A New Look for LARB: A Conversation with Ella Gold
By Michelle ChiharaNovember 20, 2023
Los Angeles–based designer Ella Gold almost seemed to materialize out of thin air just when we needed her. It really did seem fated. Ella is a Los Angeles-based art director, graphic designer, and educator specializing in print, publication, and identity design who works primarily within the realms of culture and the arts. Great designers have to translate visual decisions into a language that everyone can understand, have to work not just with tech but also with human beings, responding to their needs and goals, showing them what’s possible. LARB is definitely in good hands with Ella.
Editor-in-Chief Michelle Chihara recently sat down with Ella to talk about the partnership.
MICHELLE CHIHARA: How do you approach a design project like this with a client, even before you begin the designs?
ELLA GOLD: I tend to begin with what is often called “brand strategy” but is really just a technique for getting everybody on the same page, literally and figuratively. I use a questionnaire that I send to new branding clients that asks folks to articulate their mission, short- and long-term goals, and current and desired audience. I have them write an “elevator pitch.” I also like to ask some more culture-based questions, like associating the brand with a character or a TV show. How might a client gossip about a brand behind their back? I then ask my clients to review the questionnaire with me in real time. This allows us to create a dialogue and speak more openly about the specific goals for the project while also providing a bit of forced intimacy. It is also really important to have clients spell out what they want, what they don’t want, and what they’re thinking about at the beginning of any given project. If things ever go sideways, we can always reference the questionnaire as a previously-agreed-upon contract of sorts.
LARB’s responses to the questionnaire were compelling and comprehensive, engaging deeply with the content and continuously challenging my expectations. My favorite part of the questionnaire is often the one where I ask clients to list 10 adjectives and/or emotions they want the logo to evoke (e.g., goofy, trendy, compassionate, retro, contemporary, etc.). Often it is helpful to describe these in relation to what they are not (e.g., sustainable but not bohemian, playful but not childish, etc.). LARB used this as an opportunity to present some exciting contradictions that opened up many doors in the design process:
- chic (sleek but not tech-y)
- reflects Los Angeles
- smart but not trying too hard
- inclusive but not touchy-feely
- rigorous but not gatekeeping
- thoughtful but not painfully clever
- penetrating but not embarrassing
- cringe but no shame
How did you end up working with LARB?
I was a longtime reader of LARB, and I actually just got in touch with them!
What was surprising or interesting about working with LARB?
I came in thinking that I had a general understanding of the culture, but I was pleasantly surprised to find how horizontal the organization is. It was a delight to work with a group of people who are so sensitive to the ideas they want to put out into the world, while simultaneously so open and trusting of what I can bring to the table. Everyone, from interns to longtime editorial staff, gave input, helped work through the questionnaire, and contributed to design feedback.
I also do a lot of my design work for clients who are in the visual arts, so it was delightfully surprising to work with such an articulate, compelling, and interesting group of people who spend more time with language than with images. While there were certainly ideas for how the redesign should feel, there weren’t necessarily preconceived notions for how it should look. This opened up more design possibilities. Many of the references we spoke about used both words and images, or incorporated language, which led to an exciting design process as that was translated into the visual realm.
Can you talk about how you chose specific aspects of the design for LARB, like the typeface for a word-based logo or the palette?
Much of our initial conversation circled around how to represent and condense Los Angeles’s vast and varied literary culture into just one logo. We discussed the possibility of creating a mark—or icon—that could encompass this, but ultimately we decided that an image could not represent the expansive quality we wanted to capture about Los Angeles.
We decided that a typographic logo would be the best bet, but we still wanted the typography to do the heavy lifting of an image. We spoke a lot about the qualities of this city that we wanted to highlight: the diversity of its neighborhoods, its general expansiveness, the authenticity of its built landscape contrasted with the fantasy of the entertainment industry—the inherent contradictions at every corner, the loose rigor, the unself-seriousness of it all.
Another concern was how the word was spoken. Is it “LARB,” like the delicious Thai salad, on offer in the nearby neighborhood of Thai Town? Is it “LA” “RB,” along the lines of our East Coast colleagues? Is it “LA Review of Books,” a best-of-both-worlds situation? Or is it “Los Angeles Review of Books,” forgoing the acronym altogether? Ultimately we decided it should be all of the above, which was a tough design challenge!
With that in mind, we landed on a wordmark that uses the “LA” “RB” acronym, and put space in the middle. The space is variable, and changes depending on what lives inside of it, but it also feels expansive and all-encompassing. Sometimes the words in the space read “Los Angeles Review of Books”; sometimes it’s one of the many subprojects stemming from our large and varied organization (which includes events programming and a summer publishing workshop, among other things.); and sometimes it’s something entirely unexpected! More formally, when selecting a typeface, we wanted to make sure it felt reflective of the core values of the Los Angeles Review of Books, echoing the branding qualities that we had talked about and the city that we love. We found something that felt scholastic but not overly academic (perhaps referential of early learning-to-read children’s books), quirky but not overly silly, legible but with personality.
The typeface, GT Alpina, was designed by the Swiss type foundry Grilli Type, and much like our beloved city, it is described as “a workhorse serif [that] delights in playing with the very meaning of that concept. It reaches into the grab bag of typographic history to resurrect shapes some may falsely see as too expressive, resulting in a meticulous family melding these distinct shapes with a pragmatic execution.”
Similarly, it felt important that the color palette reflect Los Angeles’s distinct and strange hues. We thought a lot about our beautiful sunsets, caused in great part by our substantial air pollution, which has a color palette all its own. Ultimately, we found a wonderfully generic photograph of a palm tree on the beach, against a stereotypical Los Angeles sunset, with a blanket of smog covering everything. This became the basis for our color palette.
For the secondary typography, we wanted to keep it open-source and accessible, to further highlight the values of the organization. We chose two open-source typefaces that are highly legible, a little bit quirky, and totally free to use and to remix in perpetuity. It also felt important that the typography for our body copy not be too trendy—we didn’t want something that would go out of style quickly. Both STIX (2008) and Nimbus Sans (1999) are at least 15 years old, and have stood the test of time well.
How did you get into design?
Growing up, I had two great loves: art and books. I was that kid who was up until 4:00 a.m. reading a book under the covers, a fantasy world much more exciting than the banalities of everyday life. When it came time to embark on a career path, it was either going to be something in literature or something in the arts. While it took me several years of trial and error, graphic design ended up being the perfect synthesis of my two great loves. I am able to make art but in service of the things I care about most: books. I can create meaning, ensconce myself in the imaginary, and make art with words!
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming designers about working with new clients or about finding clients?
Ultimately, this is the most complicated part about starting a business. Networking is always important: going to places and events hosted by the people with whom I want to collaborate, and socializing for business. But I have also had a remarkable amount of success directly reaching out to coveted clients. While a form letter is never the right move, a well-crafted, sensitive, and tailored cold email to a desired client can sometimes work as well (or better) than a night out networking. If a potential client is formally and ideologically aligned with my values and aesthetic, crafting an informed, well-researched, and effusive message can go a long way. And that is just how I developed my relationship with the Los Angeles Review of Books—a wonderful, kind, trusting client that publishes some of the best and most thought-provoking work in and on Los Angeles today!
Ella Gold is a Los Angeles–based art director and graphic designer specializing in print, publication, and identity design.
Michelle Chihara is editor-in-chief at Los Angeles Review of Books.
Featured image by Instagram user @debodoes was used for inspiration for site design ideas.
Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is the former editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, n+1, Trop Magazine, Green Mountains Review, the Santa Monica Review, Echoes, Mother Jones, and The Boston Phoenix, among others. Her research involves real estate, financial panics, and contemporary culture. You can find her online at michellechihara.com.
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