The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Isabel Urbina Peña

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If you’ve walked into a North American bookstore recently, or you’ve been paying attention to the book reviews on this side of the Atlantic, you will have no doubt seen the stylish black cover for All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu with its distinctive chalkboard lettering. Or perhaps you remember the hand-lettered cover for the Knopf edition of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri? It was one of my favourite covers of the past year. Both are the work of Venezuelan designer Isabel Urbina Peña. Now based in New York City, Isabel is a cover designer for Random House and creator of a typographic zine called Rants from a Stranger.

Since relaunching her website earlier this year, Isabel’s cover designs have been featured on numerous blogs already (including here), but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to her earlier this month about her work and career in greater depth.

Isabel and I corresponded by email. Here is our conversation:

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Do you remember when you first became interested in design?

I think because of my parents, art was in my life since I can remember. But, when I was in 7th grade there was a big boom of internet start-ups in Venezuela and I remember clearly “deciding” that I wanted to be a graphic designer then…I was 13 and the concept of what graphic design was at the time was probably wrong, but that moment definitely steered me in this direction. Also, there was a moment in my “foundation year” in college where one of my type teachers talked about how the “typographer” was present in the page, but invisible to the reader and that just flipped a switch in my brain.

Is anyone else in your family creative?

Both of my parents are architects and they really motivated my sister and me creatively while growing up.

We spent half of our childhoods going to museums, plays, as well as ceramic, poetry and creative writing classes. My dad also paints and belongs to a drawing circle. When I was little he would sit with me and walk me through art books or give me a canvas and ask me to paint from inspiration, or even from some big painting like Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Paul Klee, Gauguin and Chagall are a few of the artists that I discovered through them when I was six or seven… I have to say my mind was blown, I still cherish those moments.

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Were there a lot of books in your house growing up?

A ton. My dad also reads a LOT… So he wanted me to be “a reader.” I would get books for Christmas, birthdays, holidays, regular days…no Nintendo growing up… believe me that was tough, haha. He really sparked a love for reading and I would find new material everywhere; at my grandma’s I would read through all my uncle’s adventure books; at garage sales I started picking up Penguin paperbacks because they looked so simple and literary. Reading felt like something my dad and I shared, but it was also mine to discover.

Did you study design in Venezuela?

Yes, I studied at a small school called ProDiseño. Until very recently the “campus” was literally a two-flight house with a tub and a living room. Classes were really small, so everyone knew each other. The school started after a group of 80 students from IDD (Instituto de Diseño Neumann) left to start their own school. Neumann was founded by a large group of European immigrants who taught them design through the Bauhaus principles. Prodiseño had a very strong inclination towards clean, conceptual design. Everything had a purpose and “a why.” The content always came first; then the form. It was a very special experience and it prepared me to do anything (design, typography, illustration, animation, motion graphics…) and most importantly taught me to learn how to “think.” It was a very complete, Renaissance-style education.

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Is there a strong arts/design community in Caracas?

Definitely, though it is a rather small one compared to New York City, it is very interesting.

There are a lot of events that support the arts and design and mostly DIY culture. A lot of self-proposed shows and collectives that put on parties with great visuals and self-produced posters. Also, a lot of zines and self-published publications are popping all over town.

How is living in New York different?

Well, New York is different in every way: from the variety of people you meet to the cultural experiences that are available to you. Living here, for me, has been a rich experience loaded with references of all kinds, and motivation. If anything it makes me expect more from myself and aim higher.

How long have you lived there?

This is my 6th year in New York, but it honestly feels like I just got here. Of course, I’ve learned so much and evolved, but it feels like it never gets old.

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Does what’s going on in Venezuela worry you?

YES, I am glad you asked.

I am extremely worried by what’s going on in Venezuela and I think not enough people know about our situation. Protests started almost two months ago and people are being murdered and attacked on the streets daily and there doesn’t seem to be any change in the attitude of the current government. The truth is the people have the right to protest for the many problems that Venezuelan people are dealing with right now (the extreme insecurity they live in, the rapidly increasing inflation rates, the scarcity of many basic necessities and the extreme corruption, just to name a few) and the way that the government is handling this protests is, just, criminal. There are human right violations occurring left and right and even though there is proof (video and photos) for a lot of these events, the government is turning a blind eye and not doing anything to impart justice. Instead they focus their efforts in bullying opposition leaders and undermining the people’s rights. It is very, very sad and scary for all Venezuelan people and unfortunately change won’t come easily… but Venezuelans are still fighting hard, hopefully with a brighter future awaiting for all.

Can you describe your process for designing a book cover?

I start by reading the book and the TI (Title Info) sheet, getting familiar with the author and his backlist, if there is one. I take a bunch of notes and list ideas while and after I’m reading. I try to list everything—you never know when the “silliest” idea will spark something good. I’ll do a mood board and sketch a selection of these ideas in small (2 x 3 inches or so) detailed thumbnails with pencil and paper. Depending on the book, developing these ideas might be on or off the computer. I do a lot of paperback-size pencil sketches to define a lot of the lettering shapes and details.

Sometimes I will ink and do minimal clean up in the computer and sometimes I digitize the lettering in a font editing software and make the comps. Once I do that, I usually present a range of “developed” ideas and looks to my art director. We discuss if we need to adjust or tighten anything and then show the editors.

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What are your favourite kinds of projects to work on?

Honestly, I am quite new at this, and I try to get the most out of any project. Figuring out what best represents the book I’m working on is one of the things I enjoy the most. That said, I really love doing all the cover art from scratch, and creating a “unique” design with custom lettering and illustrations.

Can you tell me about your zine “Rants from a Stranger”?

Rants from a Stranger is a self-published “booklet” inspired by zines, graphic novels, comics and the DIY culture. I like to call it a “typographic novel,” though it doesn’t really qualify as a graphic novel because of its length, and it is more on the zine realm. I love type and lettering and this was the perfect excuse to hand-letter more and produce a periodical self-published piece where I had full control of the creative direction.

I thought it would be fun and different to develop a series of “comics” without illustrations and solely use lettering as the “characters” of the story. So far there are two black and white issues and the third issue (special edition, in color) is coming out in late April as a collaboration with a very talented musician and artist from Venezuela, Mariana Martin Capriles, aka Mpeach. I’m really excited about this issue because of our collaboration, and also because it comes with a paper record player and a flexi EP record of her new song, “Boogaloo Mutante.”

Who are some of your design heroes?

Gerd Leufert, Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) and Nedo Mión Ferraro were very important figures in my formation as a designer and I still look through their books every time I have a chance. Their students, now well known graphic designers, and former teachers of mine, like Álvaro Sotillo, Gabriela Fontanillas and Carlos Rodríguez have always inspired me through their impeccable work and dedication.

Doyald Young’s lettering work take my breath away, and old school type designers like W.A. Dwiggins and Frederic Goudy are daily inspirations.

Who do you think is doing interesting work right now?

So many brilliant folks out there! Freddy Arenas, my super talented other half, does amazing motion graphics and illustration.

In the cover design world, my co-workers are doing great stuff, all the time. Linda Huang, Joan Wong, Pablo Delcán, Kelly Blair, Megan Wilson, Peter Mendelsund, Carol Carson, Stephanie Ross… From the type, design, art and illustration world Jesse Ragan, Village, Kris Sowersby, OCD, Steve Powers (ESPO), Sergio Barrios, Wayne WhiteCraig Ward, Alex Trochut, Elizabeth Carey Smith, Gustavo Dao, Suzi Sadler, Ryan Bernis, Priyanka Batra, Sasha Prood, Ping Zhu, Victo Ngai, Elana Schenkler, Geoff McFetridge, Nobrow Press, quite a mix…

I could keep going…

What advice would you give a designer starting their career?

Try harder. I think it’s really important to be critical of your own work and be able to accept its faults. Always, strive for more and be hungry. At the same time, embrace your mistakes, learn from them and move on to the next project. I am a big fan of tweaking and fixing til the end of days… but sometimes you just have to learn to let go of projects and keep going. Erik van Blokland said to our Cooper Type class (regarding typeface design), “Release early and release often; recognize what you did wrong in the project and try again.” I remind myself to do that everyday.

I think you should always try to work in what you love and feel passionate about. Even if it means reinventing yourself and making up your own projects in your spare time. This is where the good work will be. Don’t be afraid to make changes and try different things if you need to.

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What’s in your ‘to read’ pile?

I’m currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Inter Views by James Hillman. I really want to read Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt from this past season.

Someday, I’d love to re-read Cortazar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela) and all of Jorge Luis Borges.

The list goes on…

Do you have system for organizing your books?

Ha, no. I used to be very organized and had them alphabetically, color code them, etc… Those days are over… Nowadays, I move them around pretty often and they stay wherever they land.

Do you have a favourite book?

Not really a favourite single book, but I do have an influential shortlist: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, L’Étranger by Albert Camus, Cuentos de Amor, Locura y Muerte by Horacio Quiroga, Piedra de Mar by Francisco Massiani, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, Oscar Wilde’s Collection by Siruela (Biblioteca de Babel).

Thanks Isabel!

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Q & A with Isabel Urbina Peña | The Casual Optimist | The Accidental Optimist

  2. Great interview, thanks! I really enjoy the website.

  3. the last one is a real beauty

  4. Bello tu trabajo Isa!!! Felicitaciones!!!

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