Kate Adams: children’s book designer

Book designers are a crucial part of the publishing process, so I am delighted to bring you this interview with the very talented (and truly delightful) Kate Adams, Senior Designer at Oxford University Press.


My name is Kate Adams and I live in a small village near Stroud, in Gloucestershire. I am a highly creative and experienced senior designer, with a passion for children’s publishing. I’ve just celebrated my 7th Anniversary working for Oxford University Press – Children’s Books; where I work on a varied list (including children’s picture books, young fiction, teen fiction, home-learning and dictionaries) with many high profile authors and illustrators. Alongside design, I have a keen and active interest in photography, and have always got a camera to hand. I love being outdoors; walking, running, horse-riding and cycling are some of the activities I enjoy. I also keep fit by attending a gym on a regular basis. I also participate in events such as the Cancer Research Race for Life, and duathlons. I am currently training for Tough Mudder in August.

How did you start your career? And do you have any tips for people wanting to cross over from graphic to book design?
I was lucky enough to start my career in publishing almost immediately after graduating from Bath Spa University with a degree in Graphic Design. I had originally though that I might peruse a career in advertising graphics or magazines, but I joined a book packaging company as Junior Designer. My first day with the team there was to be a model for a photoshoot for the Eyewitness – Shakespeare guide that had been commissioned by Dorling Kindersley. Dressed in costumes from the RSC, and with my hair and make-up done by stylists; I was an Apple–seller for the day. Being on the models side of the camera was my very first lesson in how to art direct a photoshoot, the photographer and the complexities that go into it.

After a short time, I was promoted to Senior Art Editor. This enabled me to work on numerous projects for a variety of national and international publishers, including Dorling Kindersley, Kingfisher, Oxford University Press, Pearson, Pinwheel, Readers Digest and Two-Can Publishing. I was lucky enough to work with some lovely authors and photographers on some fantastic non-fiction titles. I left Bookwork after 6 years with them to pursue some freelance opportunities, before coming to work in the Children’s Design team at Oxford University Press. I am now in my 7th year here. I love my job, and I’m very proud to have worked on some fabulous award winning titles, including Sky Hawk & White Dolphin by Gill Lewis, and Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes. I am also the lead designer on all of the Winnie the Witch publishing. Winnie is OUP’s biggest children’s character property, and has sold over 5 million copies world wide having been translated into over 30 languages.

It’s true to say that being straight out of University, I had very little book publishing experience or knowledge, I was completely naive to the whole “book-design” process, so I always consider myself to have been really lucky to have been mentored by my first boss. She is one of the best designers I’ve ever worked with, and who taught me the general “how-to-do studio stuff”. She also taught me to trust my gut instinct and my creative awareness and ability. I think for any graduates looking to get into any graphic communication based role now, particularly publishing, really must be able to demonstrate that they have a great creative eye and an awareness of trends and markets – but they also need to be good communicators. They need to be people who can express and who can discuss their ideas freely. Being able to give and to receive critique is key, and it’s essential across every aspect of design and creative industries.

What is it like to work on other people’s art work rather than your own? (Do you ever think you could do a better job than the illustrator?)
Working in children’s books gives me the opportunity to keep in touch with my “inner child”. I love to be in the process where we can give colour and life to an idea. Working with such fantastic artists, as I’m lucky enough to do, gives me the opportunity to express my creativity without getting the paints out. I have illustrated a couple of books but in no way can I call myself an illustrator! I am in awe of them all and what they do! I would love to be able to say that I could do.

What is the best bit of your job? (and the worst?)
The best bit of my job is when I see a book that I’ve worked on, in the hands of a child, or in the shops. It’s real sense of pride and “Look! I did that”. It’s a really great feeling, when you think back to a project that you’ve worked on, and remember all the hard work; the coming up with the concepts, the looking for images or artists, the toing-and-froing and approval stages (which sometimes seem endless). I definitely have to put ALL my books at the front when I see them, or talk really loudly about “how I came up with the idea” or “what a star A.N Illustrator was to work with” 😉

The worst bit of my job, is when a cover design just isn’t working, or right for what ever reason. Sometimes we try to “fix”, when really we need to say “its not working, we need to stop, and start over”. I’m a passionate person and put my whole heart into everything I do, so its hard when you hear negative feedback about something you’ve been working on and have become so close to. But I always try to be half full rather than half empty, so all feedback is good feedback, and I always try to make a success out of a failure.

What’s the one picture book you wish you could have worked on?
There are so many picture books that I wish that I could have worked on, but if I could pick one it would have to be … Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. The story centres on a lonely and temperamental boy, Max, who, having been sent to bed without dinner, imagines a sea in his bedroom and sets sail to the land of the wild things where he quickly becomes King.
Initially it was a critical failure, being giving much negative feedback and even banned in some libraries! But the had to realize that children were flocking to the book, checking it out over and over again, and critics relaxed their views. Since then, it has received high critical acclaim. But this is a book that has gone on to sell more than 19 million copies.

I’m a HUGE Wilbur fan – what is your favourite Winnie adventure?
There are so many Winnie – Adventures – my favourite is Winnie’s Pirate Adventure. From the start it’s full of humour and Korky Paul’s wonderful illustrations. The story starts when Winnie and Wilbur arrive at Cousin Cuthbert’s party dressed as a pirate and a parrot, they discover a whole crew in fancy dress, eager for excitement on the high seas! Winnie is ready with her magic to whisk her shipmates aboard, but will they be back with the treasure before the party’s over?

Bonus question – if you could recommend only one book you worked on in the last five years, what would it be?
I would recommend Sky Hawk, by Gill Lewis. It’s such an amazing story about what happens when two Scottish children discover an Osprey and have to struggle to protect the rare birds at all costs.
The main characters are Callum and Iona – the granddaughter of the local recluse – and the story is also about how the discovery of the Osprey pushes them into forging a friendship. Written by a real talent, Gill a former vet, took up writing after winning ‘Most Promising Writer’ prize on the Bath Spa University MA course and her debut novel is a wonderful tale of friendship, kindness and the way that people from different continents can be united by something as straightforward as the welfare of a beautiful bird. The package is one that I’m very proud to have worked on. Sky Hawk has won many awards and has been shortlisted for many many others. It has also attracted praise from Michael Morpurgo, who said:

“Here’s a rare thing . . . that opens your eyes, touches your heart and is so engaging it almost turns the pages for you.”

Thank you Kate, for giving us a little peek into the life of a designer. Good luck in your Tough Mudder!
You can follow Kate on twitter (@KateAdams13), and the team at OUP on @OUPChildrens


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