Manuela Pentangelo, a self-taught designer from Italy, possesses a passion for the drawing arts. Her particular forte is illustrating children’s books.

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Enter John Arthur Nichol, an Australian author of children’s books. Science-fiction is his bag.

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To hear their chemistry one might think these two peas in a pot are old friends. In reality they just met through 99designs, where John was looking for an illustrator for his new book Sascha Martin’s Time Machine, which became Manuela’s new challenge.

I love to illustrate and draw. Children’s books are my favourite. With John I found a very humorous story and a very nice author to work with on a huge project like this.

Here is a glimpse into the world of Sascha Martin’s Time Machine and the story behind their common project!

First of all, what made you become an author for children’s books?

John: I’ve always written, in between doing other things. I was a teacher for a long time, in Infants and Primary Schools. Kids love stories, they love mystery and intrigue, and excitement, and they really love a good belly-laugh. It just seemed natural to begin writing for children since I was in that world, to try to create the kind of stories that draw them in and inspire them.

What is the book about?

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John: Sascha Martin is an eight-year old inventor who can turn his mind to anything exciting and potentially catastrophic, and who brings his inventions to school for Show and Tell. In Sascha Martin’s Time Machine, he’s determined to take his class and his teacher back in time to study at first hand, and in real life, the Pleistocene megafauna they’ve been studying in Science, and which we only know from fossils. But things don’t work out exactly the way Sascha had intended (they never do!), and the school is quickly overrun with huge and dangerous creatures from the past.

How important is the cover design of a book?

John: The cover design is crucial. It can make all the difference between a potential reader looking to see what’s inside the book, or putting it back on the shelf unopened. A cover design is a balancing act – you don’t want to give away too much of the story, but you want to show enough to intrigue children, and arouse their curiosity and their sense of expectation, their confidence that the story inside the book could be fun and exciting to read.

Why did you do the cover with 99designs?

John: I’ve worked with 99designs for six or seven years. Originally, I think, I found 99designs in a web search when I was looking for a designer to create some web graphics. I went on to run a number of competitions for my projects and was really happy with the results; so when I needed a cover designed for one of my children’s books I just naturally came to 99designs. I didn’t even have to think about it. I wrote a brief and launched a contest.

What did your creative brief focus on?

John: The most important thing when I briefed the designers was that the cover should be irresistible – whether it was a parent looking for a book for their child to read, or a child searching for a good story, the cover had to grab their attention and make them want to open the book. Colour was a vital consideration in creating a cover with broad appeal. I didn’t specify beyond that but I was looking for something bright and daring and eye-catching, something a child might spot from the other side of a bookshop and just have to investigate.

Manuela, what made you participate in John’s book cover design contest?

Manuela: The subject! I had just subscribed to 99designs, and this was the first project I saw for a cover for a children’s book. I love sci-fi, dinosaurs and time travelers, so uhaaaa, there it was  and I applied!

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Why did you choose Manuela Pentangelo’s design as the winning design?

John: I just loved her design the moment I saw it. She’d listened to what I’d said about the importance of colour, and in her design the colours just popped. And she’d also captured the other things that I’d wanted – a sense of danger, excitement, adventure and suspense, all with an edge of humour that children would register at a glance. I knew it was a cover that children would find hard to resist, and I thought it might pique their parents’ interest as well. And of course, Manuela had incorporated every element of the story in a single image that didn’t give the story away.

After getting the cover done you kept working with Manuela, who lives on the other side of the world. How do you guys communicate with each other?

John: We communicate almost exclusively through the 99designs website. 99designs has an interface that’s like an ongoing conversation between designer and writer. We post messages and replies, and of course, Manuela can upload her designs right there as part of the conversation, and I can download them; but what I really love is that when I view her images on the site I can make comments directly on the drawing, pinned to whatever part of the image is under discussion. This morning, for instance, we were working together in real time on the map she’s developing. I had a question about the parking area below the school, so I clicked there and a comment box popped up. When I’d finished and posted the comment it was marked right there on the drawing with a red dot. I call them dot comments, for want of another name. All the comments we make on a given file are listed at the side when you display that image, in the order they were posted. You can click on any dot comment in the list and the comment pops up on the drawing where it’s anchored, so it takes you right to the point of discussion. Or if you have a general question or comment about the image you can just post it in the comment box on the side. It’s a fantastic tool that makes it feel as if Manuela and I are in the same room – we’re looking at the same image, pointing to this section or that, and we can each see exactly what the other one is saying. It doesn’t matter that we’re in different time zones; Manuela’s comments and replies, and her image posts, are waiting for me when I wake up or when I get back from work. And there are times like this morning when we’re both online together and the conversation is immediate. On those occasions the interface even tells me when Manuela is typing.

We have multiple projects going at the same time on 99designs. At the moment there are four. One project is for Sascha Martin’s Time Machine, and one is for the map that will accompany every book in the series.

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The preliminary map for Sascha Martin’s Time Machine

Switching from one project to another is simple – I just select “Your Work” at the top, and 99designs displays a listing of all our current projects. If there are new posts from Manuela that I haven’t seen yet there’s a marker beside that project with the number of posts waiting. Clicking on any project takes me right back into the conversation, and any new posts are highlighted there as well.

Best of all, I think, everything is safely and permanently stored right there in the project file at 99designs – the design transfer agreement, the brief, all the invoices and payments, every post and every file. I can come back anytime and download files again, or go back to check something we talked about last year.

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Sascha Martin character design

Could you describe the workflow with each other regarding the illustrations?

John: Oh gosh. Well, each book project is divided into four sections – storyboard, character design, finished drawings, and finished drawings in colour. This is great for me because I can pay for the work in four stages. I lodge the fee for the next section with 99designs, and when I tell them I’m happy that a section’s completed they release the fee to Manuela. It’s made the accounting side of the collaboration so easy and stress-free for both of us.

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Once Manuela’s read the draft, there’s a lot of talking back and forth, with me saying what I imagine, and Manuela firing back ideas and questions. She has the really hard task then of trying to fit my text into a picture-book format. She’ll split the text up into blocks, allocating each block to a page or a spread (a spread is a single image spanning two facing pages) where she’s already picturing what she’ll draw. We make adjustments to that. For instance, I might think that a particular line would work better immediately after a page-turn. With the basic cut agreed, Manuela starts work on the storyboard. She roughs out a quick sketch of the action on each page, and sends this to me, through 99designs, as a pdf document that shows all the pages laid out like a comic strip. Lots more talking then – we move things around, change the text, change the scenes, till we have a working plan for the whole book.

Whatever stage Manuela’s working on, she creates the artwork and then uploads it to our project at 99designs. Her drawings are already digital because Manuela works exclusively on computer now. Our first book together, Sascha Martin’s Rocket-Ship, was the first one she illustrated without any use of paper and pencil. She’s bought a touch-screen artist’s monitor called a Ugee 19. It arrived while we were working on Rocket-Ship, so most of the book was composed on her Ugee.

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Sascha Martin character design

When her file uploads to the project it really has its own page within the conversation. I can download the image, and I can also open it inside the project, and make comments and ask questions in that window. I can anchor my posts to very specific sections of the drawing so it’s easy to make my meaning clear. Rather than saying (for instance), “In the part at the top near where the animal’s claw is touching the bubble …” I can just click in the place I mean and 99designs puts the comment right there, marked with a red dot, as well as listing it in order beside the image. Manuela can do the same thing, so it’s easy for her to answer one of my dot questions with a dot answer right beside it. Or she might ask a question and I’ll answer it.

Then Manuela will take all that information and go back to her drawing board (her Ugee 19) to make the changes we’ve agreed on or to try something different to resolve a problem. When she’s ready she’ll upload a new version and the process repeats, with the images progressing, refinement by refinement, to their finished state.

Of course, I can upload files as well, like photos that show a type of classroom I have in mind or whatever, and text files where I might list, say, things we need to do or other questions I have.

What is the timeline for the book illustrations?

John: Our first book took around eleven months from start to finish. That’s for a book in two formats – one for Kindle fixed layout and one for print. We’re still making changes to that book even now, but by and large it was done in just under a year. I’m anticipating that Sascha Martin’s Time Machine will take around the same time, say twelve months. Some of it will go faster because we have a pretty good understanding now, about each other’s process and about how the work will proceed. But we’ll be slowed down because the Kindle book this time will be interactive, which involves a learning curve for both of us, and changes even things like the way Manuela creates and saves her images.

What is the biggest challenge of this project?

Manuela: Oh well the number of pages (more than usual), and the technology. We try to have the books available for print, digital and interactive. John is very interested in different aspects of the book and so am I. Understanding each other and putting the right base, like deciding on the details before having the real draws is pretty challenging.

What do you consider the best balance between text and pictures? How they support each other?

John: The balance between text and pictures is what Manuela and I struggle with. It’s my fault because my text is too long, and there just aren’t enough pages in a standard picture book. Inevitably we’ll cut some verses out as we go along. There was much discussion at the start, this time, about how we could reduce the text still more and have the images provide the narrative for the verses that we take out. And I hope we can achieve that. I don’t think there’s a single “best balance” that suits all picture books, any more than there’s a single “best picture book” that suits all kids. But a picture book, by definition, is where the pictures tell the story as much as the text tells the story. A really good picture book can have the text and the pictures telling two completely different stories, or revealing two different perspectives on the same narrative. In our book the text provides, I hope, a structure or a guide for Manuela’s pictures, and her images will branch out from there and tell so much more than I could ever include in the text – life and death battles, furious chases, scenes of destruction, chaos and yuckiness, and all of them shot through with humour.

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In your article on goodreads you say: “… I’ve learnt so much along the way – about picture books, about working with an illustrator, about designing for print and for a digital platform at the same time”. Can you explain this in greater detail?

John: About picture books. Well, I had some very naive ideas about picture books when we started. Worst among them, despite my years in teaching, was a vague notion that the pictures would be there just to illustrate the story, to say the same thing as the text but in a different language (pictures) that would appeal to children. But in a picture book there isn’t enough room to say the same thing twice, and reading the same thing twice is not what children want to do … Well no, that’s not quite right. Children love repetition in picture book texts, just as we all love the chorus of a favourite song, and when we reach that part it’s natural to join in and sing along with the words. But children don’t want pictures that just describe the text. They want to enjoy two different stories at the same time – one told by the words and one told by the images. Kids process them on different levels, or in different parts of their brain, and bring them together as their own unique experience of the book.

Children are very sophisticated consumers of books, and they relish, in picture books, the same devices we’re all familiar with in chapter books. Everyone loves a good cliffhanger, for instance. In a novel, the author leaves you dangling at the end of a chapter. In a picture book, cliffhangers fall on a right-hand page, and the reader’s anticipation and suspense are all about what they’ll find when they turn over to the next one. The first thing they’ll see is the picture, not the text, and it’s the image that takes the lead in telling the story.

About working with an illustrator. This was a huge learning curve for me … Not so much a hurdle as a surprise – but a good one! We have completely different minds, for a start. Manuela thinks in images and Italian; I think in words, and English. She sees events happening as she reads the words I’ve written. I don’t make very clear images in my head. So the story Manuela sees can be very different from the story that I write. That can be good or bad. Usually it’s because my words are ambiguous, or because she’s picked up on something I hadn’t even spotted in my own writing. Sometimes it’s a translation issue, like a concept that doesn’t span the languages. Almost invariably, Manuela sees (and draws) something that is better than what I’ve written, or that tells the story with much more economy. She changes the story, too. She moves the characters around. “What if Mary-Alice was here instead?” or “Could this teacher in the staff room be Mr Jack?” She has very strong opinions about the characters she’s bringing to life, and wants to know their back-stories, why they do the things they do, where they live, everything about them. And she insists they take their proper role in the story. It’s at Manuela’s insistence that I have three main characters now instead of one!

So as an illustrator, Manuela is anything but a passive recipient of the story! She’s a fellow storyteller in every sense, helping to mould the narrative, the characters, the setting, and always thinking ahead to the next adventure.

At the very least, when you work with an illustrator, a completely different type of mind is brought to bear on the problem at hand, which is how best to tell a story in a limited amount of space. The pictures can do so much more than just echo the text and as a writer, you have to be able to let go and let the illustrator run with the story. I’m still working on that.

About designing for print and for a digital platform at the same time:

We wanted to create, in Sascha Martin’s Rocket-Ship, a book for print, and a matching eBook that could be read on any Kindle device or in any Kindle app. Because this was our first attempt at digital publishing, and because we were looking at the eBook then as an analogue of the print book, we produced the very simplest kind of fixed layout with the text embedded in the background image.

We also brought to the Kindle the same portrait orientation we’d used in the print book, and this meant that the impact of our spreads was lost since, on the Kindle, the two halves of a spread could only be viewed one page at a time.

Our print layout and our Kindle layout had different proportions, too – the Kindle was narrower, so Manuela had to make a template that showed both sizes, and ensure that nothing vital would be lost beyond the edges in the digital version.

This time round, because of what we’ve learnt, our approach to designing for print and digital together is radically different. Our Kindle pages have exactly the same proportions as the print edition, though of course they’ll be much smaller, and we’re turning the Kindle layout on its side to show two pages together in landscape orientation. This way we preserve the spreads, and they’ll actually look better than their print book counterparts, because in hard copy the middle details of every page are swallowed in the binding. And we’re using live text in our eBook, so that dictionaries and searches will work (and the files will be that much smaller since the text is not part of the image).

And we’re experimenting with some of the interactive features available on the Kindle!

Those interactive features will add a new, third element to the storytelling which will stand equally alongside the images and the text. It’s going to be fun! Our second eBook won’t be just a digital copy of the print book; it will bring a whole new level of storytelling to the series.

What are the most essential take aways from the process?

John: The most essential take-away of all, I think, for me as a writer, is that part of the storytelling can be safely consigned to the pictures. Trust the illustrator to do justice to the story, and to bring their own unique vision to the narrative.

But there are others, too – understand the genre you’ve chosen, respect its traditions and its structures (they’ve endured because they work) but don’t be afraid to innovate. The publishing industry is in turmoil now as it deals with its corner of the digital revolution, and if there was ever a time to try something new it’s right now.

And how far did it change your perspective on design?

John: As a writer I’m focused on the text. And the text exists in my mind quite separately from any format. I wasn’t focused on design at all, until I found myself having to deal with formats and layouts and images, spreads and page turns, and of course the all-important covers. Working with Manuela, and dealing with the demands of two different platforms, has shifted my perspective to the point where I’ve realised that I need to become a book designer – and that’s a very different thing from writing a book.

Sascha, Manuela and John are a great example of how design is able to connect people from all over the world to create amazing art work. 99designs is turning this big planet into a small world.