Design & Art Direction

Book Design Heroines


As an alumnus, recently I had the nerve-racking pleasure of addressing an Admitted Student Reception for the School of the Art institute of Chicago. I decided I was not going to talk just about design, instead I wanted to talk about what makes a great creative career and how to feed your creativity in the early lean years, where we feel a bit lost. I was inspired to write a piece instead of just winging it. And this slide of my work was projected in the auditorium behind me as I faced a couple of hundred people in the audience. As the blinding light hit my face I was grateful to have prepared a speech ahead of time.

Picture a small black auditorium with this slide about 20 feet tall. And here's what I said, though I absolutely added a few ad-libs for humor.
Projected design work by Maria Elias

Projected design work by Maria Elias



My name is Maria Elias, and I’m a book designer. I’m also a School of the Art Institute of Chicago Alum.

The work I do is not like other commercial design. I’m not designing for esthetics, or just designing a pleasing product, or to communicate information. Ideally, if you are good, your covers will always do those three things. But more importantly I strive to include 3 other things. And these are the author’s ideas, my ideas, and finally to leave room for interpretation whenever possible

When I decided to go to SAIC. I had a big choice to make. I had a few offers, because I was a good student, had good grades, and had studied art since I was seven (including at LaGuardia, New York’s best magnet art High School). And even though school wasn’t hard for me, I really only loved two things. Luckily they were . . . ART . . . and . . . READING.

The work I do is not common. There are maybe a few hundred full-time book designers in the U.S. and they mostly live in NYC. There are a few hundred more who do the job freelance in other cities. There are an untold number of photographers and illustrators who are commissioned to work on covers, art directed by designers like me.

Designing a cover takes 3 steps.

Step One: Find Ideas. I have to find the best ideas in the book, and show them in my designs.

Step Two: Present Ideas. I have to engage with my team and communicate why I think these are the best ideas.

Step Three: Defend the Best Ideas. I have to listen to their feedback, but be able to defend the most important elements of the work. Even if the best ideas were not mine, but come during this feedback process, it's my job to defend them.

I’d like to tell you a story about my time at SAIC, and how it laid the foundation of the kind of professional I am today.

When I was a freshman. I already knew I wanted to be a designer. So, I took my first intro to typography class with instructor “X”. In that class, we had a lot of frustrating assignments. Assignments that frustrated my “good student” persona. Assignments where there were no “right answers” because they were designed to frustrate you into coming up with your own solutions.

Needless to say, I did not love that class. But as a declared design student, I was going to get through it. So Instructor X and I butted heads everyday as I expressed my frustration to him, but he refused to help me. The semester proceeded and I gained some skill, but l continued to question everything he told us. I argued every point. Challenged every instruction. And while I was earnestly trying to learn, I know I was also being really contentious.

Over the next 3 years, I moved onto other classes, did well, and never had Instructor “X” again. I thought I was free and clear. But then in my senior year I had him again for an advanced type class. I’m sure I only took it to fit my schedule. Did I mention I had 3 part-time jobs in college? So, I was forced to return to this man’s classroom, and I was dreading it, big time. The first day of class I tried to quietly sneak in and take a seat.

But what I found in that classroom changed everything. Instructor X greeted me with a smile and was really happy to have me in the class. What had happened? Had he forgotten how much of a pain I was?

Turns out no, he hadn’t. He actually liked discussing the work and being challenged by his students. He wanted to know I was working things out, not just accepting the prescribed answers. He didn’t want me to take his word for it.  He wanted me to grow. His job was not to leave behind more design “students”; his job was to form the next generation of his design “peers”

As I look at your faces, I envy you. You are going into a safe space where your creativity and ideation process will be challenged and grown. I want you to open yourself up to that experience, because this institution and staff are here to help you learn to find your best ideas, communicate them, and defend them.

While I learned about many disciplines at SAIC, finding ideas, communicating them, and defending them . . .this is the armor that helps creative people survive in the world, where creativity is valued but often misunderstood.

The last thing I want to leave you with is this, because I know your parents are thinking about it. Finding a creative job is a trial and error process. When you leave school you will need to be flexible to find where you fit best. Your dream job may be taken by somebody else. (I know mine was a couple of times over)

Many designers I know were painters in school. Others studied illustration or drafting. Still others start out as designers and become illustrators, or even agents to other artists.

Your strengths will reveal themselves over your career and following them and working hard to uncover your best work is your real job as a creative person. Nobody I know had their dream job straight out of school. The lucky ones worked somewhere they believed in, or for an art director or artist they respected.

But regardless of where you intern or where your first job is, it’s the driven individuals who move past this “assistant/entry level” stage and into roles as creative leads. In my experience these folks go home at 5pm, after a full day of paid work, and start work on their own projects and collaborations. They don’t wait for anyone to give them permission to do their best work, and neither should you.

Your value is something you create with your ideas and your work; it’s not something anyone can give you with a job title, or assignment. So make sure that you are hands down the most passionate and driven artist, so when opportunities arise you’ll be ready.



Maria EliasComment