By Michelle Barnett
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Making the Tough Stuff book

We often get asked about our process, and what goes into the creation of our work. So, we thought it would be fun to highlight some of our projects. First up, Tough Stuff!

We were asked by children’s bereavement charity At A Loss to create a booklet that would be the first in a series guiding young people through difficult situations. They wanted to start with the working title of Tough Stuff: My Parents Are Splitting Up. The booklet would be used in sessions with a mentor or counsellor, as a conversation prompt and a tool for reflection.

The Tough Stuff brief

Our contact Pete had brought an example of a workbook that already existed in the industry, and to be frank… it was bad. With glossy paper and cliched stock photos, it felt like a catalogue and was hard to write on with anything other than a biro. And since it was printed in an A4 landscape format, it took up a lot of space, making it unwieldy and conspicuous for a child that might be going through something very sensitive and private. It just didn’t feel child-friendly, which was a big issue. A book like this should encourage children to engage with it. This is where good design needs to come in; it’s not just about making something that looks nice, but creating work that does the job it is meant to do.

Tough Stuff booklet

Being clear about what you don’t want can be just as useful to the design process as knowing what you do want. From this initial meeting, we came up with a number of ideas shaping what our booklet should be.

We wanted to make something that young people could really interact with, giving them lots of options to express the range of feelings they might be going through.

Using illustrations would avoid the constraints and stereotypes often found in photos, and allow us to be more inventive in the topics and activities we included. The Tough Stuff book should be A5 in size, portable and manageable for small hands. Even little details like the paper we would print on were important. Using a budget-friendly tactile matte paper would signal that this booklet was ok to interact with – to draw on or scrunch up – whatever was most useful to the child using it. 

Ideas phase

The decisions about the dimension and materials for the booklet, the size of the print run, and At A Loss’ budget gave us a good idea of how many pages the booklet would have. This in turn showed us how many activities we had space for.

Having the client involved was invaluable here. Pete was able to tell us about common topics that came up during counselling sessions that we might want to include. We used thumbnails to plot out the layout of the book, and played around with what should go where. Exercises were added, removed, replaced, and swapped around until there was a clear progression and we felt that all the important beats had been hit.

At the same time, we were thinking about the artistic style for the booklet. Our research took us beyond the constraints of the counselling sector and into areas that children in our target age group already resonated with. Inspiration came from things like the Horrible Histories series, the simplified comics and jokey greetings cards of Gemma Correll, and Keri Smith’s ‘Wreck This Journal’ – a book designed to be destroyed. Interestingly all of these had a similar illustration styles – simple, charismatic line drawings that were clearly done by hand, and informal to the point of being scruffy. It made the drawings approachable, which was exactly what we were looking for.

Moodboards for illustration project

Pete volunteered to show our ideas to a panel of young people he had worked with. We showed them a couple of different options, but they quickly confirmed that our research had taken us in the right direction. They liked the simple bold illustrations, and even with serious subjects they enjoyed being funny!

In return the young people let us see some of the art they’d done on their own. These became the inspiration for some of the exercises in the booklet. It was great for them to be involved, and helpful to us to test our ideas as we went along.

Sketches illustrated by michelle
illustrating the Tough Stuff journal
Journal design illustration
It was so satisfying to work with Michelle.  She really understood my vision and took all my crazy ideas, condensed them down, listened to me when I didn’t think I made sense and produced something that has helped many hundreds of young people.

Pete English - Author

Making the final images

With the layout confirmed and the art style decided, the final stage was actually drawing the pages. I used used black ink and a combination of brushes and nib pens to get the range of drawings we needed – everything from sea creatures to space dinosaurs. Design work isn’t always this fun!

The illustrations were then scanned and digitised, allowing us to move and manipulate them however we needed to.

As well as the drawings, we used Calligraphr to create our own font from hand-drawn letters. This made the instruction pages at the back of the book faster and more consistent to design. It also gave us a bit more flexibility when we assembled the pages, avoiding the risk of ink blots or something being in slightly the wrong place. Proof reading always throws up a few last minute changes, and it’s important that both the designers and client are completely satisfied before the booklet goes to print.

Reading the tough stuff journal

The Tough Stuff booklets were a great success. At A Loss use them in their work with young people, and have also shared them with other organisations in their field, so we’ve done a couple of re-prints already! Tough Stuff: My Parents Are Splitting Up was so well received that a second booklet was also made focussing on bereavement. There’s a possible third in the works right now, and we can’t wait to get started on it!

Girl using the Tough Stuff journal
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