Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Interview with Martha Rago, HarperCollins' Associate Creative Director

As a freelance designer (as well as illustrator), I have the unparalleled opportunity to work for Martha Rago, the Associate Creative Director at HarperCollins. Martha currently oversees picture books for HarperCollins' children's books and imprints including Collins, Rayo, Katherine Tegen, the estate programs of C.S. Lewis and Shel Silverstein, and Balzer & Bray.

1.  I read in an interview that you didn’t originally plan on pursuing publishing as a career. You mentioned in the interview that a few evening courses in illustration and typography eventually led you to publishing. I wondered what drew you to children’s books in particular? And what was it about typography and illustration that you found so compelling?

That’s true.  After graduating college and moving to New York, my first jobs were in retail and fashion.  I was still searching for the right direction. Sometimes it’s only in looking backward that we see the pattern that reveals our real passions and maybe even the necessity for our doing what we do.  In retrospect it seems only right that I would be an art director in children's books.

My father was a poet, editor, and professor, and my mother was a professor of painting.  She still paints and shows her work. So I was pretty immersed in books and art through my childhood; reading and drawing were naturally what most engaged me.

But I resisted following either of my parents’ careers, wanting to find my own unique way in the world. I loved history, stories that had personal resonance and social impact, and the way languages themselves are like a window into culture.  As I was always drawn to stories and art, illustration for children's books seemed a natural fit. I pursued that path by taking evening classes at School of Visual Arts and by talking with a few people I knew on the editorial side of publishing. The deeper I looked, the more children's books intrigued me.

At SVA I was studying illustration.  Then I took my first typography course, and the lights simply came on for me – an actual “aha” moment. Once I learned how to look at a font in a careful way, and how to use it, I was completely taken with type and design.  It was an emotional connection at the time, without any intellectual analysis as to why I liked type and design so much. But now, when I think about it, I see typography is a kind of 2-dimensional sculpture. A font is so carefully constructed, and each  form relates in a different way to the space surrounding it-- letter to letter,  word to word. In the context of book design, and combined with images and illustrations, type creates a dynamic play of space, color, texture and mood.  The whole process just spoke to me.  And it still does.

The more I explored using design as a way to marry story and image with my own personal response to each, I developed a feel for it, and it seemed like the aspect of children's books I was always meant to be part of.

2. How would you describe your role in the publishing process?

As a creative director I play a number of roles in the creative process. First, I oversee a picture book group working to meet the company’s goals. I need to be aware of how many titles are already in the pipeline; the mix of formats, topics, artists, and styles; even the sales reports from season to season. These factors affect my consideration of projects that come to us for acquisition through agents and editors. With these and other factors in mind, I review manuscripts we are considering for publication, then find and recommend artists with the right style and sensibility for each project.

In my role as manager of my group, I oversee the designers and art directors, assigning projects, consulting or advising on their development as needed. I have to take into account scheduling issues and workloads, while trying to assign projects that fit the skills and styles of each designer.  I encourage each designer to take ownership of their projects.  I hope they understand that they are an integral part of everything we do.

As an art director, I am sometimes called upon to guide artists during the creative process.  They might need help developing characters, improving specific images, handling technical issues, or improving on aesthetic details.  I review their progress, make recommendations or suggestions, and share and review works in progress with the editors, all to insure the books is progressing and our expectations are being met. 

Finally, in my role as a designer, my goal is understand the intention of the author and the artist and to create a presentation that supports and illuminates those intentions without overpowering them.  Designers use type style, color, organization of elements on the page, and the flow from page to page to create a pleasing and unified effect. For me, it’s still a real pleasure to get immersed in that.  I try to design several books a season for the joy and inspiration that brings.

3. What in particular attracts you to an illustrator’s work?

First of all, there’s a gut-level, instinctive, purely personal response.  An illustration might resonate and remind me of other illustrations I admire or a childhood favorite.  Other times I will respond to because it strikes me as being so fresh and distinctive that I can't turn away. Having said that, I happen to love wood cut, etching, lithography and illustrations that convey some of the qualities of printmaking – from the finely detailed to the boldly graphic. I also love fluid ink pen lines filled with color – pictures that have a loose expressive, usually playful, quality.  I like humor, irony, and images that provoke and make me think. I like characters that feel real and unique.  These are a few of my favorite things! 

If I like the art, the next step is to match it with the right editor and manuscript.  That’s when all the filters get applied and I have to view the work in the context of how best to utilize it with an eye toward what HarperCollins particularly wants. I make my suggestions, but decisions are by consensus, with input from other departments and individuals.  So even if I connect with an artist’s work and think it would be perfect for a particular project, sometimes the editor will disagree.  Or the sales department will want a different approach.  That’s the nature of the publishing business.

4. In your experience, what is the most common mistake you see in a novice illustrator's work/portfolio?

Lack of focus is the most common mistake I find. Many novices think showing their range with a broad variety of work in a portfolio is a good idea, so they will include some black and white ink drawings, a few oils, a smattering of watercolor, maybe even a few woodcuts. I find too much variety, unless it’s all simply amazing, waters down the impact of the best pieces. You need to curate the work to show only the truly successful pieces, to zero in on your distinctive and clear voice, and focus it to represent the kind of work you want to get.  I can think of only two occasions in my whole career when I have seen an artist's portfolio that blew me away with a variety of styles at a consistently high level, from collage to oil to pen and ink. (Both of those artists now have successful careers!).  The rule of thumb for most aspiring artists is show what you do best, what you want to be hired to do, not what shows a well-rounded art education. It’s hard to be objective and self-critical, but it really helps to hone your presentation. A more selective portfolio helps focus your goals, as well.

5. Are there any projects that you are currently working on that you're really excited about?

It's been a busy year. I am seeing an upsurge in interest in picture books - more articles, blogs, and exhibits on the picture book specifically - which of course makes me very happy.  The Caldecott honor was awarded to 5 books in 2013!  As for my projects, I don’t like to play favorites, but here are a few recent standouts.

The first is DOT, a book from a new picture book team of author  Randi Zuckerberg and illustrator Joe Berger.  I’ll be really excited to see this one get into the world on our Fall 2013 list. I had been admiring Joe's work for a while, and when I read Randi’s energetic and charming text, I felt I had the perfect vehicle for him. He did a fantastic job creating Dot and her world, expressing in an inventive and appealing way the modern theme of the story: the challenge of balancing "connectivity" with more down-to-earth connections. He nailed it!

This year I also worked with some real pros, which is always a pleasure. Susan Jeffers reinterpreted of The 12 days of Christmas in her unique style, with lush details, gentle humor and a joyful, sweet surprise at the finish. And Bagram Ibatoulline's The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen is an elegant and beautiful version of the classic tale.

Kadir Nelson just completed a stunning picture book, BABY BEAR, that will completely surprise his fans, and I am sure will cultivate new ones, as well.  It’s an honor to have anything to do with Kadir!

Also, in a class by himself, is Mo Willems's THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA, published this spring.  It has already gotten a great deal of attention. I really enjoyed working on this with Mo. It's got a very different feel from his previous books, with boldly colored images facing dark panels holding the type. I started this design the same weekend I saw the movie “The Artist,” and the silent film era vibe really permeated the design. The paper we printed on and special effects on the jacket tie it all together just as I envisioned.  It’s wonderful to see it out there getting a good reception.

Martha, thank you so much for all of your thoughtful answers and advice! I, for one, am looking forward to checking out what's new this season from HarperCollins.

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Lisa Anchin is a Brooklyn based children's illustrator and designer doodling her way across the five boroughs. You can see more of her work at lisaanchin.com and find her on twitter at @lisaanchin 


  1. What a wonderful article. Thanks Lisa and Martha!

  2. Lisa and Martha, thanks for a fantastic interview. I'm so looking forward to working with Martha on the RUBY ROSE books!

  3. This is meaty. Love this, Lisa! And thanks for sharing, Martha!