Among the many notable things you’ll notice over the course of a conversation with designer Isabel Urbina Peña, the most pronounced is perhaps this: The world would do well to soak up some of her enthusiasm, contagious as a giggle in yoga class. That, plus a tremendous talent for lettering and general visual magic has landed Isabel a career as one of the most acclaimed book designers in the business. Though she recently made the move to freelancing full time, Isabel’s time with Penguin Random House from 2013 to 2015 resulted in some of the most notable book covers in recent years, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? and Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, which was named by the New York Times as one of the best covers of 2014. Last year, she was named as one of PRINT magazine’s 15 under 30, and her freelance clients include Philip Lim, Variety and Harper Collins.
But killin’ it in the design and lettering game isn’t all sunshine all the time. Last year, Isabel founded the website YES, EQUAL, an online platform dedicated to closing the gender gap in the design world by providing visibility and access to female designers. The idea arrived after Isabel attended a conference in which 9 out of the 11 speakers were men; after a friend who also attended the conference tweeted about this disparity, a heated two-day Twitter blow-up in the lettering and design world erupted, and as Isabel watched it unfold, the idea for YES, EQUAL was born: “I didn’t want to complain and just not do anything about it,” she said.
Though it’s still in its nascent stages, the directory now features over 1,500 women designers, many of whom have reached out to Isabel to report that they’ve gotten job offers through it. We talked with Isabel about how she brought her unique and focused perspective to Big Publishing, the struggle of maintaining your own joy and vision, and what’s next for building up YES, EQUAL:
So you were born in the U.S., but moved back to Venezuela with your parents when you were a few months old. What kindled your interest in the visual arts and eventually led you to pursue it as a career?
Both my parents were architects and they had a lot of friends that were graphic designers. I loved to read, and I was always on the computer and using the Internet. I was really a geek about it! But I also did graffiti as a teenager, so the love for letters was always there [laughs].
In ended up going to ProDiseño, which was such a peculiar experience. It’s a really crazy place—super beautiful, but at the same time, super chaotic. It was inside a two-story house; like, the bathroom had a tub in it. It was less than 100 students. I was studying graphic design there, visual communications. I moved to New York two weeks after my graduation like, “Oh, fuck it. I’m going.”
What was it like coming back to New York and trying to break into the scene when you had such an unconventional education?
So, this was around 2008. Kinda right around the recession. But everyone else seemed like they were prepared—like, all the kids from RISD, etc. I didn’t even have a portfolio. It was scary. But you know, little by little, I just started emailing everyone I could.
Eventually, the Cooper Type program started. I got into the second class, and that’s where I studied type. It was an accelerated program and I was there for a year. I loved it. You learned about type design, but calligraphy and lettering workshops too. I was working for a firm at the time, but I didn’t love it, so I was trying to take freelance work and go to school and all that.
How did you get into book design specifically?
At one point, I saw a tweet about a job opening at Random House so I just applied for it, and two months after, someone got back to me. So I went in and it was the craziest interview I’ve ever been on [laughs]. Five people. Three hours. Super intense! But when I got there, I just told myself, “This is your only chance. You have to kill this.”
Well, and clearly you killed it.
[laughs] Yeah, they really loved me. I think they just saw I was really excited and I really wanted it, and they loved my portfolio. And I even got a freelance gig on the side from that interview!
Let’s talk about your creative identity and how that meshes with a company that’s, y’know, all corporate and massive and stuff.
So you go to the editorial meeting and you hear the editors talk about the book. After that, you tell your art director which books you want to work on, and sometimes she would suggest stuff to us. You didn’t always get the book that you wanted, but you kind of had an idea. But sometimes it doesn't go that way. Like for Dave Eggers. No one wanted to take his book! He has very specific taste. But I was like, “Fuck it! I’ll do it.” Because when am I going to be able to design for Dave Eggers again?! And it went really well, actually. One round and it was done, which never happens [laughs].
Dang. Well, you stuck it to all those non-believers.
[laughs] Yeah. But normally, it’s a battle. You want to try and see what will get through. So you’re like, “Well I’m only going to show three things, because if I show more…” Like for example, for All Our Names, we only showed one. I’d made a bunch of other options, but Peter Mendelsund, who was art directing was like, “Nope. Let’s just show this one.”
And that’s the one that went on to receive all that recognition as one of the best covers of the year!
It’s crazy. Sometimes it works like that. But I mean, for another project, I came up with 20 different ideas, and nothing came of it. It was a paperback and they just ended up adapting the hard cover.
How do you negotiate the rejection process? How hard is it when something you really believe in ends up on the cutting room floor?
It depends on the book, for sure. Like there was The Book of Unknown Americans, which was a particularly long and intense process and I put a lot of myself in it. The author, [Cristina Henríquez], was writing about immigration, and I really felt connected to it. I was really attached to it, so when it got killed, I was like, “Goddamn it!” [laughs]. But I posted the [killed] cover on Instagram and actually, the author wrote to me. It was so sweet! She was like, “I really love this! Why didn’t I see it?!” And I was like, “Oh my god, noooo!”
It’s almost as if the two people who should have the most say don’t get to make that call...
Well, I responded to her that I get it; they’re coming from the perspective of wanting her book to do as well as it can. You’re just trying to get the best representation for the author.
And so tell me about your transition from Random House to freelancing. What brought about that move?
The first year especially was such a honeymoon! For the first two and half years, I thought I would never leave that job. And people stay there for like, 25 years. But you know, the thing is, it’s corporate. At some point, I knew it was time to move on. I knew I wanted to start my own thing.
When you started YES, EQUAL last year, you compiled a bunch of data that illustrates the inequity in your industry in a piece called 1+1=2. Aside from being a directory where people can find talented women, what do you have in store for YES, EQUAL?
I’m building a section that will have all of the design conferences and will have channels for women to apply to speak. A take-the-matter-into-your-own-hands kind of thing. The reception has been so great, and I actually didn’t envision it getting this large, and so now I’m trying to make it so that it’s easier to navigate. We’re working on building a content side too, where we’ll cover feminism and equality. But for right now, for the companies that are hiring and say they want to be more diverse: here are people!
Any advice you’d offer to women looking to break into the industry?
Patience. The things you want have to be really clear in your mind. Also, sometimes it’s scary to, uh, leave your job [laughs]. But I’ve done that a couple of times and it’s been great every time. If you feel like you’re stuck, you have to make a change. You have to take that leap of faith and put things in perspective again. Plan to do the thing you’re really excited about.
interview by Deena Drewis