Kate Hepburn on designing for Python

An interview with designer Kate Hepburn from Communicate – Independent British Graphic Design Since the Sixties:

You worked on the first Monty Python book with Derek Birdsall. How did that come about?
Kate Hepburn: I was already working on animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus with Terry Gilliam. I was still at the Royal College of Art when I was approached by Methuen to design the first book. Eric Idle knew and got in contact with Derek Birdsall, whom I had met through design circles. We all got together and the project was set up. I worked on the book at Omnific [Birdsall’s studio]. I had a huge great pinboard, which was Derek’s favourite way of designing books – all the designed pages could be seen in sequence. He gave me a lot of latitude, but he was teaching me at the same time. I was testing the water with how to do it, although it was great fun. If we could not use the right sort of paper, we would make the pastiche of the typography even more exact.

Had you encountered this kind of typographic pastiche anywhere else?
I worked on pastiche ideas of my own at the Royal College. I was influenced by very different sorts of typography, so turning my typographic skills into a joke for Monty Python came quite naturally to me. Working with Terry Gilliam, I was already having to Letraset things or mock them up so they could be used in the animation. The Pythons emulated particular situations. It could be someone from the ministry who had a badly fitting suit and rather short trousers. The costume and everything was carefully done to achieve the right awkward effect. I was trying to do that with the typography. I was trying to get it so right that it would make the joke stronger.

With the second book, The Brand New Monty Python Bok, you had full control of the design.
I knew them all much better and by that point they trusted me. We were given some rooms in Methuen’s office in New Fetter Lane. We had a fantastic editor, Geoffrey Strachan. He was immaculate, careful, witty, brilliant at editing all the Pythons’ material, and he groomed it and edited it down to a tee with the Pythons in order that it could come to me and be typeset. He kept the ball of humour bouncing between Eric and me, and Eric and Terry. Eric was the editor, but Terry was around a lot and did specific illustrations. Some of these ideas came about through discussion and throwing so many ideas between us at such a speed that these things just came out. There is more detail in the second book and the jokes became immensely intricate.

What sort of research did you do for items such as the spoof ad for The Hackenthorpe Book of Lies?
This was taken from the weekend newspaper supplements and it is partly influenced by the Reader’s Digest, or something like that, where you get these appalling photographs of a whole row of encyclopedias photographed rather badly. You cannot even read any of the titles, so you wonder why they used the picture in the first place. And cramming in so much text in boxes with rounded corners next to square corners – just badly done design. So it was rather a delight to emulate this, but with a very dry, sarcastic and anarchic humour buried in it. The combination is extremely powerful – the trashiness of it, but done in an excellent way. It gives it a surrealism and such an edge.

As you can imagine, the typesetting bills were pretty high. A lot of it was set in metal. You would do justified setting with no indents and you would have some really good rivers and patterns happening which made it look bad. Bullet points, four different typefaces, caps mixed with lowercase – all these ‘don’ts’ of typography. There is a flight chart which is terribly accurately done. It almost looks dull. There is a Penguin book which is actually bound within the book – a Penguin is being sick at the top. This is a particular style of Penguin cover. Inside, it is set in Linotype Juliana. I was looking all of this up in Penguin books. From beginning to end, it is a plagiarism of all the different type styles, for different gags. It is all pasted down. It was a time of real artwork, which meant that it was more radical in its look. It didn’t have to be hammered through some sort of production process where it was tamed. This was straight from the horse’s mouth – or the designer’s Cow-gummed spatula.

What was the thinking behind the cover, with the obscene photograph concealed under the plain typographic wrapper smeared with dirty fingerprints?
KH: I think there was an element in the programme’s humour of the old man in his raincoat – the flasher. This was a book version of the flasher. You take off the dirty exterior and there are rude bits underneath. It had that kind of perverseness to it. Some of the more sexy aspects of the Pythons I was never quite sure about. It was poking fun at the lack of liberation, but there is also an old-fashioned, dirty old man element from the 1950s. After 1968, the Rolling Stones, Sgt. Pepper, Oz, everything else, there was a sexual revolution going on. With the jump that I made from working with the Pythons into the feminist magazine Spare Rib – they were going on in parallel – I was against the idea of Spare Rib being separatist. It should be discussing how women feel in relation to men, but it should not be an exclusion zone.

I was becoming quite politicized. Everyone was. I went on to do quite a lot of political work with Pluto Press, so it was a great mix-up of this fantastic surrealism – anarchy – and politics. I saw the Python book as being as radical as it could be, therefore there were no boundaries in the layout. Ideas were just bursting out.