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Did your studies at ProDiseño, a design and visual communication school in Caracas, Venezuela, fully prepare you to make the leap to work in New York City after graduation? To be honest, nothing really prepares you for that leap! In the middle of a recession in 2008, I moved to a new country where I didn’t have a network—and English is not my first language. It was hard. But ProDiseño was an amazing school, and I was really privileged to go there. At ProDiseño, I learned how to think and conceptualize before style and looks, and I think that’s why my work is so varied now. We also didn’t specialize at ProDiseño; we learned about everything: typography, print, branding, industrial design, animation, motion graphics, web design, illustration, art. It gave me the background to be a well-versed designer and tackle any kind of project.

You later attended Cooper Union’s Type@Cooper program in New York City. How did this experience shape your current work? It made me realize that I wanted to pursue a job that revolves around everything typographic, and it gave me the confidence to do so. It also made me a better designer. Learning about type design helped me train my eye to focus on the details while also seeing the overall picture. Besides type design, we also learned about lettering, calligraphy and sign painting. These all permeate the work I do every day now—especially book cover design, but also my personal work, like my hand-lettered zines.

You also worked at Penguin Random House. When and why did you decide to freelance? I was there for almost three years. It was a great place to work—creatively, it was a dream. I was lucky to have an inspiring group of coworkers and a boss who supported us, but ultimately, it came down to being challenged. Penguin Random House is one of the largest publishing companies in the world, and it’s very corporate. It was hard for me to move up and grow. Also, because of my multidisciplinary background, I wanted to keep doing other types of projects, like type design, custom lettering and branding. When I realized it was time to move on, I started my own studio in January of 2016. I still work with Penguin Random House on freelance projects, but now I have the flexibility and room to take on other types of work.

It’s hard to unsee the influences you look at.”

How is designing book covers as a freelancer different from designing book covers in-house? It’s a small difference. Overall, you are a little less involved behind the scenes. As an in-house designer, I’d talk to the editor, present my covers in meetings to the publisher and sales team, and of course have face-to-face interactions with my art director. You’d rarely communicate with the author and agent. As a freelancer, I only interact with the art director, who’s commissioning the work. When it’s a small client, I’ll talk directly with the author.

You share your killed book cover designs on your site and on Instagram. Is it a battle or a cakewalk to get your work approved and onto bookstore shelves? It’s a process, for sure. There are soooo many people involved in the decision-making process: art director, editor, publisher, senior editors, sales team, sometimes a Barnes & Noble or Target sales rep, agent, author... so it’s definitely a win when you get something approved. I also explore a lot of different styles, so I like sharing those covers because they might be quite different than the cover that ended up being used.

As a book cover designer, do you ever seek out inspiration by looking at other books? I avoid finding “inspiration” by looking at other covers. When I design a book cover, I get information on which titles are similar to the one I’m working on and what tone the publisher is looking for, so I’m aware of what’s out there. But when I’m looking for inspiration, I get it from a mix of sources, like art, photography, real life and the book itself, simply because it’s hard to unsee the influences you look at. I seek out a super broad range of references if I’m feeling stuck, and I scribble and write a lot, which allows me to jump around so much that I eventually come up with my own solutions.

You display both your type design and your lettering work on your site. Do you find one more challenging? They are quite different. Type design is a game of patience. If you go to my site, I only have two typefaces available, and I’m working on a few more right now. It’s different from creating art for any commission. A typeface is a tool, so you have to study and come up with all the possible scenarios that someone might use it in order to make a foolproof system. When you do lettering, the piece is final and it won’t be altered.

Would you ever be interested in creating both the typeface as well as the cover art for a book? Doing the typeface for the interior of a book would be awesome! I think it would be quite different because the cover needs to grab the reader’s attention, while the typeface and typesetting should make reading a pleasant experience and almost be invisible and unnoticed.

You make your own hand-lettered zines. What’s a recent zine that taught you something about lettering or printing? Recently, I’ve been learning about Risograph printing. We bought a machine for my studio, and like any printing process, it’s got a learning curve. It’s been super fun to have limitations, like the number of colors you can use; the inks are also not opaque, so you can play with mixing colors and saturation percentages to come up with more colors. It’s got lots of character, so I’ve been playing with different styles just to see what results I can get from using it. I recently printed PROTEST!, a photographic collaboration with my good friend Edgar Martínez, who has been documenting the protests back home in Venezuela. I was trying to replicate a four-color job with the weirdest colors—because those were the only colors we had available—and I ended up deciding that using two colors would give me the best results. It’s a very hands-on printing process, and a lot of trial and error is needed to see what works best.

Instead of using the typical book cover image, you’ve made a habit of photographing your finished book cover designs. How do you think these photographs affect the way people perceive your work? It definitely helped me make an impression when I was starting out in publishing. It made my work more recognizable because nobody was doing it then. When I started shooting my book covers, I wanted to create an extension of the canvas I created in the cover to further connect the author’s work to my own design and to experiment with photography, styling and art directing. It was an excuse for me to play, and has turned into something that makes my work stand out. The response has been super positive ever since.

Originally from Venezuela, art director Isabel Urbina Peña runs her own studio in Brooklyn, New York, focusing in book cover design, lettering, typeface design and experimental handwriting. In 2015, she was named one of the “New Visual Artists: 15 Under 30” by Print magazine. Peña is a Type@Cooper and ProDiseño alumna, and her work has been recognized by AIGA, Buzzfeed and the New York Times. In her spare time, she teaches, speaks at conferences worldwide, draws zines and runs Yes, Equal, an online database of women who work in the creative fields.

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