Great Looking Stories is Visual Editions founders' Britt and Anna’s mantra, and it lets them push design boundaries one publication at a time.
Britt Iversen and Anna Gerber finish each other’s sentences like an old married couple. But they do it with the excitement of a pair of newlyweds. “We work a lot on instinct,” smiles Anna, “and the freaky thing is that a lot of the time our gut is the same.”
Three years ago, they traded in jobs based on “lots of talking and not much making” (Anna wrote for Creative Review and taught graphic design at Central Saint Martins and The Royal College of Art; Britt worked for advertising juggernaut Mother London) to embark on a new adventure – a pipe-dream, according to most. “A lot of colleagues said, ‘You’re mad,’” laughs Britt. “Then we talked to some more clever people and they still said, ‘You’re mad, but we love what you’re doing.’”
The product of that madness is Visual Editions, a publishing house whose stories look nothing like anything else on your shelf. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes is “a book full of holes” in which words have been die-cut out of an old story to create a new piece of poetic fiction. Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 is “a book in a box” written on 150 loose-leaf pages that can be read in any order. And that’s just the start. With four boundary-pushing publications already out, Britt and Anna are determined that whatever comes next will look nothing like anything they’ve done before.
“We like feeling stupid,” says Britt. “If you’re too knowing, a laziness sets in because you’ve been there before. But if you keep saying ‘I have no idea,’ you’ll probably end up doing something you wouldn’t do if you already had an idea.”
Anna jumps in: “We always say that if this ever becomes formulaic we need to bring in a new voice, like a different designer, to cause productive havoc.”
Formulaic does not describe the neon-clad office that Britt and Anna call base. It doesn’t suit the way they work or how their books come into being. “It’s total blue-sky thinking,” says Anna. “We ask writers, ‘In a dreamworld what kind of book do you want to make.’ Then we take that seed and bring a designer on board immediately.”
“We think of it as matchmaking,” adds Britt. “A lot of it’s instinct and based on personalities, even if they’re opposing.”
Visual Editions has struck a chord with “lots of bubbles of different people,” from avid readers to design freaks. Britt and Anna are determined to take their stories to as many people as possible, so their price points never match the heights of their innovations (“All our books are paperbacks so that they never feel precious,”) and keeping things accessible informs a lot of what they do. “We interrogate a lot,” says Anna, “how does the text inform the visual, how does the visual inform the text, so that one doesn’t overpower the other. The balance between form and content is the single most important thing that unites people.”
Right now they’re working on their first collection (“A book of maps that looks at what a map means, how they’re changing from mapping how you get to places to how we map our lives,”) and the launch of Seonaid McKay’s The Thump and Other Places, an iPad App that houses a collection of dark tales. “It’s a beautiful, eerie story about children that’s not for children,” says Anna, “and in order to read it you need to play around with objects on the screen.”
With a hodge-podge of projects on the go at once (they recently enlisted 150 ‘Reader Outlouders’ to read every page of Composition No.1 around the V&A Museum), Anna and Britt find a mantra helps keep things in sync. So they’ve written it on their wall. ‘We publish books, produce Apps and events that are all in some way about making Great Looking Stories.’ “We think of it less as being committed to print and more as being committed to telling stories in different ways,” says Anna.
“We love print,” adds Britt, nodding towards a neat stack of books. “And as you can see around here, we love stuff. The more we live on screen, the more we need stuff in our lives that we love. But the reason we aren’t against tech as a business is because as people we aren’t.”
There’s little doubt Britt and Anna have got the balance right. When The New York Times calls your books ‘revolutionary,’ you know you’re onto a good thing. “There’s something quite satisfying about proving people wrong,” says Britt. “We were shit-scared when we started and we’re still shit-scared, but it’s working and we’re changing as we go.”