Art publishing and focusing on communities instead of clients in Aotearoa

Katie Kerr

April 4, 2021
In the digital world we live in now where your phone shames you by telling you just how many hours you spend on it per day; something a bit more textile and tangible is undoubtedly- refreshing. We got to chat with one of the badass wāhine of GLORIA books and got a peek into the vastly underrated and beautiful world of art publishing. A world where community comes first.

What has particularly inspired you when you were younger or gave you a spark to choose design?

I was twelve years old when I decided that I wanted to be a graphic designer. I grew up on an isolated sheep farm in the depths of the East Coast — the actual middle of nowhere. Bored on the farm, I would read a lot. Both my parents are keen readers and my mum has a very cool collection of 1970s poetry books — which I’ve just managed to get my hands on for my own bookshelf! Mum would send me on trips to Wellington to visit an aunt who was a graphic designer. At her home in Karori, she had a light-filled studio stacked with old wood type, magnificent drawing boards and more ink pens than I had ever seen before. I just loved it.

I moved to Christchurch to study graphic design at Ilam School of Fine Arts. Three weeks after leaving university my house burnt down in an arson attack and I lost all of my possessions. Two months later, set up in a new home and a new job, I lost both in the Christchurch earthquake. Needless to say, I was a bit of a mess. I hung around Christchurch for the rest of the year, doing the odd freelance gig, before deciding it was time to move. I still wanted to be a graphic designer, but there wasn’t much for me in Christchurch. I left Aotearoa on the first day of 2012 for — of all places — Nashville, Tennessee.

I had a short-term internship in Nashville at Hatch Show Print, one of the oldest letterpress studios in the States, printing country music posters for the famous Ryman Auditorium; and eventually ended up in London, where I spent the next five years at as a graphic designer in various forms. As a young, inexperienced foreigner I knew I was very lucky to get a role in advertising and branding, and I was fairly impressionable because of that. While I learnt a lot, there was a sense that as a junior designer you had to earn your stripes — and on top of that was a consistent undertone of sexism. Those years are marked by the times I fell asleep on the tube after working myself to exhaustion; by my shaky hands as I presented concepts to rooms of men in blue suits; by crying in the toilets when I saw my annual pay rise was a mere £1000; and by the things I wish I had said when my art director commented on the shortness of my skirt (he proudly modelled himself on Don Draper… not even kidding). The crowning blow came when the studio got into financial trouble and I had to fight it out with my female colleagues for my laughingly underpaid job. A month later the studio folded — and over a late night pint I discovered I was getting paid significantly less than my male counterparts had been. And I thought, well, fuck that. 

I left advertising and I started looking for how I could still be a graphic designer but without the glass ceiling and the late nights and the bullshit. I guess I was burnt by the experience, and it took a few months travelling around India to unpack it. Thankfully, I came back to a great job as Head of Design at The School of Life and I started my Masters of Fine Art part-time. Halfway through my MFA, I unexpectedly moved back to Aotearoa, where I finished my degree and settled in Tāmaki.

My Masters was centred around developing a research-led graphic design practice that was both financially sustainable and creatively rewarding. The idea manifested in a publishing platform called GLORIA, which I run with Berlin-based photographer Alice Connew, where we produce art and photography books. I had become increasingly disenchanted with commercial graphic design — I felt there was a shallowness in the industry which stemmed from a lack of research and criticality, not to mention an imminent glass ceiling for women designers.

For me, GLORIA acts an antithesis to the client-led design process. A wonderful designer called Sheila Levant de Brettville sums up GLORIA’s values nicely: “focussing on communities instead of clients, valuing individual engagement over professional detachment, bypassing top-down hierarchy in favour of feedback and audience engagement, and expanding visual vocabulary to reflect experience”. GLORIA enables Alice and I to engage feminist processes in our work, to experiment and explore within the design and publishing, to take our time and ultimately to make work that we are proud of.

Katie behind a desk in a big open studio with wooden floors and white walls, credit to: Xander Dixon

Would be great to know what your work looks like now?

All going well, my day will start quite serenely with some yoga at sunrise — but it quickly descends into total bedlam when my toddler wakes up and we employ all sorts of shenanigans to try and get her to eat her breakfast. On the way to the bus stop I’ll pick the mashed banana off my clothes and attempt to transition from dishevelled mum into cool graphic designer, usually with no success.

Two days a week I bus to my studio on Karangahape Road — I help run a small studio space called Strange Haven. My studio is the old brick outhouse out the back of the bookstore, and it is my sanctuary. It’s there that I produce my books, work on client projects and manage GLORIA. Running my own businesses means I spend way too much time answering emails and making calls and not enough time designing — something I am always trying to rectify.

On other days, I lecture at AUT. I teach final year students in publication design as part of the Visual Communication degree.

On Fridays I’m a dishevelled mum for the whole day, banana and all!

How do you help to combat the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’ in your daily life and in your work? We all tend to see the pretty images of people’s lives and get down on ourselves for not doing more or being more.

Oh yes, the terrible imposter syndrome — something I battle with everyday! There are good days and bad days: my confidence seems to completely disappear once a month, right before my period. I have an existential crisis and think I should get a real job and start therapy! Three days later I’m fine again, back in my studio doing what I love.

Graphic design can be very "shiny" — and what I mean by that is that the presentation of work, of process, and sometimes even the designer themselves, is air-brushed for public consumption. When you look at a designer's portfolio, you aren’t exposed to the messy process behind the work, you just see the beautiful end product in a well-lit and highly photoshopped image. This industry-wide respect for perfection means graphic designers aren't very good at exposing vulnerability in their practice. It isn't necessarily our fault — I think this comes from the fact that we often operate in a commercial space, where we need to convince clients to buy our services. But also perhaps because as people we quite like things to line up nicely, to be presented neatly. 

On top of (or perhaps stemming from) that, is the fact that our industry is very male-dominated. A couple of years ago, the Designers Speak (Up) movement highlighted some of the frankly shocking gender inequalities within the design industry. Despite highlighting these important diversity issues, not much has changed since — it seems as though systemic failures are being airbrushed too.

I’m interested in what could happen if we took a more feminist approach to graphic design, and as part of that, we were prepared to embrace a more honest representation of practice, including all our fuck ups and failures. Chloe Geoghegan, in writing about design for Enjoy, says, “Perhaps performing feminism in design is about being unafraid to make mistakes, show vulnerability, resist financial success and embrace imperfection in order to be truthful to the practice.” How could that kind of culture change the profession for the better?

Recently, I’ve released a GLORIA book, Dwelling in the Margins: Art Publishing in Aotearoa — and what people are probably seeing now is the end result of a long and arduous process. What they aren’t seeing is how much I struggled last year to juggle producing the book with multiple freelance jobs, lecturing, renovating a house and parenting a one-year-old. It was absolute chaos — messy, stupid and very, very tiring. I took on far too much work and I put too much pressure on myself — perhaps in some vain attempt to prove to myself that I could do it all. Motherhood does lots of weird things to your self-esteem — and I’m not sure what I was thinking or who I was trying to impress because it totally wasn’t worth it. Of course, it’s nice now to bask in the fruits of my labour, but this year’s resolution is to say no more! And to be okay with doing less.

Alice and Katie holding a baby who is very interested in a plant with stuff coming out of her mouth #ParentLife

I know from your other interviews that you love research and that it plays a huge role in your work. But what does your process look like and what advice do you have for young eager researchers in this digital age?

I’m a big advocate for installing more research into graphic design practices. Design often gets mistaken for being purely a ‘problem-solving’ profession — the designer is in service to a client and finds a solution to their problem. But what if the designer approaches design as ‘problem-setting’ instead? What if research and experimentation lead the process? To me, this seems like a much more interesting approach. On the wall of my studio is a quote from a designer and writer Stuart Bailey: “The relentless attempt to understand is what keeps any practice moving forward.” Instigating visual research methodologies into my design process has countered any creative stagnation and helped me to grow as a practitioner.

Saying that, my process does change depending on the project — obviously in client-based work with small budgets it is hard to justify spending masses of time on research. However, when working on my books for GLORIA, I’m able to spend as long as I like on experimentation — and this deep-dive research naturally filters into my other work as well.

When working on GLORIA projects, I tend to separate the editorial and the design process into what I call two ‘parallel lines of enquiry’, with equal emphasis placed on both. Often design is tacked on at the end of a process, so this allows the form of the publication to be considered just as important as the content. In the design stage, I often look to historical or archival resources to help inform aesthetic decisions. For example, when designing Dirt, I had a large collection of old community cookbooks ­— a resource that I mined for ideas around type, colour and layout.

In terms of advice — and this might be a bit rich coming from a Millennial — but I always tell my students to get offline as much as possible. Trawling the internet to look at glossy pictures without understanding the process behind the work is not helpful — generally it just makes you feel inferior. Instead, read lots of books, have conversations with people you admire, collect ephemera even if you don’t know what you are going to use it for, engage with something with your other senses rather than your vision. There’s a lot to be learnt from simply touching something!

Hard copy of Dwelling in the Margins: Art Publishing in Aotearoa, yellow cover on a grey background

In what ways do you think the world of art publishing can be made more mainstream? Should it be, can it be?

As contributor Gabi Lardies says in Dwelling in the Margins: “not everyone likes weird books!”, and so I think art publishing will always be on the margins — and that’s okay. Independent publishing is important because it offers an alternative dialogue to mainstream publishing. Most mass-market publications — not all — are produced with a commercial mindset of producing what sells. That’s not a criticism, publishing is a tough industry and operationally they need to make ends meet by giving the public what they want (or expect they want).

Art publishing tends to work on a different operational model with different intentions — most of the time, we don’t expect to make much money from sales. In a way, this can be liberating for the publisher because it removes any need to meet commercial expectations and opens up the book as a space for exploration.

The independent publishing movement, as well as artist-made books, creates an opportunity for both the publisher and the reader to engage with content and design that doesn’t feed into capitalist constructs. 

Furthermore, while it’s important to recognise that, like most disciplines, art publishing in Aotearoa has been victim to colonial power systems, a growing number of artists and writers are using the platform to give agency to marginalised voices in our community — those, as Balamohan and Erena Shingade put it, “who speak unceasingly but are not heard” — to create new critical dialogues. Art books can express fringe ideas that might not be taken up by mainstream publishers.

In terms of making content accessible, I think it’s important to reflect a range of opinions and engage voices from various backgrounds. With that in mind, most of my books are written with contributors from a certain community of practice and it’s important to me to engage with that community beyond the pages of the book — otherwise it feels weirdly exploitative. For example, I took pains to pay my writers a decent fee for their contribution to Dwelling in the Margins, which hopefully will positively affect the community. I’m also planning on some book-based events in the near future — which will not only extend the conversations piqued by the publication, but hopefully lead to stronger relationships and new opportunities. 

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