If you pick up a recent work of literature written by a Singaporean and published by a Singapore-based press, you have a very good chance of picking up a book designed by Sarah and Schooling (no ampersand, please, we don’t believe in shortcuts). The two women behind the graphic design studio are Sarah Tang and Alison Schooling. An ardent supporter of the local literary scene, Sarah and Schooling is responsible for the looks of important works of Singapore literature, from reissued classics such as Gopal Baratham’s novels published by Marshall Cavendish, to exciting poetic debuts in the new Ten Year Series released by Math Paper Press. Arthur Yap, in both his collected poems and collected fictions, re-appears with beautifully minimalist covers designed by Sarah and Schooling for the National University of Singapore Press.
Besides book design, Sarah and Schooling also works in visual identity and branding, art directing, and web design. They are looking to extend their services beyond Singapore. At this exciting moment of their development, they kindly give SP an interview about where they came from and where they wish to go.
SP. How did you discover your love for graphic design?
SS. During our time, the Singaporean educational system placed importance on subjects like Math and Science, and so we were not the kind of students that Singapore expected of their youth. We both failed Math, a core subject, and had limited options for colleges after high school graduation. But we count ourselves lucky, since we had an inclination towards the Arts and were successfully enrolled in LASALLE College of the Arts, where we had to answer the age-old question of whether we would carve out our identity as artists or designers. Contrary to popular belief, design is not an innate talent but a skill that can be moulded and perfected through practice. We chose graphic design, and not other design disciplines like fashion or architecture, because we loved the tangible benefits of print production, and effective communication was an inspiring concept. In a way, we went into it without really understanding the depth of the field but have grown to appreciate the attention to detail and critical thinking involved in the profession.
SP. How did you go about setting up your graphic design studio in Singapore? What were the opportunities and the challenges?
SS. We were both at a time in our lives when we had space to think about what we really wanted to do with regards to our career, so we suppose timing did play a big part. We discussed the idea of starting our own firm and went to speak to someone at EDC (Enterprise Development Center), a government organisation that gave free advice to budding entreprenuers.
After the meeting, we went browsing at BooksActually, an independent bookstore in Singapore, when Kenny Leck (co-founder of BooksActually) came over to ask us what we were up too. Sarah had known Kenny for some time, and it was Kenny who gave us that extra push to find the courage to officially register the company. He was part of our firm for less than a year before we decided to part ways but we still hold strong respect for his dedication and vision, and we continue to support him by designing for his publishing imprint, Math Paper Press. It was our work for Math Paper Press that really opened more doors for us into the local publishing industry.
Over time we realised that many publishers in Singapore were not keen to spend on design as it was not their main concern, so we made it our personal goal to educate our clients on the importance of design, as our writers deserve better presentation. This was a slow process and we did it one book at a time. Till this day, Sarah and Schooling is still an ardent supporter of the local literary scene and offer discounted rates to publishers for local books–and we open our studio to literary workshops in exchange for groceries, like toilet paper. Which works out great, because toilet paper runs out really quickly in our studio!
SP. How would you describe your aesthetics? Do you have a piece of work that exemplifies that aesthetics?
SS. People have told us that they appreciate our aesthetics and this actually puzzles us. We believe that good designers have to understand their client’s brand and be versatile since we are speaking on behalf of the client. We suppose most of the work we’ve done so far has been leaning on a minimalist style and this is probably because most of the projects we take on require it to be so. Unless you’re an avid reader, a heavy amount of text can be quite intimidating, and a clean look helps attract the attention of the masses.
SP.You design a lot of books published in Singapore. What is your process in designing a book cover?
SS. Most of the time, we typeset the content as well as work on the cover. Reading snippets of the manuscript while typesetting helps us get a general feel of the book, so we usually work on typesetting before we work on the cover. We have to more or less read every book, because there are certain details that we won’t be able to catch with just reading the synposis. Initially it was really difficult, because, as with every design job, it has to be a collaboration between us and the client to help communicate a message to the audience, but in book design, there is more than one client. We have 5 viewpoints to consider with every book we design, including:
The Author – since it is ultimately her book, and sometimes she has spent years working and editing her manuscript before finding the courage to put it out, so with small imprint publishers, we make the effort to listen to what she has envisioned. It helps to get to know the author a little better, because most of the time her work reflects quite a bit of her identity.
The Publisher – who is always thinking about how to sell the book. For instance, designing a dark cover because the book has a serious tone of voice sometimes gets rejected, because the book will disappear on the shelves.
The Bookseller – we’ve learnt that bookstores prefer books that are more durable, so the browsing copy they place doesn’t have to be replaced too often. As much as we want to experiment with printing techniques, sometimes it does not make any practical sense for operational value.
The Reader – because the truth is we all judge a book by its cover, and
The Designer (us) – since we are trained in basic design principles and have an aesthetic eye.
Ultimately the publisher pays for the print run of the book and works within a budget, so she makes the final decisions. On top of this, since most of the books we design are usually literary books (i.e., poetry, prose, short stories, etc), we try not to give away the story on the cover. As avid readers ourselves, we enjoy the magic of the story unraveling, so we avoid being too visually literal.
SP. What are your plans for the studio? This year? The next five years?
SS. Having worked with a few local publishers since our founding, we are aiming for international exposure this year. We’re planning to take part in a few book fairs around the world and have just been accepted to the Designers & Books Fair in New York. It’s tentatively happening on the last weekend of September and we’re really excited about it. It’s been a little tricky though–we get rejected from book fairs because we’re not publishers or authors, and then we get rejected from art book fairs because most of the work we’ve produced are literary books and do not technically fall under art books (i.e., photography, architecture, fashion, and illustration).
We were up at the Tokyo Art Book Fair last year–as visitors, not participants–just to get a sense of what it would be like. The people we met (¬publishers, creatives including fellow book designers, even paper suppliers) and the work we saw really opened our eyes to how much more we have to learn, and this was just Tokyo. Having embarked on the entrepreneurship route, we’ve learnt that the only thing constant is change. We can plan as much as we want, but some things fall in place and some things fall out of place. My only hope is that in the next five years, we will still be growing–not just as creatives but as people–and hopefully not be too complacent.
Sarah Tang. Photo by Rachel Lim.
Alison Schooling. Photo by Sadiq Mansor.