Being a book designer is an odd thing. It seems to be a somewhat quiet, modest… even ‘hidden’ profession. You rarely note the name of a book designer when admiring even the most beautiful book – and yet, a cover design can make or break a book’s success! Lets face it, a striking cover is the main reason most of us pick up a book when leisurely browsing Readings or Metropolis or Ariel or Kinokuniya… BUT how many of us could name our favourite book designer? Well you can NOW! It’s Allison Colpoys at Penguin!
In keeping with the ‘quiet achiever’ stereotype, Allison isn’t one to shout her achievements from the rooftops. After only three years at Penguin, Allison already has an incredible list of awards under her belt… and yet she’s so modest I actually had to coax the list from her! In 2009 she won ‘Young Designer of the Year’ for a body of work, and ‘Best Designed Children’s Cover’ for Something in the World Called Love by Sue Saliba at the Australian Publishers Association (APA) Book Design Awards. In 2010 she won ‘Best Designed Reference and Scholarly Book’ for Grand Obsessions by Alasdair McGregor, and just a few weeks ago she was lucky to win ‘Best Designed General Illustrated Book’ for Shack by Simon Griffiths – a truly exquisite book which I’m sure many of you will have admired in bookshops (I have!). Every page is just so perfectly embellished in keeping with the ‘rustic’ subject matter of the tome… truly stunning. I can’t imagine I would have picked up a book about garden sheds otherwise!
When looking at her full body of work, it’s clear Allison loves experimenting with illustration, hand drawn type and layering of different textures and irregular patterns – yet each publication entrusted to her has been given it’s own unique treatment – none looks the same at the last. BOLD colour and splodgy eyecatching shapes for Zoe Foster’s Amazing Face. Subtlety, restraint and meticulous attention to detail for Brenda Walker’s memoir, Reading by Moonlight and Alasdair McGregor’s Grand Obsessions. Any writer would be so lucky to have Allison allocated to their manuscript!
Massive thanks to Allison for her time and for sharing her beautiful body of work with us! Huge thanks also to Arwen Summers at Penguin, who works with Allison and sang her praises so loudly I was compelled to learn more! Thanks so much for the tip-off Arwen! She’s not so secret anymore :)
Tell me a little about your background – what path led you to what you’re doing now?
Hello. I did a Multimedia Design degree at Monash and I absolutely loved the course – 3 years of experimenting with different mediums using all the university’s facilities – what could be better? I particularly loved Animation and two of my elective subjects: Typography and Illustration. After a few years freelancing in the multimedia field and a move to London, I began to miss the tactility of print. I got my lucky break when Simon & Schuster in the UK took a punt on me (I didn’t have much print experience at the time) and hired me as a cover designer. I was there for 8 months until my visa ran out.
When I moved back to Australia, I worked at Morrison Media, a magazine publisher in Queensland for a short period, which was brilliant experience as I hadn’t done much text layout for print before. That was a great advantage for when I moved back to Melbourne and had the fortune of getting my current job as a senior designer at Penguin.
You’ve won many awards for your beautiful work – including ‘Young Designer of the Year’ at the Australian Publishers Association Book Design Awards in 2009, after only a 18 months at Penguin. Congratulations! Can you give us a little more info about these awards? How are they judged, and have these awards marked a significant turning point for your career, your confidence, or both?
Book designers are very lucky in Australia because we have the generous support of the Australian Publishers Association, who organise the annual Book Design Awards. The APA select a varied group of industry professionals to judge the awards each year. ‘Young Designer of the Year’ is awarded to a designer under the age of 35 based on their body of work. In my case, that included two young adult novels and three fiction titles. I hadn’t thought about it till now, but I think winning this award must have helped my confidence a great deal.
I am sure many book lovers would be interested to know a little more about the ‘process’ of designing a book at Penguin! Can you give us an insight into how this happens? Who briefs you, how open or tight is the brief, how long do you get to come up with initial ideas and then create the finished work?
We design both the covers and internals of the books here, and usually there’s a separate brief for each. Some can be very open and others more prescriptive. Our briefs are written by the editors and publishers. They include an outline/synopsis of what the book is about, the manuscript, some key words, what kind of market it’s aimed at, and they’ll also have some suggested cover treatment ideas. These ideas are by no means definitive, more just a guide so we can gauge what the publisher and editor are picturing, or even something to push off against.
Deadlines really vary from project to project as they themselves are so varied, and we usually have many books on the go at the same time. Also, there can sometimes be some super urgent books that get dropped in at the last minute. But if I was to hazard a guess just for covers, on a normal schedule, I would say we have a few weeks to come up with first-round concepts.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
It could be anything from laying out the pages of an illustrated book to working up cover concepts (which a publisher or editor will then look at and provide feedback on), to creating a sample setting for a book (how the pages will look, from chapter headings to page numbers, fonts etc), working on final cover art, a bit of illustration, sketching out ideas in my note book, hassling the production department about finishes (like having a glossy, matte or uncoated cover, or foil on the author’s name), and the occasional photoshoot.
What do you love most about your job?
There’s so much to love…
Creating the package to represent the end product of someone’s time, love and passion (I so admire anyone who can write, so I love this aspect of my job).
When what can sometimes be months and months of work turns into a shiny new book that lands in my in-tray.
My colleagues from the design, production, editorial and publishing departments and former Penguin art director Deb Brash.
Illustration. (This is something I’m really passionate about and also something I’d like to improve on! So I love that my job occasionally gives me the opportunity to experiment and include illustration in my projects.)
Working with other creatives, such as photographers, stylists and illustrators.
Which designers, artists or creative people are you inspired by?
So many people inspire me, I don’t know where to start! I’ve always had a natural leaning towards quite serious artists and painters, but I think working in publishing has broadened the range of my artistic appreciation – both in the visual arts and in literature. For example, I love the dark moodiness of Morgan Allender’s work, but I now equally love the crazy and exciting world that Marc Boutavant creates in his children’s illustrations.
But I’ve gotta say, my best friend (and talented designer/art director at MOR cosmetics) Kasia Gadecki is the most inspiring person I’ve ever met.
Where do you look for inspiration when first tackling a new brief? – ie books, magazines, blogs… art, travel, nature?
The first places I look for inspiration are editorial briefs and the manuscripts themselves, but after that there’s no set place – all of the things you suggest in your question and more! Friends, family, music, fashion, markets and secondhand book stores.
What are you most proud of professionally?
I think I’m most proud of both editions of Brenda Walker’s memoir, Reading by Moonlight. I really love Brenda’s writing and admire her greatly so that could be influencing my decision here…
What would be your dream creative project?
Designing a literary series and illustrating a children’s picture book (I’m not actually sure I’m even capable of the latter, but I’d love to give it a go one day).
What are you looking forward to?
A big book that I worked on for months and months to come back from the printers. I’m looking forward to it, but I also feel very nervous and, to be honest, a bit ill. I always feel anxious when I send things off to the printer – I don’t think this will ever change.
Your favourite bookshop in Melbourne to browse beautiful books?
Where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
Rumi, Lygon Street Brunswick East. Amazing!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Bleary eyed, dragging myself around Preston or Vic market to do the weekly grocery shop, cursing myself for sleeping in and not getting there just that bit earlier to avoid the crowds.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
The Melbourne Penguin offices are located in Camberwell and I’ve been here for over 3 years now, and only discovered Collective Espresso about 10 months ago. Hands down the best coffee in Camberwell! And to think, all those wasted years…