“The details are not the details,” said Charles Eames. “The details make the design.” I think Eames is saying that all the little, seemingly invisible decisions that no one else will notice, these are the things that make a piece of design work or not work. This idea is perhaps never more evident than in designing a photo book. As a long-time photography enthusiast, I’ve always found the book to be the ideal format for looking at images: it’s intimate and accessible, sequential and narrative.
I’ve collected photo books for years but, strangely, never considered their design. My interest in them was purely photographic — I was interested in the photographer or the narrative or the type of images. In the case of a photo book, this is often the marker of good design: one shouldn’t be distracted by the size of the book or the quality of the paper or the typographic choices: all of these decisions are in service of the photographs. The details make the design.
Over the last few years, I started to notice that many of my favorite photo books were designed by the same person. Morgan Crowcroft-Brown is the designer and production manager (or “production manager and designer,” she tells me. “Because I’m uncomfortable calling myself a designer”) for MACK, the London-based photography publisher. Since 2018, Crowcroft-Brown has worked on books for photographers ranging from Stephen Shore to Teju Cole, Luigi Ghirri to Deanna Templeton.
Many of the decisions Morgan makes involve these invisible details: what paper to use, the type of binding, how big the margins should be, how the photographs should be printed. If there’s a through-line through Morgan’s books, it’s a respect for materials: a clear understanding of the physicality of these objects and how they shape our reaction to them. Morgan and I spoke over Zoom recently to talk about how she negotiates these design decisions, as well as her own design education and why the details really are the design.
How did you get into designing photo books? Is your background in design?
No, I actually studied anthropology in Sydney, where I’m from. This feels like something I just fell into. I worked in bookshops since I was 16 and while I was getting my degree, I was managing the art department of a local bookshop. I was ordering titles and making newsletters and these kinds of things. After I finished my degree, I was doing that full time and thinking “What the hell am I doing with my life?” — as you do! I saw that MACK was hiring interns and figured there was no harm in applying.
So I applied, had a Skype interview, got the internship, and moved to London within two months. It was meant to be a three-month internship but after a month, the director, Michael Mack, hired me full-time as an assistant in the office. I did that for four or five months until, coincidentally, the designer, Lewis Chaplin, who was working here left. They didn’t hire a replacement so for the rest of the year, my colleague and I managed the design work under the direct supervision of Michael. I had no idea what I was doing. Then my colleague left and it was just me left to do everything. Now here I am four years later! That was my design education.
Wow, you really did fall into it! What was your understanding of design at that point? Obviously working in bookshops, you must have been familiar with the design of books and their covers, but was that something you were paying attention to?
I loved my job at the bookshop, recommending books and watching people get immersed in them, but I’m not sure I was that conscious of their design at that stage. Like you, I took photos and was interested in photography as a hobby. Growing up, I made little zines and things like that but those were the closest I got to design. I’ve worked with people who have actually studied design and they’ll sometimes ask me where I learned these skills. To me, it seems like common sense, but I guess it’s not.
What do you mean you think it’s common sense?
Maybe it’s because I don’t come from design and that my design education is entirely through learning here at MACK, where the strength of the design is in the production: understanding how materials and mechanics work and understanding, formally, what makes a good book in terms of paper, print finish, and binding. To me, a lot of these decisions are really logical because they are based on technical capacity.
Of course, the content also needs to inform these decisions, as it is always the hero of the book. Everything else needs to follow that. There’s a tipping point: the minute the design starts to take over, whether that be the graphics or print finish, then the design takes over and becomes the focus. Sometimes when I do draft designs, I go over the edge and immediately think, “Oh, this looks like shit now.” It’s all about knowing where that tipping point is. For a photobook, you don’t want to necessarily see the design. It almost destroys the magic.
Nobody notices the design of your books unless the design is wrong, basically. It must feel like, “I’m putting in all this work that nobody will notice, but then if I don’t do it, everyone will notice!” Whether the format is too big or if the paper is wrong, how do you balance thinking that all these decisions don’t matter because it’s about the photography — it’s about the artist, about the content — while at the same time, it’s the most important thing because if you mess it up, that does a disservice to all of these other people?
I always imagine a person in the bookstore, picking up one of these books. I don’t want them to notice who designed it, I just want them to pick it up and become immersed in the work. You’re not noticing any of the design decisions, like the paper stock or fancy page numbers. I think that’s a big difference between book design and graphic design. It’s not just about the graphics on the page, it is all how these different formal aspects come together.
What strikes me about designing a photo book is that so many of the design decisions are about the materials. They’re about the ratio of the book, the size of the book, the paper stock, the size of the margins, whether there are page numbers or not… How do you think about making those decisions? Can you talk about all of those negotiations that you go through?
This is probably not an answer people want to hear but the reason I got into photobooks, specifically is the idea of art being accessible.
No matter where you are in the world, you can pick up a book from the library or university and immerse yourself. Growing up in Australia, there were no bookshops near me that had the types of books I wanted so we’d go to our local library, find a William Eggelston book and pour over it for hours. So I’m very conscious about the cost implications of design decisions, as these directly affect the price point of the book. I think of that as one of the key design challenges.
When it comes to page size, for example, if it’s 9.4×13.3” but I increase it slightly to 10×13.3”, I’ve increased the cost by 50% simply because of the number of pages that can fit on the sheet and consequently the amount of paper we’ll need. That’s also influenced by the print run; if the print run is large, you can order a custom sheet size (which is cheaper because there is less paper waste), but if it’s not high enough, you have to order standard sheet sizes (which may have more paper waste).
Then with the print finish itself, whether it’s LE-UV or whether it’s conventional offset? Is there a type of printing particularly suited to the images and files? What’s the quality of the images- digital or film? You have to understand how they would reproduce. So many of these decisions are pragmatic when you consider the cost implication.
Then for other decisions like margins, for me it’s about looking at the work and figuring out what suits the project. We recently made a book of performative photography and it felt like those needed to take over the page, so we made the margin very thin. On the other hand, we’re currently working on a book where some of the photos are square format, some are 35mm (portrait and landscape), all taken in the 1970s in Amsterdam. Because of the mix of different formats, it feels necessary to give them they need a generous border. So it’s about considering how best to represent the work on the page and how to make it accessible to the audience.
So this idea of accessibility extends beyond the price point; how will someone new to photography or art consume this work? What small tweaks can you make to open up the work to more people?
You’re talking about the design receding, being almost invisible, but none of you’re books look the same. What do you look for — either in the photographs themselves or in the conversations that you have with the photographers — to help you make those design decisions?
I always try to get a sense how far I can push it with the design with the artists and editors involved. A lot of artists are still wedded to the traditional way of presenting work, so you often get a sense immediately whether or not they would be willing to do something a little bit different, whether that’s to use an uncoated paper or try a different format. I feel like once I know that, I can start imagining the book in my head and how it would feel in the hand. For me, it always starts with the format and then the paper. Both of those completely change what kind of book it will be.
So what is the collaboration like with the photographer? How much are they bringing ideas or suggestions? Do they have paper stock ideas? Are they saying these need to be full-bleed images or this book needs to be vertical or have a blue cover?
It’s extremely varied. We’re working with a photographer at the moment and they have specified every single detail: they want this many pages, with this type of paper, these kinds of margins and this font. That approach doesn’t happen too often. Then on the other end of the spectrum, some photographers will send us a folder of images and let us come to them with a sequence and complete design. Then there are photographers in the middle who might be working to a particular format, and they might know that they want a coated paper stock rather than an uncoated paper stock.
You designed Teju Cole’s two most recent books, Fernweh and Golden Apple of the Sun. I find those books work really well as objects, as containers for Cole’s photographs but they are completely different. Fernweh is a very traditional book: all the images are on one side, and they’re all positioned at the top with the same margins. I don’t think there are page numbers on that book. But Golden Apple of the Sun is much more designed, but not in a bad way: you’ve included the metadata for the photos, there are different paper stocks, and there’s the essay at the back, which is typeset in a very particular way. Using those two books from the same photographer, could you talk about that collaboration? How much were you looking at these photos saying, “This is what this book could be”?
Interestingly they both came in a similar form. For Fernweh, Michael Mack worked directly with Teju on the sequence. When we sequence in the studio, all the images are printed out as thumbnails, then images are shuffled around, organized, paired, then eventually taped onto A3 pages. These are then given to me and I take my first stab at the design. For Fernweh, I was thinking a lot about the photographs and travel threads running through a lot of them. This led me to consider the design of old postcards and posters. This resulted in the somewhat awkward portrait format and the silkscreened bitmap graphic on the front cover and large text on the back. For the interior, I approached it as a classic photography book where everything is positioned in the same location on the right hand page. When there was an image pairing, instead of putting this image on the left, I stacked them on top of one another on the right hand page. As the photos are only printed on the right hand side we didn’t have to worry about show-though, so we could use a lighter paper stock. I love books that use light paper like that.
Golden Apple was different because Teju and I worked together more on the design. The sequencing was set by the simple principle that they needed to be arranged by time and date. Teju also wanted to include these handwritten eighteenth century cookbook pages throughout the layout. I had found a kraft paper and had been waiting for a project to use it on, so it seemed fitting for these cookbook pages. Because of the binding, these cookbook kraft paper sections could be interspersed every 8, 16 or 24 pages. So this parameter lead a lot of other design decisions.
Do you think there is a thread that connects all the books that you’ve designed?
Probably not. During my first year on the job — when everything was moving so fast and I was thrown to the deep end — I had to learn very quickly how to use materials correctly. There were a couple of occasions where a printer or binder we were working with would use paper or linen against the grain, essentially taking cost-saving shortcuts without consulting us. I think I learned hard and fast what was wrong with this approach; whilst you might get a slightly cheaper production cost, the result is a book that is really stiff to open. So if I have a common approach, it’s “respect the materials.”
That’s basically the theme of this whole conversation: the materials are the design.
Exactly. The design process is a layering of these different elements, but the aim is that you don’t necessarily see all those layers. You just see the work. If those layers are visible or one of them is missing, the whole facade breaks down.