Under Cover: Sarah and Schooling

Sarah and Schooling Graphic Design has created some of the most iconic book covers in Singapore’s modern literature. The company was founded by best friends, Sarah Tang and Alison Schooling. They use their own names to remind clients of the personal touch they offer.

Reena Kandoth interviewed the pair at their office in Jalan Besar.

Visitors are greeted by Sarah and Alison’s desk spaces, a long black table where they hold their meetings and a bookshelf showcasing a large selection of books. The office is an homage to creative collaboration.

1) What advice would you give friends who want to work together?

Sarah Tang: Alison and I were very clear right from the beginning: if the work ruins the friendship, the friendship comes first. I’d rather close down the business. It’s rare to find someone to have such a great connection with and it isn’t worth losing that.

Alison Schooling: One of the reasons we work well together is because of our differing characters. We balance and complement each other very well. It also takes a lot of trust.

ST: It’s important for entrepreneurs to understand that a company is an entity of its own. The way we run our business has been very pragmatic. At the beginning, we had lawyers draft contracts between us so we would have no room for misunderstandings.

2) What makes your team a great duo?

ST: We have very similar ideas when it comes to our visual aesthetics. Even in school, we had to stop discussing our projects with each other to avoid similar executions, and even then, it still turned out similar.

AS: Yes, that was quite frustrating!

ST: However, we’ve learnt that we’re very different in terms of how we run the business. I’m highly organised, so I usually handle all the paperwork like quotations and invoices. Alison’s strength lies in creative direction.

AS: This does not mean that Sarah can’t do creative work or I can’t do paper work, it just means we leverage each other’s strengths to ensure a more efficient workflow. Also, even when we disagree, we do not take it personally. We both have the same goal, which is the business. Once you understand that, you can move forward.

ST: It helps that we’re brutally honest. If we have a problem, we try to sort it out straight away. We don’t want to bottle it up for the sake of being polite because there’s more to risk. It helps that we have a great connection as best friends, so communication is not a problem.

3) What made you specialise in books?

ST: Alison and I have always been avid readers. There is a magic in reading that is sadly dying out because we live in such a fast-paced environment. People don’t find the time to read anymore.

AS: We also really enjoy the tangible benefits of print. We like observing how a book ages. It’s nice to touch the grooves of an embossed cover or smell the pages. As we flip through the text, we can feel the textures and thickness of each page. These are important to us.

4) What are some of the difficulties you face when dealing with print?

ST: Print is something that requires a lot of visualisation when we’re designing. It takes some time to explain that to our clients. There are Pantone colours like silver or neon orange that only appear accurately in print and cannot be viewed from the screen.

AS: We are very careful about the kind of typefaces we choose to layout content. It affects the reading experience. It wouldn’t be appropriate to use a playful typeface for a book with a serious tone of voice. And even fonts on screen look a certain way when you print them. They can look longer or thinner.

ST: You also have to be very sensitive to all aspects when it comes to print. For example, there are so many options when it comes to selecting the sort of paper you want to print on. Even if the paper is white, there are different shades of white. Is it bright white, pure white, off white, cream? Then you need to consider textures and coatings.

AS: We scavenge for photos of printed examples on the internet to help to illustrate our point. If you’ve ever printed out a manuscript or essay, you’ll also realise that you spot all the spelling or grammatical mistakes that you never noticed on screen. It’s because we view things very differently on screen and in print. We provide printed proofs to the authors to run through to spot errors. We tell them to keep reading and to keep telling us when they spot errors because once things go to print, they are in print forever.

5) What goes through your mind when you are first given a manuscript?

ST: When it comes to designing literary book covers, it has been an interesting experience since we mostly deal with text versus image. It is important to understand that a manuscript is another creative person’s work. You have to really immerse yourself in the story–understand the author’s tone of voice, the country it’s set in, what kind of culture it relates to, the characters that are involved, etc. Stories are complicated and intertwined.

AS: Then you have to ensure that you don’t give the story away on the cover. We want something that’s subtle yet entices the reader and when they are midway through the book, they realise ‘Oh, so that’s what the cover is about.’

6) How can writers help you better bring their vision of the book to life?

ST: We usually ask our authors if they already have a cover in mind. Sometimes it helps when they send us a visual mood board. We want to respect that, since they have spent years working on the manuscript.

AS: Sometimes the author leaves it entirely up to us, which becomes a guessing game. This means with a bit of luck, we might hit the nail on the head and they’ll love it or we might not and they’ll hate it. It’s because there’s usually always a box and you have to work within the boundaries of that box. Sometimes they just don’t know how to articulate what they want. Or sometimes they don’t explain what they don’t want–which is also important. On our part, we want to be sure we are deciphering their book correctly. After all, design is always a collaborative effort between the designer and the client.

ST: It also helps tremendously when we get to know the author on a personal level. We can get a good sense of their age, background, experiences that make them who they are. These help shape the cover into giving the reader a hint of the author’s identity – since fiction is based on some form of truth, isn’t it?

7) What projects are you currently working on?

ST: We work mainly with publishers or self-published authors. We try to advise authors to work on their own branding so we’ve also been engaged for business cards and websites. In fact, we just revamped and launched Tash Aw’s website.

AS: We happen to be known for our book covers, but we also work on non-literary projects. We’re working on a logo and collaterals for a café called Brothers in Fine Food, which is run by the same people behind Penny University.

ST: Luckily for us, most of our projects are quite fun! Our busiest period is usually about two months before the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF). Last year we were working on six book titles in total to launch during SWF.

AS: Basically, we spend a lot of time in front of our computers. In fact, because of this, we launched a workshop arm called Itchy Fingers. The aim was to support and create a community of crafters who chose to perfect a dying art, such as calligraphy, water colouring or wood carving.

8) What’s next for both of you?

ST: We want to expand our services abroad so we’ve been trying to make some sort of presence at international book fairs. We travelled to two last year. We were at the London Book Fair with some funding from the Media Development Authority (MDA). They also funded a Singapore Pavilion at the fair with the Singapore Book Council, but we were pleasantly surprised that they funded us separately. It was a good thing, because we wanted to be located within the Illustrator’s Pavilion. The London Book Fair is huge, so we wanted to make sure we could be found by potential clients.

AS: The other fair was the MISS READS Berlin Art Book Fair. We approached Design Singapore Council (DSC) for funding. It was a more intimate event and a very different vibe.

ST: We’d love to be able to work with an international publisher. If we don’t, how can we ensure the Singaporean book covers we work on are of an international standard?

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Sarah and Schooling is a two-woman graphic design studio. An ardent supporter of Singapore’s literary scene, the studio is actively involved in designing books and publications across multiple genres. Their capabilities and experience stretch beyond publications, reaching other creative disciplines such as visual identity and branding, art directing, editorial design, web design, copywriting, and conducting workshops.

Itchy Fingers is a project by Sarah and Schooling. It was founded as an avenue to channel your curiosity in learning how to create unique and tangible hand-crafted products. Serving as a place of learning, their studio-workshop features lessons by a collective of independent Singaporean artisans who stretch boundaries to keep the spirit of craftsmanship alive.

Reena Kandoth is a member of the Singapore Writers Group.

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