Michael Carabetta

Step Magazine by Sean Adams

Michael Carabetta

Almost every designer has had the experience of walking into a bookstore and picking up a book because it looks extraordinary. Let’s admit it, we’re visual beings, and although we care about the content, we’re slaves to our own aesthetic temptations. As the creative director at Chronicle Books, Michael Carabetta marries remarkable visuals with unexpected and compelling content. And, as providence would have it, that book we pick up because it looks extraordinary typically turns out to be a chronicle books project that Michael has touched. While I would love to say that Michael and I sat down for a long chat in a musty rare bookstore, I can’t. He’s a busy person, and i was lucky to capture his attention while he was between meetings with architects and contractors as chronicle prepared to move into new quarters in San Fancisco.

SA: Michael, you’ve been in the design business for a long time. I know you were at Landor. How did you transition from identity and systems to books?

MC: I left Landor on a Friday and began work at Chronicle on Monday. I love the thought of a fresh new week, and in this instance, a fresh new job. In that respect the transition was seamless. There was, of course, much I didn’t know about publishing, but I found the principles of design I had learned and practiced were readily transferable from identity systems to books—theory and practice made real.

SA: Tell me about your job. I know you don’t design every book, but beyond that, I’m fairly clueless—no jokes here, please. So what do you do exactly?

MC: One of my former colleagues called me a “black box.” And an old publishing crony of Michael Korda’s, upon being introduced to me, remarked, “So, you’re Chronicle’s ‘secret weapon.’” Both comments amuse me, but then there’s always a grain of truth in humor.

My working life at Chronicle—we spend most of our waking hours at work, so isn’t that life, too?—is a skein of people and projects. When I began in 1991, there were three designers, one big-screen computer, no color printer, and “mechanicals” were still pasted up with wax. You can imagine the anxiety of having to insert a comma with an X-Acto knife while the production manager impatiently tapped her foot, waiting. I brought us into the late 20th century, which at that time meant Mac IICs, QMS color printers and Syquest hard drives to produce mechanicals digitally.

There were a few other projects, too. The boss stopped me in the stairwell one day and asked if I could do something about our identity. Sure thing. Not long after that, “By the way, can we redesign our tradeshow booth?” Natch. Next, “Shouldn’t we have someone to design our ads, catalogs and whatnot in-house?” Check. “Website?” Roger. And so it went. So did Chronicle.

That year we had our first New York Times bestseller, Griffin & Sabine. The success of that book was a springboard to growth. That meant upgraded workstations and designers to sit at them. The entire company grew, and with it, the design group. Then, the company numbered 50 people with three designers. Now, 15 years later, we’re 170 with 25 designers and five design Fellows.

I’ve added other functions to my black box: in-store retail displays, four generations of tradeshow environments, our own retail shop in San Francisco and managing our new office design project. Those are the tasks. The goal was, and remains, to maintain a high level of design in all that we do, from the business card to building architecture to all the books and products in between. It’s all design, and it’s all Chronicle.

SA: If that’s the goal, you’ve succeeded. I’m sure most designers think of Chronicle as a design-oriented publisher. Beyond the design, how much input do you have with content or determining the books to be published?

MC: Unless I’m personally involved in a book project, typically I don’t have a lot of input on the content of books. That’s the purview of the editors. However, I do take part in the editorial board discussions over which books we intend to publish. My comments, and those of the designers assigned to the books, center around what we know best—design—though we don’t refrain from speaking, since designers are by vocation and avocation knowledgeable about popular culture, art, food, music and fashion trends.

SA: Is your outside life responsible for maintaining the high quality of the work?

MC: Yes, I think my life outside of work informs my views and approaches to problem solving. We live in a visual culture, one that’s being redefined and refined every 20 minutes, or whatever the refresh cycle is for the web and 24/7 media. So, like other designers, I read, look, travel and assimilate. I also design and build furniture. That teaches me about quality and attention to detail, not to mention humility: Measure twice and cut once.

SA: I know it’s impossible to pick a favorite out of all the projects you’ve handled. But which ones were the most enjoyable and fulfilling personally? And you can’t answer, “The next project.”

MC: The two that come to mind are, perhaps, the largest and smallest books we’ve published: The Beatles and Watching Words Move.

The Beatles is a physically large, all-encompassing autobiographical tome by “the boys” themselves. It was a project that came with lots of strings attached to it, as you can imagine. But it was an exhilarating book to have produced and published, initially in eight languages and now translated into a dozen. The planning resembled a military campaign. All facets and departments of the company were recruited. The depth of detail was fascinating—down to how many books packed to a carton to conform to OSHA guidelines on lifting. It was also a media event—the mayor of San Francisco declared Beatles Day when the book was launched.

At the other end of the scale is Watching Words Move by Chermayeff and Geismar. The original Watching Words Move was a modest, stapled booklet that was self-published in 1959*. For me, it was the little book that could. It not only influenced me, but a number of my peers in the design profession.

Chermayeff and Geismar reproduced the original booklet for a retrospective exhibition of their work at Cooper Union. I credit Kit Hinrichs [of Pentagram San Francisco] for suggesting that we reprint it as a book. Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar were enthusiastic about the idea, so I took it to our editorial board, where I proposed it. They approved. Ivan and Tom wrote a new introduction, and I got Kit, Steve Heller, April Greiman and George Lois to join me in writing appreciations for the book. This book is an example of “size doesn’t matter.” Its influence far exceeds its diminutive proportions. Buy it.

SA: Watching Words Move is a favorite with us. Are there any projects that completely shocked you? That is, ones you thought would sit on the shelves and nobody would want to buy? Or, you were sure would be huge hits, but didn’t work?

MC: Speaking of little books that could, I don’t know that anyone in our company imagined that The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook would take off the way it did. The original has spawned 16 books and 12 other products in the series. It’s been translated into 26 languages and sold 8.5 million copies. It’s the yellow book that came out of the blue.

Conversely, and based on our success with The Beatles, we reasoned a similar book on the Rolling Stones would be a sure-fire hit. It wasn’t. Hypothesis: Stones fans don’t buy books.

SA: Well, you can’t always get what you want—sorry, I couldn’t resist. The book world is very different from the rest of the design world. There’s something very special about making a book. They have permanence that a brochure or poster could never achieve. What is it about that work that you find so compelling?

MC: I think you answered your own question. As a culture, even in the media-saturated one we live in, we have a reverence for books. Books have substance, and for us at Chronicle, it is the notion of “book as object” that intrigues us. It raises the philosophical question, “What is a book?” And how far can you stretch that concept? Books are more than passing fancies; they are meaningful, they inform and entertain, no downloading required.

SA: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned about the design business?

MC: [With respect to] graphic design, that the product of our efforts is subject to change. It’s impermanent. That can smart when you’ve invested so much of yourself in the work. Architecture entails more to dismantle, but it too is subject to the wrecking ball. The bright side of this object lesson is that design—our work—is always evolving, and that is energizing.

SA: I like hearing the bright side. Plus, nobody should ever lose his or her mind over a business card. What’s something surprising about your career, job or you personally that people don’t know?

MC: Being an early Baby Boomer, I was drafted into the Army. Because of my art school education—let’s hear it for art schools!—I was classified an “illustrator.” I ended up assigned to a psychological operations—“psyops”—unit in Saigon. One day one of my fellow GIs invited me to lunch with a former classmate of his, Al Gore. Al was in the Army, too, as a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. I think we had iced tea and club sandwiches at the enlisted men’s club.

SA: So now I need to be careful about what I’m thinking when I see you. Do you teach design?

MC: I have taught on a formal basis—book design, of course, at CCA [California College of the Arts]; conducted a workshop at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] on the book of the future—any ideas out there?—lectured at San Jose State, Cal State Chico, Portfolio Center, School of Visual Arts and the Stanford Publishing Course.

SA: The range of your interests and inspirations is wide and deep. Do you think specialization in graphic design is a good thing or not?

MC: I feel fortunate that the first job I had was in an industrial design office. I was aware of product design, but not the nuts-and-bolts practicality of it. That was an invaluable experience that left a lasting impression. When I find myself asked to develop 3D displays or tradeshow fixtures, I have some background to draw upon. I’ve also had the opportunity to work in an architectural firm. I absorbed knowledge there, too. Lately I’ve been directing the design for our new offices.

Of course, graduate school at Cranbrook under the McCoys [Michael and Kathy McCoy] didn’t hurt. They professed a multidisciplinary approach to design. So, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with pursuing graphic design per se, I am biased towards an education that exposes one to the related design disciplines, and today I expect that would include visual media studies. As a consequence, for me, the answer would be specialization—at least in one’s formative years—isn’t a good thing.

SA: Knowing that you’ve worked in 3D explains some of the groundbreaking forms Chronicle has published. I’ve always thought of a book as a sculpture with words. Here now, the dreaded question: Where are you getting your ideas? Who are your heroes and why?

MC: Actually, this is a welcome question. For me, ideas come from almost everywhere. It could be from something I’ve read or seen. I read outside of design because I think it’s more enriching. For instance, a report in The Economist or a profile in The New Yorker can give you insights into business, technology or the life of an artist unattainable in the design press. This is not to demean design journalism, but it is by definition self-limiting.

I am interested in the world around me. Design is one aspect or microcosm of this world. Knowing the context or macrocosm in which design fits gives me a base of knowledge to operate from.

Heroes? Mine is a an eclectic assortment: Frank Lloyd Wright, Eric Gill, Jean Prouvé, Ellsworth Kelly, Allen Ginsberg, Charlotte Perriand, the Eameses, Aaron Copland, Jean-Luc Godard, Bob Dylan, Allen Lane [founder of Penguin Books], Steve Jobs, et al. Why? Their contributions to art, technology, literature, music and design broke ground and left an impression on society and culture. … They worked within the constraints of their respective disciplines but transcended those constraints to produce lasting work.

SA: In the last 30 years book design seems to have exploded. My first job was at the New York Public Library, and we designed books that were beautiful but very traditional. You know—classic margins, all Bembo, all the time. Why did the renaissance in book design happen? Who do you think is doing great work in the book world? What are some of your favorite books?

MC: This is a more difficult question to answer, as the number of books published in a given year is staggering—and more books are published each successive year in this digital day and age. … Nonetheless, I am favorably impressed with what I see from Phaidon, Taschen, Assouline and Princeton Architectural Press. I’m speaking here of publishers who have devoted their editorial energies and design prowess to the illustrated book—books that are essentially visual.

My hypothesis is that the renaissance in book design has occurred in parallel with the explosion of, and counter to, digital media. Books are physical objects and therefore a more satisfying information and entertainment experience.

SA: You and I know each other primarily through AIGA. You’re an extraordinarily busy person that seems to be preternaturally prolific. Why do you stay involved with AIGA and the community? Why does it matter?

MC: For me, it’s critical that the design world should have a touchstone—a network, a forum, a congress for design and designers. AIGA does that by giving designers across the country—and now outside our borders—a sense of community. I think that sense of solidarity sustains us as a group, and individually.

SA: How would you define success for yourself?

MC: I don’t know that I set out to be “successful.” The pursuit of success for its own sake seems self-aggrandizing. For myself, if what I’ve envisioned has satisfied the brief or definition of the problem and attained the desired effect, and done so in an aesthetic manner, then my efforts have succeeded.

SA: OK, that being the case for you personally, what key things do you think make a designer successful?

MC: If a designer can define the problem to be solved, conduct the necessary research, develop design concepts that respond to if not answer the brief—and possess aesthetic appeal at the same time—that would make for a successful designer. In simple terms, preparation, design research and development and implementation—those are the principles to bear in mind.

SA: Looking over the course of your career, is there anything you would do differently?

MC: No.

SA: Succinct and to the point. Very nice. I have to ask this. I know it’s a little Vanity Fair: What book is on your nightstand right now?

MC: Moby Dick.

SA: I’m not going there.