Maria van Lieshout’s Flight 1-2-3 (Chronicle, 2–5 years) is a lively counting book and introduction to air travel, but with its uncluttered pages and eminently readable typeface, the book also highlights the important role graphic design plays in daily life. The crisp illustrations mimic airport signage — down to characters who look like they stepped off of restroom signs. Clearly, van Lieshout is a fan of airports and of creating books that engage preschoolers. We asked her about both of these interests, and about surviving transatlantic flights with small children.
1. What did you learn about airport signage that you didn’t know before creating this book?
MVL: Much! I tried to make this book about the universal experience of traveling through an airport to go on a journey, but as I learned, each airport has a distinct personality with its own look and feel, and its signage reflects that. This sensibility is often related to the spirit of the city the airport is in. San Francisco International Airport, for example, has a yoga room, and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has an extensive airport library: books by Dutch authors are available in more than two dozen languages for people to read while waiting for their departures. Amsterdam’s airport also has an annex of the city’s Rijksmuseum with paintings by the Dutch Masters.
2. How did you do your research? Did you hang out in a lot of airports?
MVL: Yes! I tend to spend a lot of time at San Francisco Airport (SFO), because it is my son Max’s favorite thing to do on a rainy day. We take the metro there and ride the airport train from terminal to terminal. We watch the planes take off and land, then we will ride the elevators and moving walkways inside the airport and look at all the signs. It’s how I got the idea for this book.
3. What is it about the book’s typeface, Frutiger, that makes it so universally readable?
Book designer Sara Gillingham and I decided to set the book in Frutiger because it was specifically developed for France’s Charles de Gaulle International Airport by Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger. His goal was to come up with something that was easily viewable from different angles and that had a modern look to suit Paris, but also with an inviting feel. This beautiful typeface is easy to read because it is very airy. I studied graphic design and worked as a creative director for many years. Typography has always been a special interest of mine, so I can get a little carried away with this stuff…
4. What do illustrators of books for very young children have in common with graphic designers?
MVL: Reading a book is an intimate experience, and writers and illustrators have the advantage of a captive audience. This is an advantage most graphic designers don’t have. Writers and illustrators must reward the reader for his or her attention by providing words and images that are thought-provoking and engaging. This applies both to adult readers and to kids, but the very young have short attention spans, and their developing brains can only process so much information all at once, so that’s why I try to be very mindful about what I include in (and what I leave out of) an image or a sentence. This is somewhat similar to trying to decide what to include in and what to leave out of a billboard image that drivers will see for a brief moment, or packaging that has to stand out on a shelf among thousands of other products.
5. You’re from the Netherlands but now live in San Francisco. What are those flights like with a young child? And what advice can you share with parents?
Ha! Eleven hours on a plane with a three year old. Where do I start? The trick is to keep him busy. I bring lots of toys, puzzles, books, and games that he either doesn’t know yet or that I’ve hidden from him for a while so they are like new. I pace the reveals, so I still have something exciting to give him well into the flight. I also make sure to have an aisle seat so we can get up and walk around often. And, yes, the iPad. I have it fully loaded with apps, e-books, movies, and games.
One thing I will not bring again on our plane trip to Holland in August is crayons. On the last flight, our chairs, armrests, and tables were covered with Max’s scribbles. I thought I could just wipe everything down at the end of the flight with a wet towel, but apparently crayon on airplane seats is pretty permanent. Oops.
From the July 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.