Out of the Box: Designing Books that Encourage and Inspire Making and Creating

by | May 21, 2020 | IBBYLink Spring 2019

‘Hide and Seek’ from the DK book Mindbenders

Moving Pictures’ from the DK book Optical Illusions.

Jemma Westing

Paper enables us to communicate. We cover it with our words; our colours, our paint, our glue and our sticky tape … and we have done so for centuries.

We craft with it to impart knowledge, to create entertainment and to share sentiment. We work with paper in both domestic and commercial environments. The familiarity of the material and its physical limitations are something that most people have knowledge and experience of. We use it at preschool and we use it when we are elderly. Because people of all ages can work with it, you could say that paper is an inclusive material. It is also a material that can be recycled and reused.

It’s my full-time job to work with paper and cardboard. I design and make children’s books out of it, and I have been doing this since 9 August 2010. With my job, I spend a lot of time creating books that require the reader to interact with the content, and interact because of the content. When designing these books, I am often having to manipulate paper and cardboard in order to create movement and drama, and to create an additional dimension to the work.

The activity of playing with paper and cardboard is what forms the backbone of both my publishing career and my voluntary work with my children’s workshop BrilliantBuilds. It is something that I have always done. I guess that I can feel very sentimental about it and then I can also be very practical and objective with it.

Books were not something that has always been part of my world. As a child I did not like books and I did not like reading. I entered the publishing world in reaction to that. I wanted to help design books that would capture the attention of reluctant readers like me.

Although I didn’t like reading by myself when I was little, I was quite happy to have a book read to me. This made the reading a shared and social experience so I deemed it good compensation. Crafting and design activities, on the other hand, always captured my full attention regardless of whether there was the opportunity to get making on my own or in the company of others. I remember sitting around a table with my mum and my granny and we would turn the small cereal boxes from the Kellogg’s variety packs into houses, message boxes, statues, factories and monsters. To me this making-time was happy-family time, happy-homework time, and happy-rainy-days-with-friends time. People of all ages liked to see the things that I had made. To see people’s positive reactions would give me a great sense of worth and fulfilment. I was a very shy child growing up, and making and drawing would be my way of initiating positive communication. The real world was important to me, and creating a subject likeness became an artistic obsession throughout my GCSE and A level education. It was only when at university did I loosen up again and welcome the abstract input from my imagination.

I took the time on the Illustration degree course to start thinking about what I wished the books from my childhood would have done for me. As a child my imagination would often make the content on the pages move or perform. I wanted that to happen in reality so I taught myself some paper-engineering techniques and then built a graduate portfolio that had lots of folding paper pop-up work in it. With this way of working, I made spiders rise up off a page; I made human-like forms twist out of the centre of books, I made 3-D dinosaurs and I also visualised man-made objects. Designing pop-ups and moveable mechanisms in addition to spread designs appeared to be what I was good at, and publishers liked the idea of employing a book designer who had this additional skillset. Designing non-fiction children’s books for Dorling Kindersley was my first publishing job.

I delivered the closing plenary ‘Make-ing it Count: The Value of Making in Play and Publishing’ at the IBBY UK/NCRCL MA conference in November 2018. As I use my experience with crafting to inform both my publishing work and my voluntary work, I thought that my exploration of this would be interesting for the audience. I also saw the conference as an opportunity to highlight some of the publishing challenges that book publishers face today. A saturated market and rising printing costs are the known obstacles. 

Make Your Own T.REX.

Items made from Out of the Box. Copyright © 2017 Jemma Westing.

I presented a slide of project visuals to the audience that I had divided up into three separate sections. I highlighted a few examples of my interactive novelty books, which included optical Illusions and DK Braille, we looked at a couple of my model kits – ‘Make Your Own T-Rex’ and ‘Make Your Own Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo’ – and then we looked at my self-authored step-by-step book, Out of the Box.

The common factor between all of the work is the active participation of the reader. The reader has to interact with the content by using their hands. It’s not just about turning a page. They might have to build, pull, push, turn, feel or fold something in order to progress, and learn. The actions help to demonstrate or test something. The action might happen directly on top of a book page or it might happen away from the book altogether, which is often the case with a step-by-step craft book.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and the Maker Movement have done wonders for expanding the community of makers. Hands-on making projects are as popular as ever and the quantity of how-to online media has increased dramatically. Step-by-step books are also doing well. Whilst now is most definitely the time to jot down your crafty ideas on paper, now is also the time to try to be as original and as inventive as you’ve ever been.

In 2013 I set up a free crafting workshop called BrilliantBuilds. I wanted to create space where youngsters could sit and make without following rules or time limits. I take the workshop to family-friendly events such as the Glastonbury festival, Latitude festival and BBC Children in Need Carfest. I get there before the general public are allowed in and I gather up all the waste cardboard from the site vendors and make a pile in my tent. When the families come in to the festival, I encourage them to recycle all the boxes and turn them into new things. It’s incredibly laid back and the making happens in a very organic way. As I design books for children, I think it is important to spend time with the audience that you are designing for. I gathered up my experiences and observations from running the workshop and I wrote down 25 projects that I thought would be popular, based on what I had seen being made inside the tent. Out of the Box was born. I saw the book as a way of sharing BrilliantBuilds with those that hadn’t been to a workshop.

A BrilliantBuilds workshop. Copyright © 2017 Jemma Westing.

During question time at the conference, an audience member pointed out that BrilliantBuilds is a very organic space for making and have I thought about how I could bring that organic way into books. It is an interesting point because with step-by-step books, you often need to guide the reader in a very linear way to the end result. The safest position from a publishing perspective is to assume that the person who is buying the book may have limited or no knowledge whatsoever of how to make or complete the project. This is why you give clear, step-by-step instructions. The point raised has stuck with me and it is a point that I am brainstorming around now. When I come up with a solution, I will let IBBY UK know about it.

Crafting for me remains a positive pursuit, regardless of whether I am working organically outdoors in a tent, or whether I am racing to meet the next book deadline. The positives for me are always magnified when the activity is shared with others. I do what I do because of the positives.

After having now been to an IBBYUK/NCRCL MA conference, I see it as a good space for academics and professionals to share ideas and practices in an environment that considers both the past and present ways of doing things. For the benefit of each delegate’s research, I think that is important to hear views from representatives who have both theoretical and practical backgrounds. I look forward to seeing what this year’s topic will be.

Works cited

DK (2012) Make Your Own T-Rex. London: DK publishing.

DK (2012) Optical Illusions. London: DK Children.

DK (2013) Mindbenders. London: DK Children.

Dorling Kindersley (2015) Make Your Own Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo. London: DK Publishing.

Westing, Jemma (2017) Out of the Box: 25 Cardboard Engineering Projects for Makers. London: DK Publishing.

Jemma Westing is an award-winning book designer who works in children’s publishing, formerly for Dorling Kindersley and currently for Little Tiger Press. Jemma’s mission is to get children engaged, and design books and kits that are inventive and as globally inclusive as they can be – including reference books with tactile images and braille for visually impaired readers.