Isaac Tobin has one of the dream creative jobs. He’s a Senior Designer at the University of Chicago Press, which means he designs book covers all day. He was part of ADC Young Guns 7, NewCity Lit50, the AIGA 50/50 and had his work included in publications such as The Society of Typographic Arts Archive and Print Magazine. He enlightened us on his career, his process, and getting people to ignore that old advice about book covers.
Can you give us the low-down on how you got to where you are today in your career?
I’ve been working as a book designer since about 6 months after I graduated from college. I wasn’t sure what type of graphic design I wanted to do but was really into typography and wary about working in advertising or something very corporate, and both of my favorite teachers were book designers. Luckily one of them freelanced for a press in Boston and let me know when they had an opening for a design assistant. It took me a while to get the hang of book design, but it turned out to be a great fit for me.
Above – Cover for Cartographies of Travel and Navigation
Can you tell us a bit about your process and what’s involved in a typical design project for you? How does one distill 400 pages of prose into a single visual?
The vast majority of the books I work on are academic nonfiction. My goal isn’t to capture every nuance of the book, and unlike a novel I’m not so concerned with visually capturing the mood of the writing. Instead I’m trying to help the book find the right readers, so I have to try to both communicate some of the book’s subject matter, and do it in an attention-grabbing, memorable way.
Above – Cover for Contemporary Athletics & Ancient Greek Ideals
I don’t actually read the entire books; the introductions are normally enough, and it’s actually the informative summaries the acquiring editors put together that are the most helpful. And in fact my strongest covers are often the ones that stick closest to my first crude thumbnail sketch I draw when I first hear about the book. I think there can be a lot of power in that first impression.
Above – Cover for Everything Matters
Have you ever had to design a book cover for a book you really dislike?
Sure! I work on all sorts of books, and that’s included plenty of books where I find myself being very skeptical of the authors’ arguments, but also some where I disagree with their political views. But a much more common challenge is a subject that either bores me or is just inscrutable to an outsider to the field like me.
Above – Attleboro custom typeface
Do you have any top secret inspiration sources that you can share with us?
That’s tough! I’m inspired by all sorts of things, but one thing I love about my job is the books themselves are my main source of inspiration. I try to let the content of each book suggest the design approach, which pushes me to try new things.
Above – Interior for The F-Word
I TRY TO LET THE CONTENT SUGGEST
THE DESIGN APPROACH
You’ve designed book covers for some of the most influential authors alive, and had recognition from AIGA, ADC Young Guns, and The Type Directors Club. Has there been a point yet as a young creative where you’ve sat back and thought, “Okay, I might be alright at this”? Or is it just constant striving?
I think I’m intrinsically a strange mix of incredibly insecure and competitive. At times I’ll feel like there’s no point, I’m a fraud, I can never do anything as great as the geniuses out there. But I’ll also see great work being done and have a strange sense of entitlement that I should be getting to make great work too! Earlier on in my career I think I managed to turn that mix of conflicting emotions into a real drive to improve my design. Being confident enough to take on big challenges and have faith that I will rise to the occasion, but also with enough self-doubt to be very critical of the work.
I’M A STRANGE MIX OF
INCREDIBLY INSECURE AND COMPETITIVE.
Above – Christian Kracht paperback covers
Above – Excerpts from Tobin’s collages
What’s next for Isaac Tobin?
I think more books! I am still learning new things all the time, and I want to push my book designs further. I’ve also got a nearly complete text typeface (well, the basic roman weight of it) that I want to properly expand and finish so that I can set an entire book in something I drew from scratch. That would be so satisfying, if I could pull it off that is …