is a strong theoretical underpinning to every project, and that is key. It’s much easier to make the move from 'thinker' to 'producer' than the other way around."
Schneider worked for Morla for two years, then landed a job as a designer at Chronicle Books in 1998; she has been in her current position as publishing design director for five years now. She likens Chronicle's atmosphere to CCA's. The word she uses again and again is "exhilarating." It's extremely stimulating, she says, to be part of determining the strategic path of the company, making big-picture decisions, yet still be involved in many, many individual projects, constantly engaged in conversations with people from all disciplines. Last week she was at a New York photo shoot for an upcoming book devoted to the Bobbi Brown cosmetics line, which involved 80 models, multiple photographers, and 10,000 pieces of art that now need to be sifted through. Just a typical day at the office.
To apply for the six-month paid Chronicle Books fellowship, visit chroniclebooks.net/designfellowship/.
Graphic Design 1997
Born in Washington DC in 1971
Lives and works in San Francisco
Other education: BS in Marketing and Communications, Miami University, Ohio
Artistic influences: the talented designers at Chronicle; objects with patina and history like musty books, dilapidated barns, worn linen, chipped enamel, etc.; Eames, Nelson, Corbusier . . .; Paris, the city; Rex Ray; France Ruffenach, my wife and a phenomenal photographer
Inspirations at CCA: the other students, the building, the fantastic stuff the Sputnik crew produced semester after semester, and of course a few favorite teachers
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