One look at the cool and casual Karl Castro gives you the impression that he could be just another millennial trying to figure out his place in the world.
But after you’ve talked with this brown-eyed mestizo—whose great grandmother was Spanish—for a time, you realize that this is a man who holds a treasure trove of wisdom in
his head, something that his demeanor doesn’t easily gave away.
It was therefore not surprising that wisdom dominated his exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine for it was about books and how he, a book designer, could make any book even more interesting for readers.
One of the few book designers in our country, Castro’s talent and 12 years of experience are currently being showcased in an exhibit entitled The Secret Live of Books at the Ayala Museum until June 6. It is the result of his proposal for the 20th anniversary of The Filipinas Heritage Library.
Castro—who has worked with promising and revered authors like Ricky Lee, Jake Versoza, and Floy Quintos, as well as institutions like the Ateneo de Manila University Press, among many others —said he wanted the exhibit to really bring the books to life, as well as introduce the small field of book design to the Filipino public.
“The design scene here is very advertising or commercial, but there are so many less explored fields like book design and editorial design. So I thought, maybe my 12 years of experience might be useful in opening up that field to others,” Castro explained.
More importantly, Castro said he wanted people to appreciate that book designing involves the whole book, the interior of the entire object, so to speak, and not just the cover.
Running until June 18, the exhibit showcases 20 books alongside artifacts like Kalinga beads, textiles and personal photos of Philippine tribes, which for the artist will “transport the audience to the process of book designing.”
With this aim, he also presented materials he used and produced in his earlier studies. The move, he admitted was “uncomfortable and risky” because most designers would only showcase to public the final and best outputs.
Still, he said, “But I thought it would be educational and it would make you appreciate books in the store or books gifted to you if you know that it took so much work and effort for the book to be perfect.”
Throughout the conversation, Castro proved to be an expert, someone who could pass as three times older than his actual 29 years of age.
While one wonders how he expanded his portfolio and gained respect in the field, he simply shrugged the idea off because the simplest explanation is his early start.
“I really loved books since I was a kid, magtitipid ako ng baon just so I can buy books, and I’m also very glad that my mother was supportive of my passion for books. She recognized early on that it was a good thing to support,” Castro recalled.
Aside from books, he was also very much in love with art that he took art lessons avidly while his sisters spent their time taking swimming, speech or dance classes. A self-confessed nerd, he found his passion in calligraphy in fifth grade and started using the available software designs at home, such as Photoshop, Corel Freehand, for his school projects.
“I think all of those formative years were very helpful in leading me to book design,” the artist enthused.
The passion and training were both nourished when he entered the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHA)—majoring in Visual Design—and later, the University of the Philippines Film Institute, eventually earning a degree in film and audiovisual communication.
With his young exposure, it was no wonder that he completed his first book design project at 17. He recounted, “I had a friend in PHA who asked me to design her book for her thesis. So that was it, that was the first book that I did. It was a book of prose poetry, and I really like her poems. I was lucky, looking back now, na parang maayos pa rin siya tignan, hindi siya nakakahiya.”
Ultimately, more projects followed suit—he did a literary anthology for a school paper, as well as scholarly and art journals, and moved on to doing commercial art and university press publications.
Content dictates design
With experience as broad and long as his, Castro debunked the idea that he already formed formula in creating his book designs.
“The content will dictate. I guess in that sense, I don’t think I have a particularly distinctive style in the design because I consider what the material is trying to say, it’s more of an approach,” he said noting that people think that his works are designed by different artists.
To this, he commented, “That for me is a compliment because it means I don’t impose my style to a material. It’s the other way around. Every book has its own set of requirements, its own lifespan I guess, its own production—you kind of have to be sensitive to these different interests at play when you put out a book.”
The only thing that is constant in his process is that he reads the whole material or manuscript as long as his schedule or the deadline permits. When he can’t read everything, he tries to get to the most pertinent parts, scan the rest and consult the publisher if he got the message right.
Another beauty of book designing is putting on the editor’s hat, at least for Castro.
“Sometimes when I do book [covers and designs], I find myself going beyond the role of just a layout artist and venturing into editor zone. Of course, you try as little as possible but sometimes it is needed. Like there are books that were given to me as a single manuscript but then I would recommend that it can’t be one book, it has to be two or three volumes,” Castro elaborated.
Most memorable works
After understanding his design process, The Sunday Times Magazine then asked for three different titles that were most memorable to Castro.
“My first memorable book to work on is The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga of Jake Verzosa. I am a fan of Jake’s work and I love Cordillera culture,” he immediately answered.
The photo book was locally launched at Art Fair Philippines 2015 and was later exhibited in Canada.
“It was challenging because, as I said, a good book design has to be invisible. With photo books, you have to be very careful with the design, you can’t upstage the photos or you have to think of the right format where you could look at the photos the best . . . Each design gesture had to be very subtle, very measured in a way that it is minimalism,” Castro the artist and now, Castro the exhibitor, explained.
Another memorable work for Castro was Para Kay B by Ricky Lee, whom he admires. He exclaimed, “I am a huge fan of Ricky Lee—one of my favorite books in Filipino is his first book Si Tatang at Mga Himala ng Ating Panahon.”
Because of this, Castro admitted that the collaboration did not only excite him but also put a lot on pressure on him.
He recalled, “It was a challenge because he wanted to reach a new generation of younger readers with this new romance novel but at the same time, I can’t alienate his 1980s fan base who are used to him as the serious, committed writer.”
To do just so, Castro chose the dull pink color for the cover so it could sit between the line of romance and non-romance.
“There’s a guy leaping into the unknown inside a big letter B. Then at the spine I put a ring on it para ma-intriga ka na [so you will be intrigued that]‘Oh, there must be a love story somewhere!’” he elaborated.
His last choice of book was also special because he will never forget its subject, a person who he never really met.
“Recca: From Diliman to the Cordilleras published last year by Southern Voices Printing Press is a tribute to a New People’s Army martyr, Recca Noelle Monte. She was a very normal girl—she was cheerful, she liked things that every normal girl liked and yet she has done so much for the community. I think the book humanized the struggle of the Left,” Castro explained.
To reflect the goal of the book, Castro highlighted the books’ old articles and letters that she had written, and the letters her friends and family wrote when she died, documents, autopsies, news reports, statements, and interspersed these with photographs, IDs, passports, mementos, medals, vacation pictures and even baby pictures.
For the cover, he integrated the martyr’s portrait into the mata-mata diamond weave of traditional Kalinga textile “as a reference to the community she served.”
A thankless job
Despite having over 100 books in his portfolio, Castro found it hard when asked what makes a good book design.
Pondering awhile, he answered. “A good book design is invisible. You don’t notice it, it should feel natural to the book. If I may make an analogy: If you watch a film and you step out of the theater and noticed the score or cinematography then there was something wrong because the whole thing didn’t jive into a single whole. In the same way with a book, it should feel like common sense na, oo dapat ganun talaga yung itsura niya [that yes, it should really look that way]. The moment you start noticing something about the design, then something is wrong,” he said.
In conclusion, Castro reflected that book designing is a thankless job. “If they read the book and they are engrossed in it, they appreciate it, that’s it! They don’t have to know you because they have known and loved the book already.”