TDC 63 Judges’ Profiles: The Curious Case of Ben Schott

As the TDC 63 /Typography 38 competition entries pour in we are excited to introduce the vastly talented people who make up our international team of judges this year. This is the first in a series of profiles.

TDC 63 judge Ben Schott

Author and designer Ben Schott with his series of books.

Ben Schott is the bestselling author and designer of the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series. Together with his most recent book Schottenfreude, these have sold more than 2.5 million copies and have been translated into 21 languages (including Braille).

Born in London in 1974, Ben graduated from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he majored in Social & Political Sciences. After a fleeting career in advertising, he spent seven years as a professional photographer. Schott is now a contributing columnist to The New York Times, and writes for a variety of publications including Bon Appétit, The Spectator, and Playboy. He divides his time between New York and London, and is married to the travel journalist Pavia Rosati.

You are an author who also designs and typesets his own books. What prompted you to start doing that and when?
I’ve always loved graphic design—the quest to use as little ink as possible to convey the maximum message. And so, at school I designed posters, and at college I designed the hell out of my essays. When, after an absurdly brief moment in advertising, I became a photographer I sent out graphic design Christmas cards to remind my clients I was alive. One of these, miraculously, transformed itself into my first book… and all my interests—design, type, photography, copywriting—coalesced.

I doubt you picked up your typographical skills at Gonville & Caius, where did you learn about type?
As professionals will no doubt spot, I am self taught. I admire and try to learn from a vast array of designers from Edward Tufte and Michael Bierut to Leanne Shapton and Louise Fili. The designers I love are those whose work you can spot at 100 yards. If I aspire to anything, it’s that.

Good typographers are very conscious of meaning, but writers are not necessarily attuned to the tenets of design. How does your writing inform your sense of typography?
For me, writing and design are inexorably linked: like cooking and eating – each informs the other. When I get bored of design, I write … and vice versa. And the tight “box” of graphic design means you have to write creatively to exploit your constraints. But this can get a little elaborate: wherever possible I design paragraphs so they finish fully and elegantly justified. This means the deployment of the occasional “curiously” or “splendidly” to fill the extra space.

You sit on both sides of the table—as a designer and a writer. Have you ever had to “defend” your design and typographical input with publishers?
Occasionally, when working with a new magazine or newspaper, there is a moment when the Art Director says: “What do you mean he’s designing it himself?!” But in every case we’ve found a happy marriage of their house style and mine.