Graphic Design Icon Paul Sahre Opens Up About His Recent Grammy Nomination

Posted inPackaging Design

Paul Sahre, one of the most influential graphic designers working today, has now reached a rarefied milestone: he has been nominated for a Grammy Award. His work on They Might Be Giants’ album Book recently received a nod for Best Boxed or Special Limited-Edition Package, along with photographer Brian Karlsson.

Over his many years working as a designer, Sahre has doggedly remained independent. He is a frequent visual contributor to The New York Times, designed book covers for authors such as Chuck Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Clarice Lispector. I had an opportunity to talk with him about this honor and his initial response to the big news.

Did you know this work was being submitted for a Grammy? Have you ever had your work submitted before? How long have you been working with They Might Be Giants?

I did. I’ve been serving as unofficial designer-at-large for the band since 2012. There have been other projects we’ve done that were submitted, but honestly, I never gave it much thought. A Grammy nomination seemed far-fetched (still does) for all kinds of reasons. This is primarily because nearly everything I have designed for They Might Be Giants are things I have wanted to make for the sake of making. The great thing about the nomination is that it provides a moment to ponder all of the great things we have made together of the years.

Can you tell me a bit more about Book and how you approached designing it?

Book is They Might Be Giants 23rd studio album. It’s an album that is also a physical book of lyrics and photography. It is 12” x 12”, which is the same size as a vinyl LP. The idea is in the classic surrealist Treachery of Images mold— it’s an album that is titled Book. Since it is an actual book, calling the album Album would have been misleading, right?

[TMBG band member] John Flansburgh and I have been talking about doing a book for several years. A bunch of false starts led us here. We found Brian Karlsson through photographer Gus Powell. Brian’s street sensibility bumps into TMBG’s music in all sorts of interesting ways. John, Brian, and I pored over his images and created various edits.

As I have done with a number of other TMBG projects, I purposefully abandoned current production methods. I really liked the idea that the typewriter would force me to do a kind of physical performance with each song, with the type play responding to the images in differing ways. The type echoes songs and images in some instances and ignores them in others.

The typewriter is inconvenient, so it forces you to improvise and create in ways that feel new, even with lapsed technology. A few years ago, we did an epic nine-part music video shot entirely with 8mm film for the TMBG song “Tesla.” This took six months, and every day was a challenge. Not a day went by when I didn’t ask myself why I was doing this to myself! The last thing I expected while endlessly typing at 2 AM in the studio was a Grammy nomination. It’s equal parts wonderful and inexplicable. Book is exactly the opposite of where technology is pushing everything; manually typing a 144-page book [as we approach] the year 2023 is absurd. But then again, maybe Auto-Tune will [feel] interesting/new in 50 years.

Is it true you hand-typed the entire thing? (And what happened when you made a mistake?) How did you go about designing something you were typing in real time?

Yes, entirely. However, I started the work by having designers Woojoo Im and Shiqing Chen experiment with the songs on the computer.  Shiqing was in China and Woojoo was in Korea, and they didn’t have access to a Selectric typewriter, so they used InDesign and created study after study with the closest approximation to monospaced typefaces they could find.

Meanwhile, I bought an IBM Selectric III typewriter on eBay. Mine is tan (I really wanted a red one). I found a place called Reptronics to have it serviced. Turns out, Reptronics is run out of the owner’s garage in a suburb somewhere in New Jersey. The Selectric III is from the late-1970s, and the one I purchased is the self-correcting model. I started with the idea that all text would be typed manually, including corrections. I piggybacked on the studies that Shiqing and Woojoo created. When mistakes were made— as long as the paper was still in the typewriter carriage— I could correct with a little backspace key with a small ‘x’ on it. Once the paper was removed from the carriage however, whiteout had to be employed. As a result, I spent a good amount of the COVID lockdown typing. There was a three-to-four-week period of inactivity while I waited for new ribbon cartridges to arrive. 

My favorite aspect of working with the Selectric III was the ability to work with different typefaces. Typeballs (golfball-sized metal balls) could be swapped out on the fly.

The typeballs deployed in Book were:

  • Courier
  • Olde English
  • Letter Gothic
  • Script
  • OCR-A
  • Symbol
  • Orator
  • Dual Gothic

How do you collaborate with TMBG? Do they always approve all your ideas?

All They Might Be Giants projects start and end with Mr. John Flansburgh. Often John will come to me with an idea. Sometimes, it’s a collaboration. Sometimes, it’s a specific need. Sometimes, I just make shit up. In the 1980s, I started my design career listening to their music while I worked. I know the band inside and out. Mutual respect goes a long way…

If you win, this will be your first stop to getting an EGOT! What’s next on your agenda to conquer?

I had to look that up. No agenda really, other than waking up tomorrow and asking “What do I get to design today?”