A Conversation with Michael Arndt, Graphic Designer and Author/Illustrator of “Snails & Monkey Tales: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols”

“I feel creators are vessels.
We fill up with input, ideas, and inspiration
until it spills over
and we empty it out into our work
so that we may fill up again.
An endless delightful cycle.”

Michael Arndt

Every once in a while, a talent comes along who is just . . . different. A fresh perspective, offering a new way of looking at things. As you’ll see, Michael Arndt comes to books from a design background. His work conveys wit, intelligence, curiosity, joyfulness. I didn’t know him at all — and I suspect that you might not either — so I invited Michael over for a chat. As luck would have it, March 22nd, 2022, is the publication day of Michael’s singular new book, Snails & Monkey Tales:  A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols. Congratulations, Michael! I imagine that any lover of language would delight in your handsome new book. Let’s do this interview thing!

 

You first caught my attention when you started posting minimalistic portraits of celebrities on Facebook. It’s remarkable to me how you can capture the essence of these people in spare yet eloquent details. It’s all about the reduction — seeking out the signal from the noise.

Hi, James. Thank you for the kind words and interviewing me here. Yes, you put that as succinctly as I have ever heard it put. “Reduction—seeking out the signal from the noise is the essence of graphic design.

I think it’s also the essence of picture book writing — something I have not at all mastered!

It is indeed the essence. Many people think designers make things look pretty and that the beauty comes from adding to the material in the same way an interior decorator might add pillows and flower arrangements to a room or the way an artist might add paint to a canvas. Instead, any beauty we contribute comes from providing clarity, much like polishing a rough stone — and that comes from reduction, not addition.

For Black History Month . . .

Less is more.

Yes, more or less. [Insert wink.] Designers are akin to sculptors who chisel away the excess stone to reveal the form inside. My focus with those minimal portraits was on the negative shapes. I often would draw those shapes first (e.g. the faces are usually the same color as the background and therefore rely upon the surrounding shapes to define them). When you work with as few elements as possible, each element has to work impeccably and do double duty, so you have to put the negative shapes to work. For those images, I applied what I learned in my design career about scale, proportion, color, shapes, and composition to help convey the physicality, personality, genre, and historical time frame. In some cases, the color reinforced the name as in the cases of Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks whose portraits I rendered in hues of reds and pinks…a sort of visual pun.

I appreciate the wit of your work. The humor. I love your Sonny & Cher. 

Thank you. It is funny (no pun intended), but I don’t usually set out to incorporate humor in my books. My last gift book—Minimal New York City: graphic, gritty, and witty (Clarkson Potter, 2020)—did not start out with that subtitle. While the book is catalogued under humor, I was merely trying to juxtapose iconic New York phenomena, visually and sometimes verbally. I read that humor relies upon the element of surprise, the unexpected, so perhaps that is what you and others are picking up on.

Can you give us a little biographical background? Where did you grow up? What brought you to children’s books?

Sure. My own childhood was spent in Kinderhook in New York’s picturesque Hudson Valley. It is an idyllic pastoral historic setting. Our house was built in an apple orchard. I played with my dog, rode my bike, and drew…basically how I spend my days in New York City now! There really wasn’t much else to do. Like many, I wasn’t familiar with graphic design. Instead, I wanted to be an illustrator. At one point, following my year of wanting to be a dentist (much like Hermey in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), I was convinced that I wanted to do medical illustration. When college application time came around, I applied to various schools. Each had a different program…fine arts, illustration, editorial design, graphic design. In the end the only affordable option was the University of Cincinnati and they only offered Graphic Design…

“I guess I will be a Graphic Designer then.”

Ha, yes. Our grand plans turn like a dime on accident and chance. We’re in boats, we think we know where we’re going, and suddenly a wind fills the sails.

Agreed. At first, I didn’t “get” design. Hated it. Fought it. Wanted to transfer out of it. I applied elsewhere for sophomore year and got in. A professor pulled me aside and convinced me to stay arguing that graphic design was the most solid foundation for anything else I might want to do in the visual field, so I stayed. She was right. About a year later it all clicked and I fell in love with the quiet power of design and the way a few simple shapes or letters could convey entire worlds. It appealed to my yearning for simplicity and minimalism. But I never lost my love and respect for illustration and illustrators.

I hope you send that professor a copy of your new book.

I would like to but haven’t managed to locate her. In the meantime, I have sent copies of my books to my other professors.

Sorry, I interrupted your story.

No worries. I tend to ramble on otherwise. So, to fast forward, I spent twenty years after college designing branding and packaging, and art directing for the beauty and fragrance industry. A midlife crisis arrived right on schedule —

You bought a little red sports car?

I wish!…and yet I don’t, because I would not be speaking to you about books today if I had. You see, I was looking for something that had more personal meaning that would allow me more flexibility to work from home and spend time with my pets, even into my golden years some day. I came up with a series of animal designs that used the letters in the sounds each makes and called them by my own portmanteau “animalopoeia.” They were intended to be my own line of letterpress greeting cards. When I had 24 though, I thought, this is a basis of a children’s book. I put together a prototype and sent it un-agented to Chronicle Books—and to them only—as I thought they were the right publisher for it. To my delight they agreed and they published CAT SAYS MEOW: and other animalopoeia in 2014. That started my book career.

And another spread . . .

I love that book. It’s so clever and original. And obviously that’s because you come to it from a different perspective—you bring that graphic design intelligence to the work.

Oh, thank you, James; that is always nice to hear. I have to say, it will always have a special place in my heart as it was my first book and first time being called an author and illustrator. The field of picture books has a significant number of graphic designers who illustrate…and even write. This is not as strange as it may first appear. Picture books, for those who may not know, are rarely more than the standard 32 pages and the text is increasingly less than it was in books when you and I grew up. Designers are trained to pair images and words in a cohesive way that is visually enticing and communicates a lot in a little space. Often, as in my case, the style tends to be more graphic and typographic, but not always. That all said, designers and illustrators are not the same profession. We are more like siblings or cousins than twins. Illustrators draw, and draw well, very well. They illustrate an idea or story. Graphic designers solve visual communication problems and seek to clarify, inform, and/or motivate. Many wonderful graphic designers cannot draw at all. It is more about thinking critically about a design problem and using the most effective visual tools to solve it. Saul Bass defined design as “thinking made visual.”

I like that. For me, so much of the early stage of writing is about thinking. Which to an outside observer (my wife, for example) looks a lot like doing nothing!

And sometimes, in my case, it is literally doing nothing. My walks in the park with my dog Clooney are times when I ruminate the best. Those, and truly sitting in my apartment and literally doing nothing. They are my ways of clearing my body’s internal hard drive of its clutter and visual noise. Just as music or design or architecture or even nature in the form of Winter needs rest and so-called negative or white space, so do we as thinking, creating beings. Not to get too Zen, but I feel creators are vessels. We fill up with input, ideas, and inspiration until it spills over and we empty it out into our work so that we may fill up again. An endless delightful cycle.

Time out! I’m just going to roll here with a few sample spreads from Snails for my Nation of Readers to enjoy.

Stunning, right?

Michael, are you familiar with the books of Donald Crews? He came at children’s books from a similar perspective, the emphasis on graphic design (in particular, Freight Train, Truck, 10, Flying). I think his graphic vision helped us see those familiar topics in new ways.

I am familiar with his books! Michael Bierut, a partner at the international design firm Pentagram and president emeritus of the AIGA, wrote the forward in my upcoming book. In a personal note to me beforehand, he wrote, “Your books…as good as anything by Don Crews or Mr. [Paul] Rand.” Seeing familiar topics in new ways is a mission of mine—to impart the tenets of visual literacy to people of all ages, starting, but certainly not ending, with the youngest amongst us. A good number of my books are early concept board books for babies and toddlers.

That’s the essence to all art, isn’t it. To help us see or feel the familiar—or the neglected, the unseen—in a new and startling way.

It is, and that is the exciting part for me. It brings out the philosopher and rebel sides of me, but also the visionary and optimist sides. I want to encourage people to see things, their environment, world, and lives, first for what they are and then for what they can be. The first day of design school, our professor said, “the purpose of this class is to sensitize you to your visual environment,” i.e., to teach us how to see. This obviously has its pros and cons, but decidedly more pros. My signature line of early concept books—M books, published by Andrews McMeel—aims to do precisely that. Teach kids, hopefully in engaging ways, the “fun”damentals of visual literacy. We live in an Information Age and today’s generation will need to be visually fluent.

Could you tell us about your new book?

I thought you would never ask! It is called Snails and Monkey Tails: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols. “Visual” and “Guide” are perhaps the two most important parts of that title for it is decidedly from a graphic design and typography point of view. As such, it will appeal to designers, typophiles, anyone who delights in being visually stimulated or learning visually. That said, it is equally for the word people who live among us. Students, learners of English as a foreign language, teachers, editors, grammarians…. It is simultaneously a primer that covers the basics and what I hope an intriguing journey down the rabbit hole into the origins of the names, shapes, styles, and uses of punctuation and symbols. In this era of short attention spans and “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read), I wanted to minimize the verbal explanations and maximize the visual elements. I hope I have a created something that is as stylish as it is informative. Did you know that the word glamour” is an alteration of the word “grammar?” I wanted to bring punctuation back by making it sexy.

While the book certainly coheres as a whole, each spread works independently as a sort of infographic.

Thanks. That is just one of the ways I wanted to make the book approachable and accessible. It is definitely not a stuffy or tedious grammar-type book. Conceptually, I wanted to flip the scale in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way. I blew up the usually tiny marks to gargantuan proportions while the body text is discreet and understated. The entire book is in classic, yet modern, black and red for dynamic spreads and the entire package is designed to be a joy to hold and read. Coated paper, matte varnish, and debossed hardcover that feels like holding a Zen river stone.

It’s a book that defies category, at least for me. I’m not sure how or where it fits, exactly, but I know I want it,

That is what in the beauty world we called “creating desire” or the “must-have” factor. In the book world it falls into the gift book category: compact, interesting, affordable books that have enhanced production value and therefore make attractive gifts.

Michael’s dog, Clooney, hanging on the Upper West Side of NYC.

Well, Michael, thank you for your time. I saw your work, we became friends on Facebook, and I just kept wondering, “Who is this guy?” Turns out you grew up not too far from where I live (Delmar, NY) and, maybe best of all, you are a dog lover. I am so impressed with your talent. If I were a children’s book art director, I’d be seeking out nonfiction books for you to “illustrate.” A trip to the zoo, a day at the airport, the first day of school — the possibilities are wide open. I’m excited to see what comes next.

Thank you, James. From your mouth to the ears of art directors, editors, and publishers. I love animals and I love knowledge, so projects like those sound wonderful. This has been fun. Thanks for the chat.

For readers who’d like to learn more about Michael, there’s this thing called Google . . .

As for me, James Preller: You might know my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent book is titled Upstander, a stand-alone novel that also serves as sequel/prequel to Bystander. It follows Mary’s experiences, enters her home life, and includes a strong Substance Use Disorder (SUD) storyline. I’m proud that both books were named Junior Library Guild Selections — ten years apart. 

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

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