Interview: Jenny Grigg

Published:  May 20, 2013
Heath Killen
Interview: Jenny Grigg

Jenny Grigg captures something about Australia. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that something is, probably because it’s a constellation of many things. There’s a narrative to her body of work that is infused with history, culture, and the rich textures of the landscape. These qualities are enhanced by the fact that so much of it has been created for (and is often about) literature. Whether it be as a designer of Faber & Faber covers while working for Pentagram in London, as former creative director of Harper Collins in Sydney, as long-term collaborator with author Peter Carey, or now as art director of literary Journal Meanjin, there are traces of Grigg’s exploration of the visual and written chronicles of this country right throughout her portfolio. Griggs work hits you on an emotional and intellectual level. It’s diverse, uncommonly deep, and noticeably gentle in execution. It taps into our collective memory and emerges with something that is uniquely, innately, and identifiably Australian. Here she shares a little of her personal history, approach to her craft, and some thoughts on the role of design and writing in the ever-evolving Australian story.

You had a unique upbringing, which seems to have played a big role in shaping your particular interests and approach to design. Could you tell us a little more about those early childhood experiences?
I grew up in Sydney 200m away from bushland that ran down to middle harbour so we had a lot of freedom and bush to roam around in. My parents are scientists and we travelled around Australia on holidays camping. I studied classical flute and practised daily until university and think my weekends were spent doing things like painting images of frogs and flowers with the dream of being a botanical illustrator. All the references around me were scientific, so I tried to draw and paint everything realistically. There wasn’t too much creative expression, I was concentrating on drawing to get a likeness. We had a pretty adventurous time. We used to sit in the bush and try to make shoes out of bark and grass. Bark for the soles and grass thonging wrapped around the ankle to hold the bark on. Of course the bark disintegrated the moment you stood up and took the first step, which was really frustrating.

Illustration & identity design for agIdeas 2011

Illustration & poster design for agIdeas 2011

In terms of design, your career began in magazines and publishing. What did you learn in those early years about that has stayed with you and helped direct the way you work today?
Working at Rolling Stone Magazine was when work became exciting. The magazine attracted many great people. Those years in the early 90s were really rich, lots of inspired and ambitious people worked together, photographers and illustrators, and we had a lot of creative independence. I learnt a great deal from the digital files delivered from the US art department every fortnight. Back in then they were Quarkxpress files. That was a privilege. I could inspect the way the files were set up, see what their colour mixes were, realise that they did painstakingly kern lines of type to achieve that smooth result. A huge amount of care was taken and it was important to learn that.

You obviously still have a strong connection to, and love of print. Have the changes to the industry in recent years had an impact on your work – both in terms of business and your approach?
The changes are major and I am thinking a lot about digital interpretations often now, picking up digital references when I see them. Print still exists as a medium but it feels more and more niche. We use online and print daily without thinking about it anymore. In tandem with that, I feel more like an information designer now whereas before I identified with being a print designer. Designing for multiple mediums consolidates our purpose in a sense; we are designing the delivery of information regardless of its format. It is a major evolution but designers are adaptable and the core principals of design remain the same; communicating effectively using a variety of tools.

It’s never obvious or blunt, but I’ve always felt a strong sense of Australianness in your work. The execution is always contemporary but it seems informed by a historical and cultural context that’s unique to this country. Is this something you’ve set out to research and develop deliberately, or has it come out in your work more naturally?
I think this is because of my upbringing, my experiences before I knew anything about the commercial world. If my father was researching turtles we went to Heron island, if it was red belly black snakes we went to Macquarie Marshes, if it was crocodiles we spent Christmas holidays at Maningrida. But then I went to university and learnt about design and commercial reality; clients, briefs, marketing. I don’t really think about it, but I am grounded by these two worlds and meld their influence to keep a personal balance.

Illustration for Sydney Theatre Company production of 'Face to Face'

Do you think it is important for Australian designers to have a regional flavour to their work? If so, do you have any thoughts on where we can find the qualities that make up our cultural identity – outside of the cliches, stereotypes and myths that have so often played a role in forming it?
I think it is more important to have a personal flavour; personal flavour is more interesting regardless of what region you are in. And a collection of personal flavours evolve into what becomes a regional flavour, and so on. It is natural to be influenced on what is around you.I like very graphic shapes and have worked with letterforms a lot to generate different abstract graphics. To try something else I began printing native leaves instead of wood type. Just with black ink to highlight their form. I was conscious of choosing native Australian leaves rather than rose petals say, as our leaf shapes are a point of difference.

While living in Denmark I was really taken by their tradition of cutting silhouettes. They have long summer nights there and you can see silhouettes of pines against the pale night sky for hours. Simple and pure graphic shapes in black. A friend there had a gorgeous cut silhouette of a tree framed on her wall. Simple, stark and very modern although made traditionally and decades ago. My eyes went to it every time I visited. When I was back in Australia I tried my own version. I chose a Bunya Pine, a massive Australian native pine with an incredible dome-shaped silhouette. There is nothing like living in another country to bring your Australian-ness into focus. Identity is all about comparing differences and similarities.

How do you go about collecting and cataloguing your visual ideas? Do you begin from scratch with each project, or are you building on older ideas you’ve developed between commercial projects?
Both. Every job stays with you in some sense and can be drawn on, evolved and adapted and you never stop seeing the potential for new ideas.

Assorted cover designs for Peter Carey

You’ve created numerous designs for Peter Carey, and there’s been quite an evolution in your approach to the different collections of his novels. What has influenced these changes in style?
Only the intention to present a new work in a new way. In regards to the two series published firstly by UQP in 2001 and then by Random House in 2006, the reinvention of the covers was more practical; the second series had to be distinct from the first to announce the change of publisher and attract new interest.

What’s particularly interesting in your work for Peter Carey is how profoundly different the approaches have been. How did you manage to draw those different ideas out from the same text, and unify them so clearly?
There are countless visual interpretations that can be made from a text. Reading a novel conjures atmospheres and images. Changing technique is a key to creating something new. Letterpress type was the technique chosen for the first series and paper collage for the second. Each designer would make their own interpretation of the same novels.

Meanjin relaunch issue. Illustration by David Lancashire

How did your relationship with Meanjin begin, and how has it evolved over time?
I was commissioned to design a cover for Meanjin at the time Sally Heath became the journal’s editor. I realised Sally needed a designer as she was building a new team so I offered to take on the role. Sally and Zora (Sanders) are really fun to work with, small teams are definitely the most fluid. We work on a shoestring budget too; we aren’t weighed down by massive budgets and high expectations from sales and marketing teams. Meanjin is free from that and it shows.

Meanjin has given you the opportunity to work with a number of great Australian artists and illustrators, many of which also share that unique sense of “Australianness”.  Is this something you look for in their work?
Only in that Meanjin is a container for Australian culture and a conscious effort is made to commission Australian contributors. We were thrilled David Lancashire accepted a commission to do a cover last year and have invited Harry Williamson for an upcoming issue and were so pleased he wants to contribute. Harry and David are two world class designers so Meanjin is really privileged by their contribution. Harry taught me at UTS; back then he encouraged me to read books by Nikolai Gogol and Knut Hamsun and make visual interpretations of their work; I think Harry is the reason I found my way into book design. His designs for Heat Magazine published by Giramondo certainly influenced me to buy woodtype and letterpress printing equipment. Experimenting with this eventually led to my first Peter Carey designs. Meanjin was first published in 1940 and its identity is built on Australian creativity; the brief is to keep this tradition going.

What guides you as art director? Do you see Meanjin as a body of work, or is there an issue by issue approach?
Collecting Australian culture visually, current and past. It is designed to be an open forum with a very simple grid. This simplicity caters for any style of visual or written content and allows each issue to be clearly defined by the new material, starting with the front cover. We are conscious to make a new statement on the cover with each quarterly issue.

Assorted cover designs for Ernest Hemmingway

Where do you you feel more comfortable and happy in your practice – working on image making and illustration, or typography and layout?
I have a passion for both these areas and they complement each other well in publishing and communication design. Careful typography and layout design bring out the tidy side of me and I enjoy crafting type so that reading it is as effortless as possible. Working on a book cover I put on another hat and set about evoking a piece of stand-alone design. A book cover is essentially a combination of word and image that can be put together in endless ways and ideally in a manner that provokes a reaction or stirs the imagination. The impetus is the content of the book itself.

If it is a work of fiction you read and subconsciously soak up the tone and details of the narrative and these are your guide as you set about designing; choosing imagery and typography and watching how they fit together. Book cover design is a perfect test of your skills as a visual communicator. It can be incredibly frustrating as there are many people to please in the process; author, publisher, sales and marketing team as well as your own design principles, but it is very satisfying when it works.

I am not the most vocal person so I rely on making visual comments, I feel that they talk for me in a way. Book design reminds me of making birthday cards for people. Making a card you find an element of the person’s character and craft something from this; I think book cover design is a similar process. When making a card for a friend, a visual interpretation comes easily because you know them. You can be confident that your idea is relevant and that they will enjoy it; designing a book cover you are essentially using the same skills. It is different in that there is a paying client and a complicated series of people to please, but in essence it is the same process.

I am working on a cover at the moment for Granta Books written by a young writer from NZ, Eleanor Catton. The brief was very detailed and well considered by the publisher. I had to read the book to be able to understand the brief. It was an incredible challenge to come up with an idea that was going to be true to the complexity of the novel as well as tune the design to suit the audience that the publisher wanted to reach. I spent quite a few frustrating sessions circling a result, but in the end came to something everyone who knew the novel agreed worked, including the author, which was rewarding.

You seem to have deliberately avoided social media and blogging, which is somewhat unusual for a designer in Australia. Has this been a deliberate choice, or a circumstantial one?
I am socially passive by nature, I am listener more than a tweeter.

What’s on the horizon for you now?
Gradually transferring all of the above onto a digital platform all the while concentrating on a few luxurious printed pieces.

This interview was first published in Desktop #293 — Who Are You?

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