“I work at the University of Chicago Press in Hyde Park Chicago, along with 8 other designers. I have a great office with a view of the midway (leftover from the Columbian Exposition of 1893) and the university beyond it. I just moved into this office last January after years in a cubicle, and I love it. As you can see it’s mostly dominated by a big book shelf where I put the books that I’ve designed. Unfortunately I’ve already pretty much filled it so I’ll need to pack up the older books or get more shelves soon.
My desk is normally covered in manuscripts, proofs, pages, lasers, blues, readers, keylines, and all the other terms we use for the components of not yet published books. And so far my decorations consist of cork boards with assorted ephemera, mementos, typeface design test prints, and paperwork I need to deal with.”
Isaac Tobin is a senior designer at the University of Chicago Press. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design from RISD (2002). Isaac worked as a Book Designer at Beacon Press and then freelanced for a year in Buenos Aires before settling in Chicago in 2005.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
ISAAC TOBIN: For covers, I start with research, reading some of the book, or a detailed summary. This normally leads to crude thumbnail sketching on scraps of paper or notebooks. Sometimes I’ll nail the idea right away with a simple sketch, but more often, the idea comes later. I will then open up Illustrator and start a bunch of very fast and crude type tests seeing how the title looks in a variety of fonts and formats. Then I’ll generate tons of sketches, which lead to more variations, and finally I start editing down and refining.
Interiors are very different. I spend some time thinking about all the elements that the book includes, the number of characters I need to fit on the page, and the general tone of the writing. Then I normally start with a text page, trying out fonts and margins, while alternating with looser title page explorations, until I find some resonance between the two very different elements. And sometimes the contents page is when the design really comes to life and is codified.
FYD: What is your favorite sentimental object at your workspace and why?
IT: Some photos of my wife Lauren and our dog Zach that I have next to monitor. I also have some fluorescent 3d lettered lottery signs from Argentina. I lived in Buenos Aires and every kiosk and convenience store had amazing signs like that. Just a few months before I was leaving town, I stumbled across an office supply store and print shop that was selling big stacks of “sortea” signs.
FYD: What is your favorite or most required work tool?
IT: My most required tool would be Indesign and Illustrator. My favorite would be Fontlab, a font design program. I’ve been drawing typefaces as a hobby for years, but I’ve been doing more custom display fonts for book designs lately, and it’s really fun.
Objects are a useful ways of representing abstract ideas.
FYD: Buenos Aires is one of my favorite cities. How long did you live there and how did the culture inspire your work?
IT: Just under a year. The city is filled with used book stores, which were always fun to explore. I also was inspired by the stationary stores that seemed to be selling the same folders, graph paper, and ledgers from 40 years ago.
FYD: What do you love about objects on covers?
IT: Objects are a useful ways of representing abstract ideas. Because they are such powerful and easily read symbols, they can be combined to communicate more complex ideas.
FYD: If you had dinner with Freud, what would you talk to him about?
IT: My grandfather is a Freudian psychoanalyst, so I would try to bring him along if possible, because it would mean so much more to him.
FYD: You collaborate with your wife, Lauren. How do you separate church and state?
IT: We work very well together, especially after years of practice. Almost all book covers I design are secretly collaborations with Lauren, especially the successful ones. She’s often both the source of the initial idea, and an invaluable editor and critic — she always sees the dozens of variations I go through before settling on a final design, and tells me what’s working and what isn’t.
FYD: Your work seems to pick up texture and collage. What materials have inspired you?
IT: I was really into making collages and collage-filled sketchbooks in college. Even though I don’t work that way much anymore, I think all that time obsessing over paper and surfaces has informed the textures I bring to my book covers now.
FYD: What is the hardest part of the design process?
IT: Deciding if something is good or not. This normally happens when you’ve run out of time and you have to pick which design to propose, or decide if any of them are worth proposing at all.
Almost all book covers I design are secretly collaborations with Lauren, especially the successful ones.
FYD: For those who fall in the laymen category on fonts, what is a good place to start? Is there a collection or crash course you might give us?
FYD: I’ve picked up some fun summer beach reads. What are you reading?
IT: I recently had pneumonia and while my fever was the worst I read the last 3 volumes of the Akira Manga. The animated movie was one of my favorites in high-school, but I had never actually read the comic. Amazing both for the story.
All that time obsessing over paper and surfaces has informed the textures I bring to my book covers now.
FYD: Was the film true to the comics?
IT: The film was actually very true to the comics (and directed by the comic’s creator), except it only covers the first third or so of the book, and so of course ends differently.