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In Focus: Make It Big As A Book Designer Someday The Ige Ramos Way!

In Focus: Make It Big As A Book Designer Someday The Ige Ramos Way!

Guillermo "Ige" Ramos is a publishing icon and with good reason. He is part of the rare breed of talents that developed their skills in a time that predated the technological bells and whistles of today’s post-modern world. “I got my training in the UST Fine Arts program, majoring in Advertising,” says Ige. “When I was in school, the term ‘graphic design’ was not in our vocabulary.” 

It was a curriculum that focused on classic fundamentals, imparting a diverse range of skillsets that allowed students more flexibility in terms of career paths. “Back then, there was no such thing as ‘typography.’ We learned how to render different types of lettering,” shares Ige, “Our lessons also included perspective, anatomy, drawing, painting and costume design. We were also exposed to different art styles like the Greco-Roman or Ecclesiastical.” 

Getting into the world of publishing and book design was something that Ige happened upon. “I worked at the Cultural Center Of The Philippines,” reminisces Ige, “I started with making posters and caption boards.” As recognition for his work grew, he started getting more complex projects, evolving from one-page designs into multi-page brochures, monographs then finally, a book. “I never studied this in school; I wasn’t prepared. But then again, who ever is?,” laughs Ige, “I sought out mentors whose work I admired and applied to train under them, sometimes even for free.”

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The world of publishing and design in those days are a far cry from today’s industry. “Young designers today have the luxury of tools that does everything for them,” says Ige, “Back then, you had to learn how to be disciplined.” Designing a book was difficult, to say the least, with the entire design process taking two years, from design conception to printing. Because everything was done manually, it entailed advanced planning, with emphasis on being accurate. Designers needed to laboriously plot out every square inch of the book into mock-ups. “You had to imagine what a finished book would look like,” recalls Ige, “Before sending our designs to a typesetter, we had to indicate which words would be rendered in bold or italics. You’d also have to measure the copy fitting with a pica rule, indicate the size of the font, the leading, pica length, etcetera.” 

Such painstaking processes instilled a discipline that may be difficult to replicate, given all the advancements of design and publishing. What then are the key takeaways that Ige can impart to future designers? “Keep your ego out of it, for starters,” laughs Ige, “Book design is an exercise in humility.”   

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Brevity is the soul of wit. “It is so hard to achieve simplicity in design. Simplicity everything,” laments Ige, noting that there is a tendency for designers to overcomplicate the layout of a book. “The design has to remain a design; it should not scream and shout for attention,” says Ige, “Instead, the design should be subtle, so as not to overpower the message of the book.” This trickles down to the rest of the elements found in the book. Ige finds that too much clutter and editing clouds the authenticity that should emanate from every book. “Designers should do a bit of backpedaling,” he relates, “If you don’t need a particular element, take it off.  Icons are not decorations, they should serve a purpose and a function.”  In using photographs, Ige is all about keeping it as real as possible. “I don’t use overly edited photographs, especially for cookbooks,” he relates, “While the photos are certainly processed, none of them lost its integrity and credibility as real food.”   

Play with contrasts. While some designers may employ stunning photographs for visual impact, a more subdued approach can sometimes elicit more attention. For The Pilgrim’s Diary by Angela Oreta, 2005 National Book Awardee for Best Design, Ige and the author decided to employ a two-color printing technique, using black and orange throughout the book for visual impact. “This book was one of my simpler designs but it went through a very complicated process,” reveals Ige.  He scrupulously scanned and cleaned up the author’s travel ephemera, such as bus and plane tickets, baggage tags, and snapshots. These, he creatively layered with archival photos for texture and contrast. The result? Charmingly assembled vignettes of the author’s travels that went beautifully with her narrative. 

Think out of the box. For a subject matter that has been published numerous times, going beyond what is obvious has the potential to produce groundbreaking work.  Having designed some of the most visually arresting cookbooks in Philippine publishing, Ige pushed through the confines of accepted aesthetics to come up with a radically different concept to presenting Philippine cuisine in two of his works: Philippine Cookery: From Heart To Platter by Tatung Sarthou and Kulinarya (A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine) by Glenda Rosales.

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Eschewing standard styling tricks that predominantly used bamboo sandoks, palayok, and woven placemats, Ige wanted to showcase Filipino food in an unexpected way.  Kulinarya is a sleek rendition of Filipino cuisine, featuring immaculately styled food bared it to its very essence.  Think: a serving of pinakbet reclining seductively on a pristine white dish.   During its publication a decade ago, this was a completely novel approach to present the cuisine, raising questions as to how ‘Filipino’ the food was, given that entire book was completely devoid of the usual ‘indiginizations.' “The ingredients, the manner of cooking makes it Filipino!  Even if you serve it on white plates,” laughs Ige. 

For Philippine Cookery, Ige employed the same mentality executed in a differently.  “I really wanted to produce a cookbook that was very simple, very concise to really highlight Tatung’s way of cooking, his writing, and his advocacy,” shares Ige, “Nothing too polished or clean.” To do this, Ige relied on grit and starkness to highlight the beauty of Tatung's featured dishes. For instance, Kinilaw, an iconic Filipino dish that dates back to pre-Hispanic Philippines, ironically comes out as nouvelle cuisine when presented in a blackened sea shell, a container that glaringly contrasts the opaque whiteness of the fish meat. It was this type of evocative imagery that peppers the rest of the book. “Compared to video and film, a book is a very static medium,” relates Ige. “In Tatung’s book, I required action shots: falling salt, leaping tongues of flame, drips of patis, anything that depicted movement.”

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Presentation matters. “I always judge a book by its cover,” laughs Ige, “The cover should jump out.  It shouldn’t blend with the rest of the books.” The effort that Ige goes through to achieve precisely this outcome takes dedication and commitment.  “When I still had my studio, I would print out mockups of the book jackets I was working on and bring it to National Bookstore,” remembers Ige, “I would ask the manager for permission to arrange them on the actual shelf where the final product would be displayed so I could see what it would possibly look like, in relation to the other titles.” If his design does not stand out, it’s back to the drawing board for further tweaking.

Know your material. Having intimate knowledge about the book you are designing is an immense help. “Before I can design a book, I need to read the manuscript from cover to cover,” shares Ige, “This helps me understand what the author is thinking, allowing me to translate the author’s ideas from the text into visual elements.” Ige adds that it is additionally challenging to effectively design a book without a manuscript to provide a frame of reference, even if given artistic free will. “You simply cannot design in a vacuum,” he says, “There are some clients that have asked me to design a book without any text or photos that I can use as basis. And, let me tell you, it’s tough to work on those parameters.”

Content is king.  A book is successful because of how interesting it’s contents are. It is the book designer’s job to ensure that its message is not lost to the readers simply because of unreadable text. In this manner, the choice of fonts play a very important role. Streamlining the font selection to one or two dominant fonts helps keep the tone of the book cohesive. “Fonts have their own voice, each of them communicating a different way,” Ige says.  It is essential to select one that enhances the significance of the text. “In the case of Tatung’s book, he used a lot of traditional Filipino cuisine,” he explains, “How do you translate these dishes so they resonate better with a modern audience? Thus, I used a very modern font, picking one that demonstrates the particular look that we were going for.”  

Creativity has a threshold. In design, nothing is left to chance.  Everything that goes into the book design is intentional and a designer has to move with precision. “At a certain point in the process, you stop being creative and start being technical,” says Ige.  In Philippine Ancestral Gold, published by the Ayala Museum, he was given artistic liberty to experiment, with only a few parameters to work with.  Ige found inspiration in the interiors of the museum and within the exhibit itself. “I practically lived in the museum for the last three months of the production process,” he shares, “I studied the exhibit, taking note of the dominant colors that were used: the greys, the blacks, the ochres.” This resulted in a palette that reflected the varying hues he found. The gold tones of the title page, for instance, were lifted from different gold pieces in the exhibit.  

Unity, unity, unity. “There should be repetition of elements,” shares Ige, “People like to see patterns.  Your layouts should be signposts that help the readers navigate through the thought process of the author.” For The Governor-general's Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521-1935 by Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, Ige borrowed periodic design elements from the 1930s that he used throughout the book, as a nod to the Art Deco era on which the book ended. The decision to pursue this aesthetic is anchored on the fact that 1935 was also the year that the Philippines was declared a Commonwealth, a decision that heralded the true emancipation of the country. “It was a fitting tribute to such a momentous occasion; hence we chose to go with Art Deco instead of alluding to 1521.” 

Have a critical eye for details.  Designing a book is tedious work. "You need to be sensitive to the many nuances that could occur: slight shifts of margins or the movement of the font," warns Ige, "You need to be slightly obsessive compulsive about these things.” Stress is a way of life for Ige. “There are times that I purposely take a mini-break from working on a particular project, simply because I cannot copy-fit a single word that would ultimately affect an entire block of text.” He is very particular about the tidiness of his designs.  "I work with a grid all the time," admits Ige, "If you look at all my previous work, all the bodies of my text are aligned perfectly, the margins are identical, and the size of the photos are standardized, on every single page.”

Break the rules. Designers should also exercise prudent rebellion. For Pinoy Dressing: Weaving Culture Into Fashion by Barge Ramos, Ige breached boundaries, literally and figuratively to highlight an essential attribute of the book’s origins.  “This book is an anthology of Barge’s column in the Malaya,” says Ige. “Rendering his columns into a book was tricky because in the newspaper version, the designs were spread out over an entire page,” he adds, “I included a border on each page and had the illustrations break out of the delineated margins,” says Ige. This deliberate faux pas served its purpose. “I was able to elicit the same expansiveness that the column enjoyed when they were being printed on broadsheet.”  

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Photographs by the author

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