We recently sat down with Timothy O'Donnell to talk about his new book, "Sketchbook," a look at the role sketchbooks play in the creative process. We also have a copy to give away—see the end of the post for details.
Cool Hunting: As a designer you've kept your own notebooks for a long time. What role do they play in your design process?
Tim O' Donnell: Iâ€™m an inveterate doodler. I have a hard time sitting still without a pencil in my hand. Writing this book made me examine my own sketching for the first time. I donâ€™t produce tight or linear sketches, I tend to flail around on paper. My sketches end up being a collision of to-do lists, caricatures, calligraphic swooshes, scribbles, etc. Looking at them after the fact, itâ€™s often hard to determine what I had been thinking. But somehow the process of drawing around the problem helps me organize my thoughts; then when I sit at the computer, I have a foundation for the project figured out.
CH: Designers solve problems through storytelling. How do other designers' notebooks shed light into their creative process for telling stories?
TO: The book stems from the frustration I felt as a student, and to a large extent still feel now, with the glut of design annuals, magazines and blogs. There's so much work out there, and it's all presented in its best possible light, dispassionately laid out, photographed and captioned like a piece in a museum catalog. None of this hints at how "work-like" the creative process can be, or the moments of joy or despair as you wrestle with a design problem. Then, people all over the world see the same pieces of work and take inspiration from them, but all they can really be inspired by is the surface quality—the materials used, or the colors and typefaces chosen. Thereâ€™s no insight into what led the initial designer to make those choices, the trail of thought which is so personal and specific to that person. I think that by telling the stories of how they ended up at a particular solution, the contributors to the book are being really brave in sharing their missteps or flounderings and admitting that these wonderful pieces of design are the result of a fairly random, non-linear process.
CH: There are a lot of great designers included in your book. How did you decide whom to include? TO: I wanted the book to feature people from a broad range of disciplines, so I intentionally tried to find architects, photographers, product designers, etc., in addition to graphic designers. I'd had the idea for the book for a few years and kept a running wish-list of people I hoped would contribute. Of course once I reached out to them, some were unavailable or uninterested, and some just weren't sketchers. I had a great hour-long interview with Andrew Blauvelt from Walker Art Center which was fascinating, but sadly, he just isn't a doodler. That's one of the drawbacks to focusing on a â€œsecretâ€ side of a designerâ€™s output—you donâ€™t really know who's appropriate until you connect with them. A few people, Chris Bigg, Rob O'Connor from Stylorouge and Rian Hughes, were friends of mine that I knew kept notebooks, but the majority of the people involved I just reached out to because I loved their work. I was flattered that so many talented and busy people would take the time to dig out their notebooks from storage and share their private thought process with me.
CH: What was the most unexpected thing you learned making the book? What was the most interesting lesson learned?
TO: Sketchbook is my first book, so I learned a lot about publishing in general in a "trial by fire" sort of way. I was also surprised at how many different forms sketching takes. For example, Catalogtree from the Netherlands sketch out their intricate information graphics on a school chalkboard, and Lance Wyman and Morag Myerscough fill their studio walls with sketches until they're surrounded by them. In terms of learning, just having my ideas on the subject confirmed by so many designers was gratifying. The concept for the book hinges on my personal view that the physical act of sketching is still vital to the creative process, but I wasnâ€™t sure how many people felt the same way. The outpouring of interest in the book, and being able to print interviews with people, like James Victore, Ralph Caplan and neurologist Frank Wilson, who echo my own view, was a strong proof of concept that took me a bit by surprise.
CH: Anything interesting from a design/production/printing point of view that you'd like to share?
TO: All of the text in the book needed to be black, so that when they produce foreign language editions, they can just swap out the black plate. I found this incredibly challenging, as one of my major design crutches is coloring type to liven up the page a bit. In hindsight, I'm glad that I had to work around this, and not just take the easiest route. Having said that, I did set the book in Clarendon and Futura, two fonts that I seem unable to move away from, so it wasn't all a stretch.
CH: Any other projects in the works?
TO: I do have another book in the works, fairly unlike this one. Itâ€™s sort of a typeface specimen book, if written by Edward Gorey. I think itâ€™s amusing, we'll see if anyone else does!