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The Alchemy of Design

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PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2016

by Shona Burns, Executive Director, Chronicle Books


Alchemy, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way.”

Whether you are designing for a book on pop culture, a cookbook, a children’s book, or stationery, there are two core elements that run through design at Chronicle Books: a desire to surprise and delight our readers, and the power of collaboration in enhancing something of value to produce an even greater presence.

Chronicle Books’ Miette: Recipes from San Francisco’s Most
Charming Pastry Shop by Meg Ray, with Leslie Jonath, and
photographs by Frankie Frankeny.

What do I mean by this? Design doesn’t just come from a graphic designer sitting down at their computer and interpreting the content they are given—it’s much more. Every title Chronicle Books produces has a team of people behind it working together on the concept, material choices, specification, and publishing vision. Each team member brings their publishing wisdom, personal flair, and craft knowledge—whether it’s editorial, marketing, production, or design—to make each project unique.

Chronicle Books’ Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds
of Ideas for Home Cooking Triumphs by Julia Turshen, with
photography by Gentyl + Hyers and foreword by Ina Garten

Thus, a project that may start as “just another baking book,” ends up with designed content looking so yummy you’ll want to eat it. The subject is the reason for publishing, but what makes it unique and allows it to stand out from the crowd is the collaboration that goes into making the whole package. A baking book doesn’t need to be a list of recipes. Why stop at adding printed endpapers? Let’s add color on the edges of the book block. In fact, let’s add polka dots—it’ll look like a dusting of sprinkles.

Attention to detail and a willingness to go the distance is what makes a great design work. For example, choosing the correct materials is as important as figuring out the color scheme. Selecting the appropriate page size and considering the heft and tactile quality of the paper for the project is vital to its success. Throwing wit, whimsy, and wonder into these decisions allows the overall package to become the best possible creation.

Chronicle Books’ Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes
from Our Kitchen by Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb, with
photographs by Matt Armendariz.

I’ve always believed in the tenet embodied by the quote from Bauhaus-educated designer Herbert Bayer, lovingly collected in the book The Designer Says from Princeton Architectural Press:

“It would seem unlikely that a manufacturer of short-lived paperboard boxes could make the slightest cultural impact upon his time. But the facts show that if even the humblest product is designed, manufactured, and distributed with a sense of human values and with a taste for quality, the world will recognize the presence of a creative force.”

Design at Chronicle has this at its heart, and it’s something we should all hold close. Go the distance; you won’t regret it.


Shona Burns is the executive director for production at Chronicle Books. Shona graduated from the three-year book and periodical publishing program at Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and she has held numerous production positions in the United Kingdom.

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