8 Snippets of Design Wisdom from Book Designer Irma Boom

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Amsterdam-based graphic designer Irma Boom is best known for her work designing book covers – but that’s not all. Boom, who has designed over 300 books for Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist, started out working for the Government Printing and Publishing Office in The Hague, where she first gained recognition after designing the books Postage Stamps Yearbook 1987+88. She founded her own design office in 1991 and has made books for the Museum of Modern Art, the United Nations, the Venice Biennale 2014 and the Fondazione Prada. As a senior critic in graphic design at Yale University School of Art, she also had a recent retrospective in Amsterdam, Irma Boom: Biography in Books.

Boom just released her most ambitious project yet – the new Viktor & Rolf book with Phaidon publishing, a 25 year retrospective of the Dutch fashion design duo. The book folds out with eight-page gatefolds, almost like a map, which each represents Viktor&Rolf’s collections. The book also has hand-sewn threads throughout, which is typical of Boom’s out-of-the-box design work. The famed Dutch book designer is full of snippets of wisdom, so we’re celebrating her latest release with eight snippets of wisdom from Boom, from designing to business and beyond.

1. Look at book design as a kind of sculpture

“You can have an idea and I made all the models myself but to have it actually produced and executed, the difference is crucial,” she says of her latest Viktor & Rolf book design. “It’s a big challenge. It’s a big package to handle, it’s not a book that you can throw into a machine – the binding hand to be done by hand for example. Because the designer’s work is very sculptural, I also want to make to book as a sculpture.”

2. Think outside of the pdf

“I am very happy with the internet, e-readers and all the new technologies,” says Boom. “Many conventional books can go digital now. Often when I go to a bookstore I get really depressed by all the books that could have been PDFs. On the other hand, my books are three-dimensional objects and very hard to replace with electronic books. If people come to me, they come for something special or better: they expect something new. I think the Internet and e-readers make what I am doing much more clear. The definition is more precise, and my position is a lot more defined.”

3. Think bigger and beyond constraints

“When people ask me for a thin book, they often end up with a thick book,” says Boom. “The Design Museum in Zurich wanted to have a 148 page book and it ended up being 864 pages, it happens. They have such an enormous collection, they have millions of objects. They showed me the images, and I couldn’t imagine using them. So I went to their archive myself, and I got access to their intranet site. I spent a lot of time looking for specific and non-specific images, important and non-important. I wanted to manifest the quantity of this enormous archive as a fat book with many images. If you have so many pages there must be a urgency to turn these pages.”

4. Always start with the issue

“If we design books, then the first question is: what’s the issue?” she asks. “I start having conversations about the project. I always work from an idea, a strong concept. Simultaneously I work on models, so the prototypes come first. A book is a bit of architecture; I also call it building books. The choice of the typeface comes last.”

5. Design for yourself first

“I think if you’re a designer, at a certain point you have to make choices,” she says. “If something is good, it is good for you and me. Basically I would say you should ignore who you are designing for because immediately you start compromising.”

6. Don’t have any fear

“You don’t start out a project to create a failure or success,” says Boom. “I think it is very good to be unafraid to create something new or different. If you experiment, research and walk paths others don’t dare to take, the result can be good or bad. But what is good and what is bad? Twenty-five years later the stamp book gets a lot of respect, and is now recognized as a revolution in book design. You cannot anticipate these things.”

7. Keep in mind the production

“I compare my work to architecture,” says Boom. “I don’t build villas, I build social housing. The books are industrially made and they need to be made very well. I am all for industrial production. I hate one-offs. On one book you can do anything, but if you do a print run, that is a challenge. It’s never art. Never, never, never.”

8. Go for creativity over technical

“Because I didn’t know all the technical things, if I had a solution in my head, I would want it done like that,” says Boom. “If they said it wasn’t technically possible, I would just keep insisting. They said it wouldn’t be possible to produce books that now exist – you see, they always found a way in the end. I only recently read about Jan Tschichold’s rules for legible typography. They made me laugh, because everything I do is forbidden. Maybe if I’d learned how to use typography at art school my work would be completely different.”

Images courtesy of Phaidon


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About Nadja Sayej

Nadja Sayej is a culture journalist and photographer who covers architecture, travel, design, technology and art. She writes for The New York Times, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Guardian, Forbes, Harper's Bazaar, among others. She has written four books, including Getting Your S*** Together and Biennale Bitch. Follow her on Twitter at @nadjasayej and check out her work at nadjasayej.com.

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