Inside the Design of Paul McCartney’s ‘The Lyrics’

Posted inDesigner Interviews

I received a most unusual birthday present from a friend, heavy and rectangular and wrapped in Barnes & Noble paper, which I wasted no time ripping off. I was wowed to find Paul McCartney: THE LYRICS, a two-volume set in a green linen slipcase. I explored it like an archeologist coming across a trove of priceless artifacts. Well, it is an artifact, from the texture of the linen, the silky paper, the collection of photography that spans 65 years, the elegant layouts, and typography. It also preserves Sir Paul’s handwriting, cross-outs, scribbles, and all. The dust jackets feature the handwritten lyrics of “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and “Back in the USSR” dropped out in white from full-bleed portraits of Paul in various guises.

Did I mention I’m a Beatles fan? One reason is that the words are clear— no mumbling, screaming, or being drowned out— and almost every song is a story I appreciate, no matter how many times I hear them. But it’s another level of understanding to read the beautifully typeset lyrics, learn in the songwriter’s words how the song came to be, and take in spreads of photographs from that time and place. Sometimes you get a look inside the people’s heads who were there, the inspirations, and antecedents, and sometimes mystery remains. Real people inspired characters in many songs, but some questions seem purposely unanswered. Such as who, exactly, blew his mind out in a car?

And who, exactly, designed this masterpiece, I wondered. On the copyright page, in very small type, I found: “This book is set in Rigby, a typeface created expressly for this book by Triboro Design.”

I began reading reviews: “#1 New York Times bestseller. A Washington Post Notable Book. Excerpted in The New Yorker. Published November 2, 2021.” Where had I been? Sleeping under a rock? Well, I was out of the country, quarantining, and stuck in an Omicron-empty airport last November. Still, no excuse.

None of the reviews I read mentioned the book design or the designer— typical— so I set about finding Triboro Design. This Brooklyn studio has a long, enviable client list that includes museums, galleries, fashion brands, restaurants, artists, and musicians, magazines, and book publishers. The book’s designer David Heasty works with his wife and partner Stefanie Weigler, and they’ve won many important design awards. It started to feel like a very heavy rock I’d been sleeping under.

I invited Heasty to meet via Zoom, and found him to be sharp, quick, articulate, and modest. Below, we discuss Paul’s involvement with the project, the book’s gorgeous bespoke typeface, and the importance of staying true to a legend’s vision.

How did you get this gig, and who was the client?

The client was the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton & Company. Anna Oler, the production manager at Liveright approached us, perhaps because we’d done Prince’s memoirs and a book on Frank Sinatra.

It’s good to hear that someone below the CEO/publisher level has the power to choose the design firm for a project of this magnitude. How many people are in your firm?

Just two— my wife and partner Stefanie— and myself.

Amazing— not a word I use lightly. Did you and Stefanie work together on this project?

No. We generally have separate projects. This was exclusively my project.

How long did it take?

About a year.

I’m imagining you sorting through cartons of photographs, having them scanned and restored, then making difficult choices.

It wasn’t like that at all. The publisher had already made the selection, and everything came organized as good quality files. Linda McCartney was a photographer, and she and Paul were always interested in the preservation of assets.

Were you disappointed that photo selection wasn’t part of your job?

No. It’s Paul’s book. It’s his memoir.

Let’s talk about your working style. Did you present one mockup, or did the client have the choice of a number of potential treatments?

I did many, many sample chapters; various layouts. There was a lot of collaboration and back-and-forth. It took months. When I get feedback, I keep an open mind. You could think of this book as one man capturing another man’s vision. 

Some designers and firms tell me that it’s necessary to show the client a range of options because many people want their opinion known. Other designers make it a point of honor to present one thing, saying: ‘This is the solution.’

There’s so much psychology involved in dealing with different clients. Some clients are hands-off, and others want to be involved in every detail.

Did you get to work directly with Paul?

Paul was very involved, but no. We received his comments via his people.

I’m interested in the choice of listing the songs in alphabetical order, rather than chronologically. In alphabetical order, the reader might jump from the screams of girls at JFK, to following George, to Rishikesh and the Maharishi, then back to getting haircuts at a certain barbershop in Liverpool. The sense of going through time— through decades— is thoroughly mixed up.

Paul liked the aspect of jumping around, the messier juxtapositions. It’s more surprising; a cool way to do it. There is more focus on the songs themselves, rather than the book being a history of the Beatles.

Speaking of which, what happened to John in this story? His name is sometimes listed as co-author, but Paul makes some snarky comments, such as John’s ‘lack of interest in literature.’ Was Yoko upset about this book? And the other surviving Beatle, Ringo?

You’ll have to ask them.

Okay. Tell me a little about your background, yours and Stefanie’s.

I am a 2000 graduate of Penn State, where I had an incredible mentor, [the late] Lanny Sommese. My first boss, Alexander Gelman, was another very important mentor. He gave me a lot of responsibility on a broad range of projects. Stephanie is from Germany. She studied visual communications there and also worked for Alexander Gelman at Design Machine after coming to New York. That’s where we met.

Most designers would kill for your client list. How did you build it?

We worked hard over 15 years, beginning with a focus on the cultural sector, doing artists’ books and gallery work. We got better known after we started working with the Justin Timberlake fashion label.

The set I received has a green linen slipcase and spines. Some images show an orange slipcase. What is the difference?

Orange was a special edition of 175 copies signed by Paul, with embossed lyrics on the cover, a tipped-in-photo on a special clamshell box instead of the slipcase. That set originally sold for $2000, but now I understand it’s selling at auction for much more.

And about Rigby Display? It’s so impressive— and rare— that a book is set in a bespoke typeface. Who designed it?

I drew the typeface myself. I’ve always tinkered around with creating fonts. I’m not officially trained in type design; I’m self-trained in the programs. A company called Omnibus-Type in Argentina made the different weights.

What is your favorite part of this project?

The textures. There are a lot of surfaces— two volumes in a slipcase, plus dust jackets. And the fact that it was an organic, collaborative experience. That’s how we want all our projects to be.

What accolades you are most proud of?

The Rigby typeface being included in the Type Directors Annual 2021, and The Lyrics named ‘Book of the Year’ by Barnes & Noble.

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