The Act of Translation: An Inside Look at Publication Design at the Walker

The Walker Art Center has recently jumped headfirst into online publishing, exploring how an art center can create media-agnostic content that may be consumed through any number of platforms. The challenge of designing for “formless content” is fascinating. But these explorations are all built on a long tradition of print publishing, and when it comes down to it, we absolutely love books. So naturally we take our exhibition publications very seriously.

The Walker’s publications program lives within our in-house design department. We work in tandem with various departments, especially the programming departments: visual arts, film/video, performing arts and education. Part of what makes the in-house design department unique is that it is also a programming department, putting on lectures and exhibitions. This places us in an institutional sweet spot between the curatorial and service departments, which often affords us a higher level of creative latitude than designers working within other organizations.

I am the design director at the Walker, and we have two full-time designers and one yearly design fellow who handle the 300 to 400 projects that come through the studio every year. These projects range from marketing campaigns and exhibition catalogues to postcards and signage. In addition to the designers, the department also includes our editorial team as well as photographers and videographers. Ours is a very close-knit system that allows for easy communication between the people responsible for framing the Walker’s text and image.

We conceive the exhibition publications as parallel endeavors to the exhibitions themselves. At the heart of our philosophy is the desire to create an object that is as challenging and forward thinking as the artist it represents. Instead of merely imitating an artist’s style, we translate concepts, aesthetics and attitudes into the form of the book. A book will never replicate the experience of seeing an artwork in real life and shouldn’t try to. Instead, the book should present a new context through which to experience the ideas. This act of translation is one of the most challenging but satisfying aspects of being a designer at the Walker.

Recently, we worked on a book about Abraham Cruzvillegas, a Mexican conceptual artist who has developed a body of work that investigates what he calls autoconstrucción, or “self-construction.” This idea originates from an organic, ad-hoc architectural mode evident in the artist’s hometown and elsewhere—buildings and structures in a constant state of transformation as additions are made when materials become available and necessity dictates. This metaphor of being constantly under construction, of additive and reactive structures, informs his assemblage and found-object sculptures, his general methodology and even a broader understanding of how identity is built and constantly rebuilt.

So how do you design a book that encapsulates this?

At the Walker, a book project is first assigned to a designer—in this case, our Senior Designer Dante Carlos—who meets with the curator of the exhibition, the artist and the design director. Each book represents an opportunity to form new working dynamics in the curator-artist-designer triangulation that defines so much design done within the cultural sector. And each artist has a different relationship to this process—from young artists who are hands-on with every detail of a book, to more established artists who are content to let us manage the process, to estates representing deceased artists.

Cruzvillegas was somewhere in the middle, deeply invested but not controlling (also very much alive!). He was interested in this publication looking outward—a reflection of his research and ideas. He and Senior Curator Clara Kim wanted the publication to act as a question he is posing, an opportunity to learn something himself. Through several conversations and rounds of emails, a general set of principles began to emerge which informed the design.

The book would feature images of the exhibition artwork at its core, with additional research and context: 176 pages of songs, photos, posters, fliers, books, essays and an artist’s index of terms that would form a graphic and textual lexicon of the artist’s practice. This section was conceived as a direct translation of the artist’s “resource room”—a room in his exhibition made up of different components. On a long table, there are coil-bound photocopied books on subjects like architecture, poetry and Mexican culture; upside down buckets and a converted wheelbarrow serve as seating. On a nearby wall, several large maps are displayed, showing growth and population densities over time in Mexico City; on a circular table, a plant sits on top of a collage of photographs—images from his neighborhood that the artist had taken with a simple camera. Another wall addressed Mexican and Latin American socio-political issues. Because we were literally looking to “wrap” this “resource room” around the plate section of the book, we decided to saddle stitch the entire publication.

This ended up being more of a challenge than we anticipated. Saddle stitching 240 pages is not really recommended, so we asked our most trusted printer, Shapco Printing, to help us find the right bindery for the job (which ended up being an industrial stitcher in Stillwater, Minnesota that sews sailboat sails together). We consider our printers to be collaborators and we look to them for ideas and innovation in materials. To many of our designers at the Walker, Shapco feels like a second home, as they have spent late nights there wandering the halls between press checks, napping on the couch and  exploring the nooks and crannies of the shop.

Our main print rep, Joe Avery, constantly brings new techniques to our attention, simultaneously indulging us in our most outlandish schemes and pulling us back to reality when we stray too far. His commitment to excellence and innovation in print makes him a valued collaborator at the Walker. During the mockup process, Shapco suggested that we use a thick, plastic paper for the cover, which could handle the intense stitching without ripping at the seams. At first, the plastic paper seemed at odds with our idea of the artist’s work—we knew we wanted materials that reflected the autoconstrucción concept and the artist suggested humble materials such as newsprint and cardboard (ironically, what artists consider to be humble materials in bookmaking often equate to incredibly expensive production costs). The more we played with it, the more it felt appropriate to mash up disparate paper aesthetics in the catalogue. If the body stock (French Duratone) was our brick and mortar, the cover stock was our vinyl siding and PVC pipe. And the fact that the material made the most sense from a construction durability standpoint is what most aligned it with the autoconstrucción concept.

One of Cruzvillegas’ most identifiable methods of creating sculptures involves stacking objects one on top of the other. During the sketching process, Carlos hit upon this idea of “stacking,” and used it quite literally to begin arranging the artwork plates and the texts in the catalogue. I think this strategy, which would typically feel quite awkward in another context, worked beautifully, and created a highly unique feeling for the book.

The design of the cover was the last piece of the puzzle. We knew we wanted something memorable and singular that would illustrate the stacking concept and, by extension, the idea of autoconstrucción. So Carlos created the most archetypal, abstracted iteration of the stacking concept possible, and we foil-stamped that on top of a beautiful image of architecture that the artist had taken.

At this point in our design process, the designer hands over the images to our in-house pre-press image specialist, who corrects and enhances all of the imagery. From there, the designer press checks the book, identifying and reacting to unexpected production issues (for example, a foil stamp that threatens to melt the plastic cover). In the end, 2,400 copies of the book were printed, and it will be archived in libraries and museums around the world.

Having been a designer in our in-house studio and having designed my fair share of Walker books, I can speak for the Walker designers when I say that these books are almost overburdened with their potential, and living up to this potential while keeping them under control is half the battle for everyone involved. They can be overwhelming, inspiring, frustrating, deliriously painful labors of love that inevitably result in esoteric back stories that only the designers and curators are privy to. (Read more about the concepts that informed Carlos’ design process here.) I asked Carlos to sum up this feeling with one word and his response was “stress dream.”

This post was submitted by an individual AIGA member and may have been published without review. It does not necessarily reflect the views of AIGA as an organization. Please notify an editor if you notice information that is incorrect or in violation of any copyright or trademark. AIGA members may submit posts here.

About the Author:

Emmet Byrne is the Design Director at the Walker Art Center. With Alex DeArmond and Jon Sueda he co-publishes the Task Newsletter.