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Cool Jobs | Bena Sareen, consulting creative director, Aleph Book Company

Bena Sareen has created some of the year’s most beautiful, unusual books, from the black and white illustration and violet cuts of Jerry Pinto’s Em And the Big Hoom to the elegant gold cover of Khushwant Singh’s latest offering, The Freethinker’s Prayer Book. In an interview, 44-year-old Sareen tells us about her job. Edited excerpts:

Where did you grow up, and how did your relationship with art and design begin?

I grew up in Jaipur and Delhi, in a family of super nerdy academics. Went to study sociology in the US but decided on an impulse to follow my heart and started sitting in graphic design classes. One of my professors—who I’m eternally grateful to—saw a spark and broke many rules to facilitate my entry into the course. So after an MPhil in sociology in the mid-1990s, I changed tracks; I made the best decision of my life. It’s rare to find a calling that keeps you motivated and brings so much satisfaction even after so many years.

How did you come to design books?

All I knew is that I had a natural inclination for design in general; and I loved books, paper texture, the smell of ink and the feel of binding materials. Somewhere along the way it struck me that all this should lead me to publishing. I had the good fortune of starting out as the first art director of Penguin India (Sareen joined in 1999, after a couple of years at Cosmopolitan magazine) at a time when the publishing industry in India didn’t give much thought to the idea of packaging books in more than a functional way.

Tell us about the first book you designed. Are you proud of it now?

I can’t remember the very first title but in my first week, David Davidar, then publisher and CEO of Penguin India, told me to design some three-four covers in a week. I’m more than certain I’d be embarrassed by all today!

How do you “draft" a book’s design?

The actual process of ideation is impossible to pin down. But there is a system we follow where every editor gives a cover brief describing the book, sharing any ideas the author may have and their own understanding of how they’d like to position the book. So I interact closely with the editor and read the MS (manuscript). This generally triggers an idea and you’re hopefully set on a path.

Who are your favourite artists and designers?

I always find it difficult to answer that question. I’ve not had role models but I love the work of many artists. (M.C.) Escher, (Marc) Chagall, Mark Rothko, Frida Kahlo, Igor Mitoraj, Subodh Gupta. And overall I greatly admire the Japanese aesthetic.

Are you a font nerd?

I love typography. In fact, when looking at portfolios, of designers, their font usage becomes the decisive factor. There are font phases. I had the longest one with Serlio, until I had to consciously stay away.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s abridged translations of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza.

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