Interview with Designer Maria Elias

Maria Elias is an inventive and thoughtful designer. She has received accolades and mentions from AIGA, Design Observer’s 50 Books/50 Covers of 2015, and Type Director’s Club Communication Design for her work on the book Conviction.  

Here she digs into her process for us and gives us some thoughts on the world of design.


Let’s take a look at Wildman. Concept looms high here. By using the horizon with boots tied to a power line, you are able to suggest simultaneously a rural and inhabited landscape. It’s intriguing and creates mystery before we even hit page one! Could you say a few words on the design of Wildman and what was going through your mind? 

 
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Wildman is about Lance, a creative kid (musician) who needs to find the strength and independence to follow his creative calling. Lance is the valedictorian, popular, and his mom is mapping out a conventional path for him that excludes music. Nobody wants his or her kid to take the risky path in life. But if you are a creative person, you can’t ignore it.

Wildman was an in-house favorite, which means there was debate about the jacket. In the end, this cover is right, and is an image from the book. It’s important to the plot, so I won’t say more. 

However, the art style has a personal meaning, which I didn’t share with anyone during the process. Sometimes I go on meditation retreats. Out there closer to nature I try and leave my self behind and start over, like Lance does in the book. And when I found (the illustrator) Jeff Östberg’s work, it felt like being alone with a fresh start. Jeff’s work has the hazy clean quality of isolation but also clarity and truthfulness. No muddy colors on this jacket. It fits the tone of Wildman so well. The case is even cleaner, just the tree line, just a place to get lost. 

The printed jacket has a beautiful purple streak through the sky. I went on press to get that purple streak right. The streak has a blink and you’ll miss it quality, a lot like getting your life on the right path.  

I hope when people see the cover for The Suffering Tree; they really look hard at it. There’s so much to discover there and the longer, I looked, the more I saw. Everything goes round and round but there’s also a path on the inside. From a design perspective, what were the challenges you faced with this cover?  

 
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The Suffering Tree design was kind of a hunch. The book is about a present-day girl (Tori) and a cursed colonial indentured boy (Nathaniel). Nathaniel suddenly appears to Tori, because he’s been brought back to life with black magic. The potion is buried under a tree on Tori’s property. Nathaniel and the tree are linked, and what damages one will damage the other. 

It’s a complex story, so it was a tall order to create a unified image. Fortunately I ran across a tree ring print. An artist will ink and print a cross-section of a tree to create flat graphic rings that are gorgeous. It illustrates two huge elements of the story; the tree and time itself (rings on a tree retrace time). But it lacked the magical twist of the story, so I kept going. The undulation of the rings could stand in for water under a colonial ship, as well as rocky ground under a graveyard, a tree, and the estate where the story takes place.

I did the lettering and hired the talented illustrator Justine Howlett for the inky art, and she came back to us with everything beautifully executed and that incredible crack all the way through the image. The back cover art is a more literal interpretation of the story. I glossed the black to make it very black and give it contrast with the strong color of the background.

I have to tell you, I very much admire people who can do visual design and write. Your blog is absolutely terrific so I want to spend some time talking about it! The posts highlighted your experience as Latina in an industry not terribly diverse and they were thought provoking. Would you ever consider expanding your thoughts into book form?

Thank you. Interesting! I had not thought about a book, though I certainly am open to writing in other formats. When I look at people like Peter Mendelsund, Lauren Panepinto, and Brian LaRossa, I do feel a kinship with designers who write. They have unique voices. Lauren is informative, smart, and funny. Brian has great insight and writes about creativity so well. And Peter is the deep-diver. His books make me happy and nerd-out. I want to be all those things in my writing future.

On the blog I use mostly covers by women because I admire their work and I feel personally empowered by their achievements. I generally write about topics that get stuck in my head. Usually things people take as accepted truths about design that I think should be reexamined. If you think you know how to solve everything, you are bound to lose your curiosity. Writing is how I stay curious and think things through.

I’ve never had anyone say that my blog was about my Latina experience. I’ve only written one post on diversity, The Hungry Outsiders, and it felt very personal. Having said that, I’m proud of that post, and I do think diversity in publishing is a solvable problem. It comes down to who is hired, supported, and promoted. All three are equally important. A diverse pool of interns will not solve the problem. Change is a team sport. If leaders in-house don’t make it a priority to grow and nurture this talent pool, they won’t flourish.

If you were to mentor a young designer, what advice would you give them on how to succeed if they are not from the dominant discourse? 

Thank you for asking, because it helps me to clear up a misconception. Everyone is part of the dominant discourse because reading and design is for everyone. Here’s my advice for young designers, regardless of where they come from:

Be on the lookout for your champions.
They often look different than what you expected, but a champion is someone who supports you, understands your talents and the way you think, forgives your flaws, points you in the right direction, and has patience and a cool head. These people are irreplaceable, so keep in touch. Support them back if possible.

Be on the lookout for heroes and heroines.
These people have been where you are and you admire them. If you can find some with a similar temperament to yours, their career can be a loose template for your career. The best part, you don’t have to know these folks to benefit from their example.

Be as generous and open as possible in collaboration.
When working with others, designers are there to be the creative engines. A generous designer will help others sort their priorities.

Even if you think you disagree, listen first. 
How will you learn what you don’t know, unless you listen to others?   

Remember everyone you work with will have a different job in the future.
Keep it respectful. One day that person you disagree with could be your boss.  

 

Now that you’ve been in the industry a while, how do you see yourself evolving as a creative being? 

As I get older I trust myself more, I rest more, I write more, I draw more. I’m eager to see what the future holds.

Big picture—I’m more curious today about the business side of things than I was when I was younger. I’m interested in data, especially where it can create positive change. For example, according to the Girls Scouts State of Girls Report, 1 in 3 girls in the U.S. will be Latina by 2030. That’s HUGE! Will publishing be ready for that cultural shift? I hope so.

Career-wise—Long term, I’m eager for new challenges, new audiences, and new types of collaborations. I’d like to work on more non-fiction, psychology, and sociology. A role in leadership appeals to me too, because I like discovering potential in others.

Speaking of the potential in others, any emerging designers or unsung design hero/ines we should be watching? 

I’m always excited to see the work of Jason Ramirez, Alison Impey, Jen Wang, Laywan Kwan, Isabel Urbina Peña, and Joan Wong. 

Any upcoming projects or designs you’d like to tell us about?

 
  Photo: Maria Elias

Photo: Maria Elias

  Photo: Maria Elias

Photo: Maria Elias

 

I'm really excited about the release of my jacket design for Miles Morales, written by National Book Award Finalist and Coretta Scott King Award winner Jason Reynolds. The book is awesome. Like his predecessor Peter Parker, Miles deals with power and responsibility, but he also tackles institutionalized racism!

Not only is Miles a biracial character (he's Puerto Rican and African American) which is awesome in itself. But I also had the opportunity to hire Kadir Nelson to illustrate this jacket. 

I wanted to work with Kadir because he's in a class by himself. For those who compare him to Norman Rockwell, yes he's that talented.

I can't tell you what it means for a Brooklyn girl to design a jacket with my hometown rendered by Kadir in such gorgeous detail with a brown-skinned Spider-Man. It was very satisfying. 

I hired Russ Gray to create the Miles lettering, which I wanted to be based on a mix of letter forms from previous Spider-Man logos, with the addition of a subtle Spider-Man mask eye shape inside the O of Morales.

When I got an advanced copy, you couldn't wipe the smile off my face for days. The book comes out in August.

Not only does Maria design book covers but she also works in other mediums. Check out her watercolors and sketches here.

 
  Photo: Maria Elias

Photo: Maria Elias

 

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Karen Faris is a Rochester, NY based writer. More about her work can be found at www.karenfaris.com

@karenafaris