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In Focus: What's In A Book Design

In Focus: What's In A Book Design

Local book designer Karl Castro rants about always trying to explain his occupation. No, he doesn’t design websites, but despite the commonsensical digital track mass media has been taking recently, here he is trying to say print is not dead.

Karl is no mainstream publishing artist (he is also a photographer, writer, illustrator, and painter!). That is, even if some of his works already include novels (Ricky Lee’s Para Kay B and Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata), screenplay books (Tonette Jadaone’s soon-to-be-released That Thing Called Tadhana book version), and hilarious slum books (printed by Witty Will Save the World, Inc.). He boasts that out of the more than 100 book designs that comprise his body of work, he also takes pride in scholarly publications (Jim Richardson’s The Light of Liberty: Documents and Studies of the Katipunan), photo series (Jake Verzosa’s The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga), and autobiographies (Recca: From Diliman to the Cordilleras).

[related The Six Fix: Lessons Adults Can Learn from Children's Books]

We pick the brain of the design visionary:


What’s the story behind the first book you designed?

“I studied at the Philippine High School for the Arts in Mt. Makiling, Laguna. I was a visual arts major. All creative writing majors are required to put out a book of writings as their thesis project. My friend Marie La Viña, who was one batch younger than me, put out a book of poetry and approached me to help with the book. I learned how to use Adobe Pagemaker in the school paper back in high school, so I had no problem handling the software… The intriguing title, Karenina and Humanity's Sad Gun, is a striking contrast to the retro imagery and would make the reader stop and think.


What makes book designing different from things you’ve done before? What makes it the same?

“Designing books has certain parallels with other things I do, for example, designing commercial printed publications, or painting. I approach every creative endeavor with a certain discipline and rigor. I'm not afraid of hard work. For books, it means a lot of reading, a lot of contemplation, a lot of cross-referencing in my head. For magazine design, it's balancing the interests of publishers, readers, advertisers, editors, while keeping an eye on the current landscape.”


Describe your book design process.

“First I have to read the manuscript. A lot of it I read during long commutes, while stuck in traffic. If there's no time and we're in a rush, I read the most pertinent parts and scan through the rest. If the book's materials aren't in yet, I discuss closely with the editors and artists involved so we're all on the same page and that the material can be created with a view to the final design. After that, I do a lot of thinking. A lot. What elements should go in, what should be excluded. Any particular cultural references or approaches that should be done? Are there alternatives? What would make the material pop? Things like that… Then when I have a direction in mind, I sometimes sketch out ideas, or try creating some grids in InDesign and putting elements together side by side to see how they work. If the final manuscript is with me, I do a few sample pages and show to the publisher. If that's approved, I go ahead and do a first draft of the whole book. Then revisions and comments come in. Then the final version is sent to the printer and, there you go, a book.”


What made you love book design instead of pursuing your other interests like writing, illustrating, or photography?

“I love books. I love reading them, I love touching them and looking at them, I love having them on my shelves and bringing one around to read. As a voracious reader of different kinds of books, I'm sensitive to their different goals and functions, and I'm also aware if a book is poorly made or designed, if the design or the paper or format is not in keeping with the material. And since I love books on so many levels, I am also able to grasp the function that a book would potentially play in the life of other readers. I suppose this wholistic way of appreciating books is what led me to designing them.”


Why do you think books are still in despite the digital age?

“Books will never die. Books are physical objects, they bring a body and appearance to ideas and stories. Imagine giving an ebook as a gift: There's no human touch, literally. They are a tactile pleasure, and we never run out of a need for tactile pleasures. Even the biggest social media influencers, like Seth Godin, Humans of New York, and The Sartorialist, for example, whose bodies of work are native to online platforms, come up with books as markers of success and authority in their respective fields. Books won't die out. We're just re-evaluating which materials deserve the book form.”

Karl is set to display some of his book designs in his first solo exhibit called “Secret Lives of Books.” It will open on May 18 at the Ayala Museum, and will contain actual books that can be perused, short videos, and installation art. Through his exhibit, he wishes to reintroduce the art—and science—behind book design. With all his works produced by Filipinos, he also hopes to reignite the local book design industry.


ALSO READ: Hot Stuff: There's a New Library Right at the Heart of Intramuros!


Secret Lives of Books: Karl Castro, Book Designer will run from May 18 to June 5. For inquiries, email or call 759-8288 local 45.

Karl will also head book design workshops on May 23 and 30 and an artist’s talk on May 25. Some of the authors and book scholars Karl has previously collaborated with will take over book talks on May 28 and June 4.




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