Re-designing a product people already love is difficult. Re-designing one they adore is even harder.
Few things can be as decisive as visual identity.
Few designs stand the test of time, and being able to switch your style completely without alienating or upsetting your current audience is a line that’s hard to walk.
So what happens when you’ve got 400 years of fans behind a product?
Indianapolis-based designer and illustrator Manuja Waldia was tasked with just that when, as a recent grad from the Milwaukee School of Art and Design, she cold emailed Penguin Publishing art director Paul Buckley and ended up with the contract for 40 book covers for the latest edition of Shakespeare’s classic plays.
But rebranding the bard is no easy task.
In the past, publishers would slap a drawing of the bard on the cover or a Renaissance-era painting on the cover and be done with it. But in the past few decades, publishers have begun going against this staid tradition.
Celebrated graphic designer Milton Glaser’s covers are artfully unfinished—a combination of strong lines and pops of bold color like a tattoo in mid-completion. The British artist David Gentlemen spent nearly 10 years on his wood engravings. While the Italian artist Riccardo Vecchio took a dynamic color-block approach to a series of covers in the late-90s.
But for the bard’s 400th birthday, Buckley wanted something different. Something bold. Something that wasn’t just a throwback or nod to the past, but that looked to the future of what Shakespeare still is, and could be, to our society.
We spoke with Manuja about the challenges of redesigning a cultural institution, balancing art and design, and how to avoid creative burnout.
How did you get the job for the Shakespeare covers?
I was cold emailing art directors after graduating with a link to my portfolio and asking for feedback and Paul Buckley, who is the art director at Penguin, was one person I reached out to.
He called me back and said he really liked this personal project that I had in my portfolio called the daily icon.
It was a project I did one summer during my junior year at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, where I would draw one vector, monolinear icon every day for a couple of months. I ended up with this huge collection of minimalist icons or mini-illustrations.
So Paul really latched onto that style and asked if I could do Macbeth in that style.
What was the initial brief you were given?
Art directors have to pitch the designer or illustrator to their publisher when it comes to books and so while he asked me to do Macbeth, the only specification was that he really liked how my illustration style was very ‘iOs-y’, like an app icon.
He wanted me to keep it minimalist and very vector and geometric, but other than that he gave me full range to explore colors and directions. A good art director always lets you explore as many directions as you’d like to, which is what is so great about Paul.
How do you approach a project like this?
I start by reading the text at least once.
Shakespeare can be pretty dense and thick but I still like to read it once and then move onto alternative forms of research, such as if there’s a movie that’s been made based on the plot, or if there’s a Shakespeare in the Park going on.
Those sorts of alternative research methods really help me to gauge the emotion behind the story and know how I want to approach the design.
After the research phase I’ll make a word list which is pretty much like a brain dump where I write down all of the ideas that I’d like to explore in sketches.
And then I pick a few—around 8 or 10—and create thumbnails around them. Thumbnails are really, really rough sketches that are really tiny so I get them done quickly. And then I pick 6 or 7 of those thumbnails and make pencil sketches and then I pick 3 of those and make them into vectors.
Do you think speed is an important aspect when designing? Do you prefer to do lots of quick iterations or dig into one idea at a time?
When I started the project I was doing a lot of digital iterations and spending little time on pencil sketching. I realized that this was working backwards.
Now I do a lot of thumbnails (around 20), then around 6-8 pencil sketches from which the art team at Penguin picks two (one for the front and one for the verso.) I only work on these two digitally.
This really lets me focus on honing in the work digitally as I can focus on solving fewer design problems, with more time and energy in hand.
What are some of the challenges when ‘rebranding’ something with such cultural significance as Shakespeare?
I feel like everybody who is a human being is a fan of Shakespeare, whether they know it or not. All of our movies are based on some sort of Shakespearean plot. His influence is so broad that it’s hard not to be a fan. I didn’t analyze my feelings about Shakespeare before I started working on these books, but I feel like he has an influence on all of our lives in some way or another.
So the challenge was creating a design that would appeal to such a broad audience. People have different levels of familiarity with the plays and I think what makes a cover iconic is to create a design that connects with people who might not know, or vaguely know, the story, while also putting in those Easter eggs that will delight the bigger fans and scholars.
Can you explain how you did that in one of the covers, say King Lear?
I try to draw out main themes for new fans, while including a few Easter eggs for the seasoned fans.
For example, in the case of King Lear, the Easter eggs are the three gems in his crown which stand for the three princesses— with the heart shaped gem specifically standing for the loyal daughter Cordelia.
Were you very conscious of how your minimalist and bold design style would bring a more modern aesthetic to the books?
I think that was Paul’s master stroke right at the beginning, which is why he commissioned me to do the work in the first place. He knew that this minimalistic style would be so fresh from what’s out there currently, because most of the existing covers are very analogue-looking. Watercolours, ink drawings.
So this illustration style I think, just by virtue of being so modern and contemporary looking, it lends this redesign a very fresh look.
Looking through your portfolio, this doesn’t necessarily seem like your usual style.
I think I have multiple personality disorder when it comes to my work, which is pretty uncommon for illustrators these days, because everyone wants to be known for that one style that they do really, really well. But it’s easier on the client base also just because you’re not confusing people about what your skill set is.
But I feel like if I stick to one style for too long I just get really burned out and frustrated. So I need to keep switching between mediums or the format that I use. It’s just part of my process. I really get into one style for a few months and then I need to switch it up.
And where do you look for that inspiration to change?
I think just following a lot of disciplines outside of the world of graphic design and illustration helps. I follow a lot of ceramic work and other fine arts. Just keeping an eye on what other people are doing can keep it fresh.
Not getting caught up in what your peers are doing, but looking outside your own world.
What does your typical work day look like?
I have a day job at this great company called Interactive Intelligence. I work as a visual UI designer. I spend my days working on these UIs for apps and then after my day job is done, I work on illustration.
So do you see your illustration work as a side project?
I don’t see it as a side project. I just feel like I have two jobs.
Do you feel that having these two ‘jobs’ or disciplines—one digital and one more analogue-based—helps to balance out your work so you don’t reach that burnout?
I feel like my work has been moving progressively towards being more analogue just because I spend so much time pushing pixels at my day job. That’s just a subconscious thing that’s influencing my work currently. So you’re right, I think the two balance each other out really well.
Also, I feel like especially for young graduates, having a day job takes a lot of the pressure off. Because you’re not worried about paying rents or the bills so you can focus your creative energy on being creative and not worry about money and all that other gross adult stuff.
What were some of the biggest lessons you learned while working on this project?
- Pencil sketches are so important even for work of such a digital nature. They save time, effort and produce better results.
- Avoiding cliches and repetitive themes can be tricky for classic of such a nature, so using alternative methods of research (podcasts, live performances, etc) really helps in approaching the art with a fresh perspective.
Lastly, moving from New Delhi to Milwaukee seems like a huge shift not just geographically but culturally as well. Do you think that location influences or inspires your work?
Not for this particular project as the content drives the art. Aesthetically, my personal body of work is influenced in a big way by Indian mythology and traditions of art (Rajput, Pahari and Mughal) Thematically, it talks about sisterhood and femininity which are global themes.
What’s next for you?
There’s about 40 books in total and I’m done with 10 so I still have 30 more to do. I’ll be a Shakespeare scholar by the end of this project.
Check out more of Manuja’s work on her website here.