Art is a Verb: the design diaries

‘Is Art a Verb?’ The question pops up at one of our workshops. Children slowly look at us and we look searchingly at them. ‘Well, of course, art is a verb.’, quips an 11-year-old, who doesn’t get what the hype is all about. ‘You paint, you draw — it is an activity that you ‘do’. It’s pretty obvious.’

Is it surprising that most kids understand the basic logic of art-making? That it requires one not just to look and think, but also to do? — with water and paints, with stencil-cutters and dirty rags, with one’s feet and one’s hands, with friends and grown-ups, any time and all day? With a mandatory Arts & Craft period in their schools*, children of all ages, know and love to make art. It’s fun, they don’t have to memorize much and they are free to do as they like. (within the confines of their lessons)

But how do they take the ‘art’ out of their art class? Can they make connections between their lives and the art they make or see? How can their senses, that inform their perceptions and ideas, be engaged to look at art in the same way?

Keeping some of these questions close, I started work on Art1st’s new book, Art is a Verb. Written by the brilliant wordsmith Likla, the book spans a journey across a day’s verbs — wake, see, eat, run, play, sleep etc. It is, in fact, a story of its reader. Accompanying these verbs are visual cues in the form of artworks by eminent Indian artists. The works of art range from modern, figurative works to expressionist styles, with one thing in common — each painting augments its corresponding verb through an artist’s unique vision. For instance, A. Ramachandran’s ‘Dancing in Amavasi night’ is a beautiful portrayal of Rajasthani women dancing in fields under the moonlit sky. The sway of the elegant figures inspires rhythm and movement in the painting’s viewer, making it a perfect interpretation of the verb ‘dance’. I must credit Likla, Ritu Khoda and the rest of Art1st team who have helped curate the wonderful artworks that feature in the book.

In addition to the verbs and images, there are hidden activities that a child can do through her day of verbs. These are fun and easy explorations of the verb itself. The reader can play by herself, involve her friends or take the game out into her world.

Our approach to design this book was about keeping verbs at the forefront of its experience. Similar to the way all our senses work together to create a full image or an idea in our head, we wanted each page to be a combination of visual, cognitive and tactile experiences. We had three main components: the artwork, the story and the activity. A reader must see the art, read the story and do the activity. The question was, how can the book remain a ‘seeing book’, ‘reading’ book and a ‘doing’ book without breaking the narrative rhythm? Can the book parallelly encourage action?

Art is a Verb crew; (LEFT) Ritu Khoda (Publisher), (RIGHT) Likla (Author) and I

For Ritu Khoda, founder of Art1st and publisher of ‘Art is a Verb’, the answer was simple. ‘We must bring in the element of surprise’, said Ritu, as she demonstrated children’s books such as Imagine, The Upright Revolution and I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail to inspire the design process. Powered by the ingenuity of their authors and designers, these books surprise and delight their readers, sometimes revealing the impossible and sometimes subverting the obvious. And it’s made possible not just by the magic and charm of words and pictures, but also by presenting new ways of experiencing thoughts and ideas. Seeing these books, it was clear to me that as much as we would like to deny books their innovative future by pronouncing their premature deaths in the 20th century, we must be cautious not to underestimate them and their power to simply delight.

Now, to achieve this marked outcome of ‘delight’ for Art is a Verb, we began with the reader. What is it like to be a child? What does it feel to use our senses as a child? Various early-childhood developmental theories place importance on the sensory play as an effective method of learning. A tactile and tangible experience of a toy or a game not only promotes the building of motor skills but also encourages creative and critical thinking. Incidentally, paper is a medium that allows for varying levels of tactility. Its malleable nature allows for folding, breaking, cutting, and extending — all the verbs you can think of! Additionally, a child’s first material interaction in a classroom is often with paper. The white crisp bark holds one’s attention and wills one to draw on it, write on it or just rip it apart. I was surprised to learn how much this quality of paper affected my outlook for the broader design process.

There is no further proof that paper is hilarious. Credits: BruBearBaby

The design process itself was a divergent one. It involved experimentation with composition, layout, typography and material. Given that the basic unit of our book was a spread, I broke down the story and sorted spreads based on in-book activities and activities a child can do on his/her own. This gave me a clear idea for where the structure of the book needed to expand, to include in-book activities, or contract, to allow exploration outside of the book.

Afterwards, I approached each page through its featured painting’s size and dimensions. If this book is going to be the first interaction children have with these artworks, then the visual showcase must feel grand and seamless. The challenge here lies in utilizing the book’s dimensions (square, in our case) to best compose varying sizes of artworks. Unlike a gallery where the eye adjusts to the changing artworks on the wall, the book-as-a-gallery is a fixed-size window view. The creative solution to such a problem lies in — kids, close your eyes! — manipulation. For instance, I divided the Umbilical Creeper Carpet by A. Ramachandran, into two parts — one creates a door-like entrance at a first glance, the other reveals the protagonist sleeping behind. On the other hand, I contained the quiet Kingfisher by Haren Das on a page with plenty of ruminating space around it. Pro-tip: Artworks can often show you how to frame them best. Their active and passive attributes can help you create the most optimal viewing experience. Additionally, the quality and the print resolution of the painting have an impact on how big or small it can be printed on paper without distortion.

The opening action of one of the AIAV pages

Another challenge with representing paintings in books is keeping true to the colours and textures of the actual artworks. The printing of books with both digital and offset printers occurs with varying standards of printing colour index CMYK. This is due to a marked differentiation in printers, the nature of ink, the texture of paper and colour absorption levels. One can never be 100% sure of the results. The only workaround? Testing, testing, testing. After the 4th round of dummy printing, we were about 80% sure that we were 60% there!

This leads me to my next consideration in design–typography. A book with a limited word-length like Art is a Verb, cannot ignore its typographic style. For a story as unassuming and delightful, I felt that its letters must be clothed in fonts that do justice. I settled on Bennet Text, by Richard Lipton. It’s a lush, expressive font that yields both legibility and emotion. For the hidden activities, I chose Grandma, a soft hand-drawn serif font created by Hannes von Döhren. Exploring fonts is like exploring the language of the subconscious. I wanted Bennet Text to play the grand narrator and Grandma to play the effervescent cameo in a reader’s mind. The low-contrast strokes with a heavy diagonal-stress give Bennet Text, a plush quality with a hint of whimsy. I hope it nudges the readers to become their own protagonists. And when they take a break, they find themselves resting next to the cosy slab-serifs of Grandma, a typeface that is designed to be your friend.

Finally, each activity had to have a unique interaction with the reader — leading us to employ gateways, folds, die-cuts, pastings. The ‘Close’ spread aims to introduce an internal beat to the reading experience of its activity. The activity suggests the reader slowly breathe in and out. To effectively communicate this, I used overlapping triangular flaps that contained one part of instruction each, to be revealed in a 2-step opening process. The ‘beat’ of the breathing activity is translated easily and effectively in its reading! Similarly, for the ‘Whisper’ spread, 2 L-shaped paper pastings helped me create an interactive space for readers. They could fill in their own dialogues in the speech bubbles, and with changing orientation, can give the village women endless conversations!

To understand the construction and feasibility of the book, prototyping was the best approach. Going from simple paper mockups to dummy books and offset colour prints, we tested each aspect of the book. The tactile nature of such a book demands careful attention to each interaction including checking them against the ergonomic standards of children’s usability. Quality control of the book’s mass production also became a priority for us, as it required extensive manual implementation. At this point, I would like to mention Prudent Art & Fab, our trusted printing partners for AIAV. Their knowledge and expertise in print production came in handy, especially during the prototyping phase. Their valuable inputs helped us maintain feasibility and viability on an otherwise experimental book. A big shoutout to Mr Manohar Chandnani and Mr Prateek, who have worked day and night to make this book a reality!

Miniature dummies helped us understand the construction of the book. Plus they are so cute!

We launched the book in September 2019 on Amazon and almost immediately the book had several fans.

Leading the ‘Art is a Verb’ workshops at the Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature, Likla and I brought the book’s experience to children across India, in cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi, Baroda and Bhopal. The book was also launched at Avid ‘Art Cities Smart Cities’ conference in Bangalore and the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2020 in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

(LEFT) Book Launch at Avid Conference in Bangalore; (RIGHT) In conversation with esteemed Prof BN Goswamy at JLF 2020 for our book launch

I sure did observe delight in children as we shared the book with them in our workshops. They lapped up the delectable paintings, saw themselves in the painted characters and discovered a new way of exploring life’s action verbs. It brought Likla and me great satisfaction and honour to bring such joy to them. And not just through another app on their phones or a grand movie in the halls, but through the simplest tool in our hands. The humble book.

Come to think of it, a book is not just a book. It’s a friend. It’s an experience. A knowable universe and yet a black hole capable of swooping you in and letting you explore the unknown. A book, like art, is a verb.

AA’s Nerds, a children’s reading group based in New Delhi, relishing their copies of Art is a Verb! They are joined by AA Nerds founder Archana Atri (in the picture)

You can purchase Art is a Verb here. Or you can read more about the publishers, Art1st. You can find their other titles for children, with a focus on Indian Art, here. Do check out AIAV author (and my partner-in-crime), Likla’s whimsical Instagram profile here. And finally, for my other work, head here.

Thank you for reading!

P.S. Since I have written this, Art is a Verb has won the Bronze IPPY Award 2020! We were nominated in the Children’s Interactive Books category, next to some real heavyweights. Super grateful!

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Rohina Thapar

Rohina Thapar

Art. History. Books.

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