Designers Elise Santangelo and Stuart Hall don’t believe in Jesus.

“I believe in karma,” says Elise.

“I really like dogs,” says Stuart. “I feel like I have a connection with animals. I don’t know if it has any relevance to do with the project, though.”

“I don’t think so,” says Elise.

“No way,” says Stuart.

It’s drinksies time in another Melbourne wine bar, and I’ve already downed a few post-work wines before meeting designers from Holiday to chat about their work on Going Down Swinging #33. For them, a staunch sense of humour is essential to any project they stuff into the hours left over from their full-time studio design jobs. Going Down Swinging’s affinity with this playfulness was a big chunk in their decision to take up the formidable task of designing #33, dubbed The Jesus Issue in honour of the publication’s miraculous survival.

“That sense of humour seemed like it had been there since day one,” explains Elise, alluding to the first issue of Going Down Swinging from 1980, which features a photo of Ned Kelly in boxing stance and loafers on the cover.

“It seemed like it had always been that kind of publication.”

Stuart and Elise first met editor Geoff Lemon after designing the anthology for Penguin Plays Rough, a monthly short-story reading night based in Sydney and curated by National Young Writers’ Festival co-director Pip Smith.

“You can call her P-Smitty if you want,” says Stuart, sipping a tangerine cocktail. It’s November, but everyone in Melbourne is so surprised the day actually turned out warm that they are all ordering a mysterious, Berocca coloured drink stuffed with fruit and other summer drink unmentionables.

For both Elise and Stuart, designing for GDS was “a love job”. From the milky thin paper to the full-colour commissioned work in the centre of the book, Elise says part of the appeal of designing GDS was the freedom to do, well, anything.

“I think both Geoff and Pip are very unique as clients, where they have this amazing creative vision for something, and you can actually help that, rather than just be kind of a service. That confidence made it feel really free, that we could push it and take it in any direction we thought was right.”

Designing a book, as opposed to commercial, printed and online work, was also a major factor in taking on the job.

“That’s one of my favourite types of design to do, because it’s not just printed material, it’s actually an object that you end up designing and you think about it as a whole piece rather than something just two-dimensional.”

Stuart adds another appeal of creating a book is the “time capsule” element to it, which he admits is a bit of an “ego thing”, too.

“It’s satisfying because it’s almost permanent, and it’s almost like a little bit of something that you leave behind when you die.”

Possibly tying in with that idea of an afterlife is the tentative ‘Jesus’ theme of the anthology, which both designers hoped to pay homage to by using Bible-type paper to create the book.

“We thought it would be quite a subtle way of getting it across,” explains Elise. “Especially if we’re not emblazoning the thing with a cross.”

But after printer Nigel Quirk from Printgraphics discovered that purchasing actual Bible paper required buying a tonne of the stuff for fifty grand, he helped them look for alternatives.

Inspired by the use of fine glassine (archival) paper in a catalogue from the International Poster and Graphic Design Festival of Chaumont in France, Elise and Stuart began hunting for something similar. The transparent, backwards text that opens each story in #33 was also inspired by the catalogue’s use of glassine to overlay text and annotations on images.

“You start to see how it all kind of layers together, and we really liked that idea,” says Elise.

The thinness of the paper also allowed Elise and Stuart to bring to the book an interactive, three-dimensional quality that’s so important in both their work.

“When we work it’s engaging people on multi-levels of experience and not on just doing something that’s standard and traditional,” says Elise.

But it wasn’t just the technicalities of design that sparked the backwards theme of the book. Stuart points to the heaven and hell imagery in the director’s cut edition of The Exorcist, where the possessed Regan walks downstairs backwards and the cross is presented upside-down.

“That’s why the 33 is backwards: heaven and hell, like the mirror image, light and dark.”

Stuart stresses that this inspiration is more about dualities than it is about religion.

Printing things back to front and the 33 back to front is not necessarily [about] Jesus and the Devil, it’s just light and dark, and I think that’s what we took from The Jesus Issue.”

Another crucial element of the design is the scanned atlas images woven throughout the book, which nod towards the themes of discovery, nostalgia and the wonder of the universe in Cate Kennedy and artist Simon MacEwan’s commissioned central piece, ‘Atlas Dharma’. Despite their brief to make a feature of the commission, Elise says they were eager to integrate it into the whole, to avoid the feeling of “two very disjointed things being shoved together”.

So when Cate Kennedy found on eBay the very same 1961 atlas she writes about in ‘Atlas Dharma’, Geoff dropped it into their laps and all the elements of the anthology came together in a remarkably cohesive way.

Stuart adds there was a sense of “serendipity” about the project that brought the whole thing together, and a large part of this, it seems, was the atlas itself. But the serendipity of it all, like most things Going Down Swinging, is tinged with humour.

“Some of [the atlas scans] are so funny,” points out Elise, referring in particular to the antiquated map of world religions used in the opening pages to The Jesus Section, which lumps ‘Chinese Religions and Communism’ into one category. This almost absurdist sense of humour crops up again and again in the book’s design, from peculiar scans of Australasian geology to the exquisitely positioned images of Neptune and Uranus on the back cover.

Despite initially dismissing spirituality as having any kind of role in their work, Elise admits there may have been a bit of an otherworldly element to the serendipity that guided their steps.

“Thinking about this now in more detail, reading the feature story and about how [Cate] describes that sense of feeling really absolutely terrified when she looked at these pictures of the atlas and feeling like that the universe was so massive, I actually felt the exact same way when I was looking at the pictures and reusing them. It was this really interesting balance.”

Stuart, who was fifteen minutes late to his first day of work because he was too busy finishing up and submitting #33 to the publishers, suggests that balance is also vital for the kind of close teamwork and intensity required on a project like Going Down Swinging.

“If everyone involved is willing to let go, and not get bogged down in specificity, you can do these sort of silly things that set the precedent for everything to be really fluid hereafter.

“It’s when things get really serious that it doesn’t help,” adds Stuart who, despite our protestations, begins absently playing with a dangerously hot ceramic tealight shade. “Like, there’s a really famous designer… Milton Glaser. What did he say?”

Elise steps in.

“He was giving a lecture to a university class about his ten pearls of wisdom,” explains Elise about the I Heart NY logo designer. “And the last one, literally Point 10, was, ‘It doesn’t matter’.

“He ended with this resounding, ‘You know what, look at the big picture, still take what you do seriously to a certain extent, but at the end of the day, just enjoy it really, it doesn’t matter’, and ever since I’ve heard that I keep coming back to it.”