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Train as an Architect, Work as a Book Designer

Designer Elaine Ramos discovered that sometimes studying the “wrong” subject in school can lead to the right career

Elaine Ramos grew up without any knowledge of design—and perhaps even more surprisingly, she grew up in a house largely devoid of books. Moreover, Ramos’ homeland of Brazil didn’t offer public higher education in the commercial arts while she was in school, and, not knowing that graphic design even existed, she wound up studying architecture at the Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo.

She hated the timelines inherent in the world of architecture; it took years to design a building, and still more to see it constructed, if it ever even made it to that stage. “I became much more interested in restraining my design to smaller objects, so that I could hold them, so that I could control every detail—or have the illusion of control,” she says.

In 1997, she worked on her first book cover in partnership with her school’s imprint. After she graduated, she got a job on the architecture book line at Cosac Naify, the Brazilian publisher known for its lavishly designed art and academic titles. It was here, Ramos says, that her lifelong “love affair” with books began. Her architecture training wasn’t a total waste, though. “It made me think more structurally,” she says. “My focus is not only at the surface, but at the materials, the functioning, the industrial processes.”

Only after ensuring that she has laid the foundation of a solid interior concept on which to bring a book’s best ideas to life—via design, paper selection, careful consideration of the overall tactile experience—will she move on to the cover, which she regards as a total synthesis of everything within. Ramos considers her decade-plus career at Cosac Naify as a rich, experimental lab in her development, and when the house closed in 2015, she carried the lessons she absorbed over to the new publishing venture she co-founded, Ubu.

What follows is a selection of work spanning Ramos’ career, showcasing her desire to approach each manuscript on its own terms, allowing content to wholly dictate visual concept.

Animais de Todo o Mundo, by Jacques Roubaud

The poetry of French writer and mathematician Jacques Roubaud is rife with wordplay and experimental language, and Ramos sought to play off of that in the book’s design—which she did by bringing Fefe Talavera, then known for her street art, on board as an illustrator. Talavera constructed a series of typographic animals for the book using Letraset characters, and the creatures went on to adorn and interact with Roubaud’s writing.

Ramos then designed a custom alphabet from dozens of different fonts to bring the text of the poems to life. The result is literal wordplay that’s whimsical, yet retains its legibility. After carrying her custom typeface and one of Talavera’s animals over to the cover, Ramos set the composition in a radiant orange to bolster the shared sense of humor between text and design.

Animais de Todo o Mundo, by Jacques Roubaud; designed by Elaine Ramos

Coleção Argonautas Series (Various authors)

Working on academic titles can often mean low print runs, and thus low budgets. That was the case for this set of eight books on anthropological theory. With a series analyzing such a wide range of places, cultures and subjects, Ramos sought to unify everything through simple geometric patterns that echo the art of numerous societies at once—be they patterns found in basketry, pottery or even body art and beyond.

“The design is simply based on the intersection of two diagonal grids,” she explains. “The range of variations resulting of this simple starting point is what makes it fun.” And affordable, too.

Coleção Argonautas Series (Various authors); designed by Elaine Ramos

Bartleby, o Escrivão, by Herman Melville

For Herman Melville’s (other) classic work, Bartleby, the Scrivener, “The idea was making an edition with a very tight connection between form and content,” Ramos says. So Cosac Naify decided to pull out all the stops.

The book’s title character works in an office on Wall Street, and apathetically fields requests from his superiors with his trademark phrase, “I prefer not to,” dwindling down the amount of work that he does day by day as he stares out the window at a wall. In her design, Ramos sought to create a book that refused to be read: Upon holding a copy of Bartleby, the reader discovers it has been stitched shut. Once the thread has been pulled and the book opened, the reader comes face to face with Bartleby’s signature wall—and realizes that she must then use the supplied bookmark to slice the folded pages open one by one, chiseling away at the enigmatic title character bit by bit.

As for the cover design, while some might have expected Ramos to go over-the-top to outdo the volume’s elaborate production methods, she tightly adhered to her concept, and crafted it to look like a document that might have been found on Bartleby’s desk during the time of the story. A simple and elegant solution for the master of refusal.

Bartleby, o Escrivão, by Herman Melville; designed by Elaine Ramos

Coleção, by Ferreira Gullar

This collection brings together the key volumes of Ferreira Gullar, one of Brazil’s most well known modern poets. Gullar was strongly affiliated with the country’s Neo-Concrete Movement, having written its core 1959 manifesto expounding on the need for a less rational, often participatory form of art.

Ramos regards Gullar’s poetry as simple, precise, and strong—so she settled on a bold black-and-white palette for the books, with trimmed edges in striking hues of red, blue, and purple to accentuate the designs and reinforce them as 3D objects (Gullar’s poetry often took the form of shapes or patterns). She sought to bolster this by reversing the color and orientation of the patterns on the back of the titles. Meanwhile, each cover pattern plays subtle and delicate homage to the book it represents—such as the projection of daylight in In the Vertigo of the Day (Na Vertigem do Dia).

Coleção, by Ferreira Gullar; designed by Elaine Ramos

O Livro Amarelo do Terminal, by Vanessa Barbara

The Yellow Terminal Book documents Brazil’s Terminal Tietê, one of the largest bus stations ever built. The author penned the text in an experimental style, incorporating elements such as fragments of music, newspaper headlines and T-shirt slogans to recreate the space in what Ramos describes as a “textual collage.” Ramos sought to further this in her design, and to do so she tapped into her personal archive of tickets, which she has been collecting since childhood. After collaging them, she photocopied them numerous times for texture.

“The design combines heavy and geometric elements with the dirty and random result of the photocopy and paper transparency, creating a contrast that evokes the bus station: a functional framework opposed to the chaos of the crowd in transit,” she says.

On the production side, the historical chapters in the book comprised of old documents and archival newspaper articles were printed on self-copying paper containing carbon—meaning they get dirty as they’re handled, just like actual tickets and other transportation ephemera.

As for why she collects the yellow tickets that found their way to the cover: “I find them beautiful,” Ramos says. Sometimes, that’s enough.

O Livro Amarelo do Terminal, by Vanessa Barbara; designed by Elaine Ramos

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