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An Interview with Art Director Nghiem Ta

Posted By Jacob Hope, 25 June 2020
Updated: 25 June 2020

We are delighted to be joined by Walker Books Art Director, Nghiem Ta, for an interview.  Nghiem worked with Shaun Tan, on Tales from the Inner City the 2020 winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.  Thank you to Nghiem for sharing her expertise and experience so generously.


Please can you tell us a little about your job and what it entails?


When I’m asked, outside of publishing surroundings, what I do, I say I make children’s books. No, I don’t draw the pictures. No, I don’t write the words. I’m responsible for how it looks and feels. Like a conductor of an orchestra or the director of a film, I work with a team of people that all help to create an end product. But to an Illustrator, I try to be their trusted advisor, assistant and supporter.


Since the emergence of e-books, it feels there has been something of a Renaissance of printed books with increased production values and aesthetics, how important are considerations of the physical attributes of a book to its publication?


For me, the physicality of a book has great significance. I believe the sense of touch can be another conduit for learning. I’ve seen children read and discover books via their fingers; they can explore pages using touch and then they read and look at each new discovery. A tactile experience is a way to engage and create memories.


(I started my career as a designer and paper engineer – I have a completely biased view when it comes to a love of physical books!)




What are the design decisions made when publishing a book and what kind of impact do you feel these have on the overall reading experience?


I think the most important element in the creation of a book is clear communication. Whether this comes from struggling to read English as a child, I’m not sure. I do know that pictures were my way into understanding.


Across the many elements that make up a book, we have to make sure we convey the story, emotions and information to the reader as intended by the author. That clarity needs to come from everything, from the style and content of illustration to the framework/composition for the pages and the typesetting. You want to be able to pass on that enthusiasm, those emotions and all the revelations. 



You worked on the 'Ology' books, can you tell us a little about these and your involvement with them please?


In total, I designed the first twelve of this series of books. I was given the original brief of trying to create a book that was like an illustrated old treasured tome. They were a series of books that truly were the perfect example of teamwork. A team of up to 6 Illustrators, all working in unison. Writer and editor working alongside and accommodating art and novelty elements. Design also working with production teams in-house and at the printers. Working with sales teams all over the world to coordinate and promote each story.


The Ologies were a huge learning experience for me. They have given me such a valuable foundation that now supports my professional knowledge and my relationships/friendships with illustrators and colleagues. 



To your mind, what constitutes strong design that complements text and illustration?


A few things come to mind… A great use of space, making the most of the area you have. Every corner, nook and cranny, millimetre square, has been considered. Then, there’s the awareness and use of negative space. Don’t ignore the spaces in-between. Sometimes, they are a luxury! Last point for now, a flow across the page that supports and guides the eye/the reader. Allow the reader to explore but don’t lose them!


You worked closely with Shaun tan on Tales from the Inner City, can you tell us a little about that?  What kind of dialogue do you have with illustrators and authors?


By the time Shaun Tan was ready to show Tales from the Inner City to Walker Books, he had been working on it for many years. Some of the paintings were large 1.5 metres wide – each painting had to be photographed, then digitally prepared for print. The stories had been worked on by Shaun and his editor friend, Helen Chamberlin.


By the time we saw the completed work, all that was left to do was very much like icing the cake! A light edit and then working with Shaun on various design features. The cover title design started with an idea I had that was inspired by road markings. I created the ‘stencil’, Shaun then ran with it – a design relay.


Given the success of The Singing Bones limited edition box set, we were again able to create a ‘box’ for Tales from the Inner City. The physicality of this box is very much entrusted to me. I think Shaun stands back and wonders what craziness will appear in his email inbox! 


The important thing to mention is communication. Shaun is always aware of how I’m treating his work. He should not have any surprises. I explain any design decisions I make if I know it’s something he won’t necessarily do himself. I don’t photoshop anything without informing him. 

(You may have to ask him, if he finds this helpful or annoying!)


I hope my take on communication carries through to all the illustrators and authors I work with. Creating books can be such a personal process, especially for the illustrators and authors but as designers and editors we share that feeling of personal contribution to a book.  


When working with new illustrators and authors, an initial chat to ‘get to know you’ is always a good start. A good opportunity to discover expectations and working personalities . With illustrators, I always try to discover their method of working, then I can find out where I can support them and if they need to tweak their method to achieve the best printed results.


What are some of the books that you feel most proud to have worked on and why?


I take great pride in all the books I’ve worked on. I grew up having very limited access to books, so I now find myself in a very privileged position. To see your contribution on a bookshelf or in the hands of a child... So chuffed! 


Sorry to sound like a broken record, but there’s a lot of pride and gratitude in the relationships and friendships I have made through the years… Even more chuffed!




[Photographic credits: all photographs are reproduced with kind permission of Nghiem Ta. 'Ologies' books are by various authors and illustrators and are published by Templar Publishing.  'Tales from the Inner City' is written and illustrated by Shaun Tan and published by Walker Books]



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Tags:  Design  Kate Greenaway  Shaun Tan  Visual Literacy  Walker Books 

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