UHoP 2019: Q&A with Jonathan Baker, book designer

By   Hannah Bickerton 4 min read

What made you pursue a career in design? 

Ha ha – this makes it sound like a career someone’s parents forced them into, like being a doctor or a lawyer. I’ve always thought of myself as an accidental designer, in that a series of seemingly unrelated events in my life resulted in me designing books. And once I had begun, I realised it was something that worked for me and gave me pleasure. I’ve been designing books for many, many (MANY) years and I still cannot think of any other ‘job’ I would rather be doing. I’m in my happy place.

Tell us a little about Seagull Design and what inspired you to launch the company. 

Part of the series of ‘events’ that led to where I am today involved a company called Blackjacks. Originally it was me and my girlfriend (at that time) working together to do a bit of book design – writing the odd book, project managing the odd book – and it got more and more intense. Staff, expense, many late nights, deadlines that made your eyes bleed. I didn’t know any better. People told us that’s how things were meant to be; that’s how you were meant to run a company; there was meant to be stress and hardships. Eventually I realised this was nonsense and Blackjacks was no more. Out of the ashes I struck off on my own. My favourite book at the time (and probably even now) was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was almost inevitable that Seagull Design would be hatched. With an ethos to keep it simple, enjoyable, fun.

What does an average day at Seagull look like? 

My clients would be shocked if I told the truth. So let’s say I start at 10am and work diligently until 6pm. Does that sound plausible? We won’t mention the time I spend lounging in a hammock in the garden, or playing paddle tennis with my wife (it’s a thing here in Spain – don’t ask), walking my son to and from his school or my daily half-hour swim. In truth I am working while doing all these things, I’m just not sitting at my desk, and that’s part of the beauty of being a designer – as long as you have a rich imagination and an (over)active mind, you are always at work, turning things over in your head, reimagining things you’ve done before or seen somewhere, working through little design ‘problems.’ Then, when you do sit down at your computer, most of the hard work has already been done. Perhaps I should call myself a holistic designer – then my methods would all make sense.

Tell us a little about your typesetting work – what is the process of getting a book from brief to its final stages?

I try to always have a mix of jobs on the go. A few typesetting jobs – as I am a bit of a typography geek – but normally a few illustrated books, book covers or plate sections as well. Being a book designer is already enough of a niche. I don’t feel I need to limit myself too much within this field. Certain clients do tend to use me for one type of job. They get it into their heads that Seagull Design is, for instance, a cover design agency, and will only get us to design covers. Others will only give us typesetting jobs. I don’t care, as I find pleasure working on them all and they all pay the bills – this is a business after all. The actual process from brief to final press-ready files depends a lot on the client. Some publishers give an abundance of instructions, others so little I need to keep returning to them with question after question. Both approaches have their pros and cons. I’ve worked on over a thousand books and I would like to think I’ve seen it all before. But of course I haven’t, and that’s what makes it fun. I can still get frustrated by a publisher asking for something I think is madness, or by them picking my least favourite design option (the one I only created to make my favourite choices really shine).

What has been your favourite project to date? 

Yikes. That’s like asking what’s my favourite song. It changes by the hour. The one most dear to me – although it’s an awful design for an awful book – was the very first one I did. It was a book on M C Hammer for Boxtree called U Can’t Touch This. I’d lied to the publisher, telling them I had some fancy computer and was a brilliant book designer. They bought it and I had my first job. I didn’t look back.

Learning the ropes as a record sleeve designer for Stiff Records, Jonathan went on to become co-owner of Blackjacks – a highly successful illustrated book packager and design studio in the ‘90s. In 2001 he struck off on his own and created Seagull Design to provide graphic design and typographical services to book publishers and has since designed books for many of the world’s leading publishers along with a diverse clientele of more specialist companies. He lives and works in both London’s Hatton Garden and Marbella in Spain where he tries to spend the majority of his time enjoying himself with his wife, Deniece, and son Caeculus.

You can find out more about Jonathan and Seagull Design by visiting their website

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.