Conversations with Louis Tay

By Reyna Mae Corrales

Louis Tay is the Assistant Production Manager at Star Publishing, an education publishing house specialising in textbooks and workbooks for primary and secondary school education, who oversees a diverse Productions department, including illustrators, multimedia artists and layout artists. He is himself a layout artist, and that is how he started in this line after completing his polytechnic diploma in Mass Communications.

L: I work as the Assistant Production Manager at Star Publishing, an education publishing house. We publish textbooks and workbooks for primary and secondary schools. I oversee the Productions department – which has illustrators, multimedia artists and layout artists like myself – and engage in more processes to manage their work. I make sure that work gets to and comes from them on time.

My typical work day entails designing the pages inside textbooks and workbooks based on the manuscript given.  A part of my job is to also source for and edit photos and to create art briefs for illustrators, if art work is necessary. I have to find the appropriate pictures to go along with the text, colour correct and adjust the brightness of the image so that it comes out properly on print. We also make many amendments; for our books, the first time you get it is never the last time. There’s always a second or third proof or even more. When there are errors, the book will be sent back to us for fixing. If the project is huge, we will also contract freelancers to work for us. It’s my responsibility to give instructions and stylesheets, traffic manuscripts and working files to them and check their work. It’s actually a lot more difficult than it sounds.

L: I did not really think about being in a publishing line until I saw the job description about being a layout artist. When you apply for a job, you cast your net widely. You send your resumes everywhere, but you don’t know who will reply. Star Publishing was the only reply I got and in that position, you take whatever chance you get.

When I went in, I didn’t know what to expect. Because you know, it’s your first job, it’s normal not to know what to expect. I think you need to work for maybe half a year to get a feel of what working life is like before you can expect something. And when you first start off, expectations of you are usually very low. It’s just when you actually become responsible for people, you will need to have all these intricacies of how to deal with and manage people. It is important to bear it in mind or you may not be an effective manager.

L: Do not be afraid of performance reviews; get and ask for them instead. You don’t know how well you’re doing in the company until you ask your boss about how you’re doing. When you think you’re not doing such a good job but you find out that you are, that is such a good morale booster. There were a lot of times that I thought I was doing mediocre work but I only found confidence after hearing from my boss.

L: Yes, because I feel like I’m progressing in this company. My boss is kind of preparing me to take over the management and heading of this department. So, it promises me more than just a pay check – it also promises me a future. I like that there’s a path for me rather than facing a dead end.

The highlight would be when we actually get the book out and printed. The moment when you are holding it in your hands because it’s a lot of work for something so common; although it’s just one out of another million books.

L: You work with a mixed bunch of people and some of them are very easy to work with. You will never have a perfect team. It’s always people who just happen to be there, just like you. I guess I take a personal approach to each person; coaching the person a bit more closely and micro-managing. If the other person is a lot better than what he or she does, then I let them do their thing and just check on them once in a while.  For example, I’m working with my designer and I know he’s not so meticulous so I need to be a bit more thorough when I check his work. However, he is really creative and that’s when I let him do his thing. I adjust to what they can and can’t do then help them in any particular areas. As you work and do projects or even go out for lunch together, the relationships come naturally and you are no longer strangers.

L: Nobody knows where life will take them so you just find something you like and you go with the flow.

I did an internship back in 2012 at a school-run company and I was in the design department where we designed and produced newspapers and magazines. The internship exposed me to the different kinds of work you can do as a designer.

I liked English so I studied Mass Communications in Polytechnic. You don’t know what to do with it so you just join a course that has something to do with it. When we first started doing print production in Year 2, that’s when I got interested in publication design. You have writers but you also need designers to actually produce these newspapers and magazines. I didn’t find out that I liked graphic design until I was exposed to it. That’s how your interest in something starts to catch on. So, you work on that interest and suddenly turn it into a skill. But how you take that interest and skill and communicate that into a job is the hard part. It was like a progress for me and at every step, my interest slowly expanded. You find all the pieces, piece them together and make sense of it. That’s how I ended up in Mass Communication, how I found out that I like design and how I ended up finding a job related to design.

Apart from designing, I didn’t know that operations and management was for me. I was just trying out different things to see if it works. If it works, stick with it. If it doesn’t, try something else. It’s kind of how everything works. Nobody knows what to do, everyone is winging it. That’s the secret.

L: Money. For most of us, we work to survive. We all have to eat. So, that’s my main motivation. Another day, another dollar – that’s how it is. At entry level, it won’t pay well. You have to work your way up into better positions. I have never thought of quitting as long as they keep giving me a raise. I mean, that’s what companies give to keep you in the company and tell you to stick around. Sometimes, you may think that no money is worth this amount of work I have to do. However, finding a job is also very difficult and it’s not something you want to keep going through over and over. It may be easier to just stick with it than get out and find a new job. There may be a point in time when I want to try out something new but we’ll never know. At the moment, I kind of value being comfortable and secure in the job rather than going out to try something new.

Another thing that keeps me going is that I like catching errors, typos or misalignments. As a layout artist, that is very handy and I use that as a leverage. I would consider it a really good day when I am able to complete my chapters of the book ahead of schedule. So, I actually have time to flip through the book and see if there are any errors.

L: If I could, I would change the location of my office to near my place. I live in Admiralty and work is at Commonwealth/Queenstown, so it’s almost a one hour commute. Location is really a hit and miss. The second thing to change would be to never get myopia because I stare at the screen all day and every day. The last thing would be to get more pay.

L: Managing the Productions department with more autonomy. Having to report to someone before actually doing something may affect the overall management.

After production, I guess it’s the publishing side where you also need to take care of the editors. You need to make sure that they are doing their jobs; manuscripts are on time, edits are up to scratch and they don’t miss out anything. So, it’s putting content and design together.

L: I think you need technical skills in order to do your job. If not, you will not get far.

As a manager, you will also need to be able to delegate. You can’t expect to do the work all by yourself even if you are a perfectionist; want everything to go exactly your way; have that urge to make sure that there are no mistakes; feel the need to check every piece of work. You cannot physically do all of that because there’s not enough time. There are too many deadlines. So, you need to trust people and delegate work to them, if you want to get the job done.

You also have to have work standards. I think when you’re managing the work of someone else, you need to help them to a certain standard. Otherwise, they’ll just fall short of standard and things will not go well for you. Lastly, is to have the confidence to command them. Because if you are not confident in what you do, they will question you and it’ll make your job a lot harder.

Meticulousness and being careful always helps. Honestly, I don’t see how it can’t be a bad thing anywhere. In the publishing industry where you actually have to check manuscripts and make sure that everything goes out correctly, it is a very useful skill to have.

As a manager, you need to be firm but fair. You do not treat a person differently because he or she is cute. There’s no bigotry or unfair treatment just because you don’t like the person for some personal reason. You need to be fair with how you deal with people and be consistent about it.

L: In my case, the qualifications did not matter. Your qualifications do not always reflect how good you are in what you do. I got to where I am with a diploma and a not-so-good portfolio. I think it’s about what you do. When I entered the company, I started off as a layout artist and was promoted to APM, about one year later.  I did more than what was expected of me by helping my boss with his responsibilities on my own accord. I also made sure that my higher-ups actually noticed what I was doing and talked to them about my progression. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s very important to be a bit more tenacious in getting what you want. If you think things are just going to fall into your lap, it’s only going to come slower, later or not at all. When you first try out such a bold move, you are going to feel scared and nervous. That’s normal because you don’t know if it will work out or how your boss will react. You have to think for yourself whether such an approach is appropriate.

For layout artists, you will need the technical skills because taking the manuscript and designing the book is very time-consuming. For managerial roles, companies favour internal promotion rather than external recruitment. They would rather promote someone who has been working with the company for many months or a few years because they are more familiar with how the company works and the people around them. I feel that if you want to become a manager, start in a company that you want to actually work for and then work your way up.