Working With Rick Rubin on ‘The Creative Act: A Way of Being’

Commentary — Apr 11, 2023

Paula Scher shares the process of helping the legendary music producer design his new book.

Pentagram’s Paula Scher was contacted by Rick Rubin for advice as he prepared to publish his new book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Here, Paula and Rick recount the series of design decisions that resulted in the final book.

I met the genius music producer Rick Rubin about 12 or 13 years ago when I worked with him on a logo design for Columbia Records. I also later worked with Rick and Monte Lipman on the identity for Republic Records and Federal Films, and still later on a 30th anniversary cover for Def Jam. All were pleasurable experiences and we have stayed in touch. Rick is genuinely interested in graphic design and understands it as a series of choices against a vision, not wholly different from how music is produced. In both arenas, as with all acts of creativity, the possibilities are limitless. When Rick began working on his book The Creative Act he asked me to help him with the design and I was delighted to help. (He had sent me his manuscript which held the best descriptions of the creative process I had ever read.)

This book is Rick Rubin’s design. While I often made recommendations, I did not make any design choices. All of the choices were Rick’s. Mostly, he would ask for options. Kirstin Huber, the Associate on my design team, set up all the designs Rick requested. We were acting as facilitators. I showed Rick what was possible and enabled him to make informed decisions. The size of the book, materials and cover stock options were established against their specific availability from the publishers Penguin Press and Canongate.

Rick liked the text font Baskerville and asked us to show him how a chapter page might work, then he asked for a number of variables in the page layouts and the ability to see it in a number of fonts. He requested serifed fonts and therefore instantly limited his choices, which was good.

Rick was traveling a lot during the making of this book. He had no printer available and had difficulty making decisions on his small computer screen. We printed out all of his page layouts to size and sent them to wherever he was on the globe. Sometimes I would review the choices with him on a Zoom call, or sometimes he'd make a firm decision and send me a text. This went on through the whole book making process, from the fall of 2021 until the book’s release this past January.

As a designer I make these kinds of choices all the time. I make them very quickly because I am so familiar with them. I do it so naturally that I forget how many choices there are. I have never worked quite like this before and certainly wouldn’t do it for another client. This was different.

What follows is what we showed Rick based on his requests and he made all the selections and decisions.

These are Rick's choices. I probably would not have made the same choices, but I think his book is beautiful and perfect for the subject matter.

What I learned from the process I already knew, but had forgotten. Rick said it so well in this book: "To live as an artist is a way of receiving…a practice of paying attention.”

-Paula Scher

The vision for the book cover was clear and from working with Paula in the past, I knew her experience would help refine the choices and keep me from any novice mistakes. She also has experience with materials and what to expect from manufacturers and the sampling process.

Each choice made informed all of the other choices down the road as the design developed. Paula walked me through each step of the process and shared strengths and weaknesses with each choice.

Also Paula’s gravitas as a designer helped keep the corporate representatives at bay and willing to take risks; for example, a real cloth cover without a dust jacket. Having the bar code on a peel off sticker instead of printed on the book itself.

Also great thanks to our Editor at Penguin Press, Scott Moyers, who supported the idea of no quotes, descriptions or any other marketing material printed in the book or on the cover. You’ll be hard pressed to find another book by a mainstream publisher for a general audience with these allowances made.

-Rick Rubin

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