Conversation: Mark Gowing, Formist (Sydney)
Text by Felix Wilson
Mark Gowing is the director of Formist, a Sydney-based publisher, design studio and soon-to-be type foundry responsible for some of the most considered and thoughtfully designed books currently being published in the Australian context. Felix Wilson spoke to Gowing about his career in design, why every book deserves its own typeface, and how publishing is changing.
Felix Wilson: Your practice as a designer is very diverse and extensive. Can you talk a little about your background and how you came to design first off?
Mark Gowing: I came in through an apprenticeship in a children’s publishing company when I was 16. I started doing work experience there because they were near where I lived on the Central Coast, and then they put me on as a trainee and taught me everything, or taught me everything they could. I was there for seven years.
After that I left and went to a magazine called Hyper at Rolling Stone in the mid 90s. That job changed my life. In working there, I met all my friends and contacts that got me into the music industry. I ended up starting a record label by working at Rolling Stone. It was very important to me and I was really privileged to be put in a position where the publisher was incredibly trusting and let me go bananas with the magazine. He let me do almost anything I wanted to do with the design. Every issue I was trying to do something new, break some ground, challenge myself and challenge the readers. Those were crazy years, it was a lot of loss of sleep but a lot of learning and interesting work and development for me, and it put me in a place that made me the designer that I still am. It made me a designer that believes in taking risks and believes in independence and expression, personal expression within design and all those sort of things that can sometimes be dirty words in our trade.
Once I left the magazine I didn’t feel like I had anywhere else to go, I didn’t admire anyone enough to want to go and work for them. I didn’t feel like anyone would be able to compete with the Hyper experience, so I started my own thing. That was 1997.
FW: Was it just you at the start?
MG: It was just me for a long time. For maybe eight years it was me on my own, and then I started hiring assistants to help out with the workload. But in the last few years we have started expanding more. There are five of us now.
FW: Was that another step up in terms of learning – going out on your own? I imagine that would have been pretty intense.
MG: You just make stupid mistakes, and looking back they’re such simple mistakes. But you have to make them. I’d never worked in a commercial studio before, I’d worked in publishing companies, so I’d never really worked in a client-oriented studio. I was completely green to what that entailed. In some cases it was an advantage and in some cases a major disadvantage. I would get a lot of work from publishing companies and I also got a lot of work from the music industry, but it’s not like the music industry pays.
FW: Were you working on print and book projects from the beginning?
MG: I didn’t have many opportunities to design books at the start. I wanted to do that but publishers were having me do things like covers for fiction, which was fairly limited and very rarely allowed me to create a result to be proud of.
FW: How did you come to start thinking about creating your own imprint and what was the inspiration behind that for you?
MG: It’s funny that – I thought about it for years. It’s something that I’ve always liked the idea of and, because I started my own record label, I know what comes with the control aspect of creating your own product, as well as the decision-making that comes with controlling your output and choosing what to work on. But it always seemed a bit difficult or just the wrong time, or felt like it would be really risky. We reached a point where the studio was incredibly fortunate to be financially locked away and stable, and therefore I felt like I could take the risk and it wouldn’t matter too much if things didn’t work out very well with publishing.
FW: I like the way you are emphasizing making mistakes along the way and learning from them. That’s a really positive process, I think.
MG: We’ve made more than our share of mistakes to be honest. I admit it readily. I think we’re still making them. Publishing has been wild to try to figure out and it’s probably harder now than it’s ever been, because it has become such a small industry. I like the idea that you never feel completely comfortable.
FW: I imagine that would be the point – that otherwise it gets a bit boring.
MG: That’s it.
FW: I’m sure it’s different for each project you work on, but maybe you can talk about how your design process plays out from inception through to distribution, and how you like to approach the relationship with the artist.
MG: We look very hard at the content in the first place. The artists send us everything they have and we spread it all out and go through a rigorous editorial process. At the moment Elliott and I do that together. We both have our own expertise in visual language, which we come at from different points of view, so between us we tend to find an interesting commonality. Once we’ve done that we have a big picture of what this thing is. Then we start to develop a singular point of view of what the book might be. From there we can commission writing based on that idea and we can start thinking about design and product positioning. For the most part feeling is the main thing – how does the book feel as a result of what the content of the book is; how do you want it to feel; when you look at it how do you feel; when you pick it up what do you feel; how does it feel in your hands; how heavy is it; how big is it; when you turn the pages what’s the experience that you feel through the content? We think hard about those things. Once we have an idea about what that tone is we try to create it by using writing, design, typography, colour and rhythm. The process is never completely conscious; it’s also very intuitive. The main thing that comes through that process is the design of a typeface for each book.
FW: I was going to ask about typefaces, because they’re often underappreciated as an art in itself, I think.
MG: We’re starting our own type foundry, Formist Foundry, that we’re hopefully launching in February. It will complete the Formist trilogy, if you like. When we’re going through the editorial and design phase of trying to create a tone and a feeling, a big part of that is creating a typeface to anchor that tone. The overarching feeling of the book is very much controlled by the type. I think it’s like the idea that if you’re going to cook a great meal, you need to make the stock first. After so many years in design I’m looking for things that challenge me more and more, and this is as far down the rabbit hole as I can find myself going. It’s a way for the studio to keep building its own content and output without clients. But also I think that the type design has been helping us to develop a better understanding of the artwork that we’re dealing with, because you can’t make a typeface that looks like an artist’s work. Instead what we’re trying to do is a call and response kind of idea, where the artist’s work is the call and our typeface is a response – they’re not the same thing and they don’t mimic each other, but they respond to each other.
FW: I think there’s sometimes an idea where artists feel that their content should sit in a neutral container within a book and the designer should be invisible in the process, but that’s obviously a really different outlook to what you’ve got.
MG: Well certainly it’s not the Formist model. I don’t agree with the neutral container at all. I’ve made so many of them over the years that I feel like basically every artist just ends up packaged in the same way.
FW: Could we talk a little bit about the Stephen Ormandy book, Only Dancing. How did that project come about?
MG: I approached Stephen a couple of years ago. It took quite a while to get that book finished – it took quite a while to get it started. I approached Stephen with a very different book project in mind, and at once he was excited and we got started, but I quickly realised that the format I was looking at for him was wrong and not expressive or extensive enough. As a result I went through a heavy rethinking of the whole company that included why and how we published, which led to the idea of making a typeface for every book. That rethink meant I looked hard at why we made books, who we made books with and why we made books with them in particular. This thinking was responding to the books that had come before, that I wasn’t completely happy with. We needed to be more courageous, more challenging, take bigger risks and make more wonderful things.
Before that, what we were doing was quite modest and it felt as though we were saying we want to make beautiful, well-made books, and now we’re saying we want to make outrageous, stunning things. Obviously there are budgets and things like that that prevent you from going too wild, but we go as wild as we can within what we have while still respecting the work.
After a couple of false starts, Stephen was really patient and I went back to him and said ‘Look, we are going to start again and we’re going to rethink the whole thing from the ground up with much more passion and vigour’. That was about a year ago now. Any book that we make with Formist is tending to take about a year, mainly because we fit it in around studio commissions.
Elliott Bryce Foulkes designed the Stephen Ormandy book. On the one hand the book presents the paintings in a really traditional way – it’s big white spreads with paintings floating in the middle, so it’s quite typical in that sense — but then in another way deconstructs what the typical monograph does. The first 16 pages are a silver and black reproduction of one of Stephen’s paintings called Titanium and Mars. The whole painting is at one-to-one scale, so if you were to pull the book apart you could lay the sheets out and recreate the painting. The last 16 pages are text, which is all typeset in a crazy typeface called Physical that Elliott designed as a response to Stephen’s work. It’s fun, it’s really loose and shapy. Even though it’s a 96-page paperback, which sounds like a modest format, it feels so much greater than the sum of those parts. It ends up being a lot more immersive and a bit more wonderful than your typical book of paintings.
The next book coming up in February is Gemma Smith, Found Ground, which is one of the first books we started working on about four years ago. It’s been through all of the changes in the business and again the book has had many false starts, but this book is pretty immense.
FW: I’m curious about whether you feel optimistic about the physical book as an object and as an economically viable thing that can continue to exist.
MG: I do, personally. Professionally, I’m struggling with it a little. As a studio we get commissioned to make really wonderful books for wonderful clients and that gives me hope in the value of books. A book is a very elite document and it’s a wonderful thing to have, but I think the reality of a book in today’s world is that no matter what, it’s a luxury item. If you need information you’re probably not going to buy a book. Information is essentially free now and it doesn’t need a container. Books are now a privilege and I think that’s Formist’s response to them as well, not just as a publisher but as a design studio. Any book we produce for someone else, we make under the assumption that the reader is buying that book as a gift, either for themselves or for others. They’re buying it as a luxury; they’re buying it as a precious moment and we can’t afford to consider it otherwise. Any book we consider as information is probably going to fail. And on one hand that’s a really beautiful thing, that’s a really stunning thing to do – to make books in a state of pure luxury, and not have to rely on them as a tool for information anymore. But in another sense there is a huge loss there – the book as a utility is almost gone. But I think people continue to love them and I feel like there’s a whole new audience for books now, you know. It’s a whole different crowd that loves books from what it was ten years ago.
FW: Yeah, which is really exciting. That’s an interesting balance between the utility and that more democratic sense of books versus something a bit more luxurious, where it’s more of a treat and it is something you’d have on your shelf like you might have a painting. It’s something you can refer to in an aesthetic way.
MG: I think it means that personal book collections for readers and collectors are very different to what they were. They’re no longer only about definitive texts on specialist subjects; they’re about owning objects. In one sense I can’t help but think that just means that you own books, that the buyer is going to be quite discerning and cautious with what they buy. And they don’t have to buy, whereas when I started making books, buyers had to buy books if they wanted to learn about a topic. You had a bit of leverage there, but I don’t think you can rely on that anymore.
Nobody really needs what we’re making, as I said they’re purely a luxury, which means that as publishers we have to try even harder to have people pay attention to what we’re making. I have deep respect for that because I’m one of those buyers as well. I love books and I don’t buy lightly, I buy seriously and I want our readers to think of us that way. I’d love to think that they prize the things we make. That’s the target.
Perimeter x Heavy is a new editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy’s inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.