Allison Colpoys on the publishing industry, typography, and moving from animation to illustration

Allison Colpoys is an award-winning book designer and illustrator, and a self-confessed lover of pattern and typography.

She previously worked as a Senior Designer at Penguin Books Australia, and now works in-house at Scribe Publications in Melbourne, and freelances through The Jacky Winter Group.

Allison's first illustrated picture book, The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade, was recently awarded two Australian Book Design Awards and an Australian Book Industry Award and has been shortlisted for the CBCA's Crichton Award for Best New Talent. She is also currently working on a new stationery range.

We quizzed Allison on her experience of working for top, international brands such as Simon and Schuster, and Penguin Australia, as well as her tips for making it in the publishing industry…

Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself

I grew up at the top end of Australia, and now live and work in Melbourne. I studied Multimedia Design (I believe this degree is now extinct) at Monash University but didn’t stay very long in the industry after graduating. Previously I was a senior designer at Penguin Books Australia, and I now work in-house at Scribe Publications. I'm represented by The Jacky Winter Group for freelance illustration and am the co-owner of a small stationery company, The Souvenir Society.

How did you get started? What was your first foray into the industry?

I think that getting a lucky break as a book designer at Simon and Schuster in London when my background was in animation (and terrible table waiting), was my first foray. I was only there for eight months until my visa ran out, but I’m pretty sure that short experience played a part in me being hired later by Deb Brash, the Art Director at Penguin Books Australia, which was the beginning of an incredible journey of learning and being mentored.

Who or what inspires you?

So many people and things inspire me. My friends, family and colleagues inspire me on a daily basis. I am really drawn to all kinds of typography – I love a dodgy hand-written 'for sale' sign for example. I also love pattern and in particular pattern in nature. And in terms of design and illustration, I think I am particularly drawn to 1950’s aesthetics.

What has been your favourite project to date and why?

Working on my first picture book The Underwater Fancy-dress Parade with my amazing friend and author, Davina Bell. Being able to illustrate underwater creatures and landscapes while also creating a meaningful book for children about coping with shyness and anxiety was a dream come true.

What do you love about books?

Mostly that they are filled with stories and information, but of course I like them for how they look and feel as well. And I love the way books wear over time from multiple reads and the feeling of nostalgia that brings.

What is your favourite font?

Tough question, I’m constantly falling in love with fonts, and I guess I love different fonts for different tasks, but if I was stuck on a desert island with a bunch of books and had to choose one font that they were all typeset in, it would be Garamond.”

What is the creative scene like in Melbourne?

There are so many little companies and individuals doing their own work in Melbourne, and often they will cross-pollinate and create hybrid ideas, events, and products. It's also not unusual for creatives here to work across a few different platforms, which is inspiring and freeing – there are lots of designers who are also illustrators, for example.

You’re launching a new stationery range, what made you want to branch out into this particular industry?

Kasia Gadecki (my wonderful friend and business partner) is probably who and what inspired me to branch out into this industry with her. Back in 2005, we dreamed up the idea of designing our own stationery together, after realising that the amount of time we spent fussing about wrapping gifts for friends and making cards was not natural and that perhaps we could put this odd skill set/obsession to use in a more productive way.

You previously worked at Penguin Books Australia, and now work at Scribe Publications. Is there one piece of advice that you’ve been given in your career, and would pass on to a budding creative?

Many people have passed on great pearls of wisdom to me and thankfully still do because although I have been doing book covers for a while now, I still feel like I’m constantly trying to figure out how to do my job better!

"I think one great pearl that I’ve been given is, when receiving feedback on your work in a commercial context, don't be discouraged by the specific comments, which you may not agree with, but think about what the feedback is actually trying to convey in terms of altering the mood or tone, and how you might achieve this."

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?

For me, it was the challenge of setting up The Souvenir Society with Kasia – the huge task of establishing a business from the ground up, finding the right printers, getting samples right, starting the website, and THEN doing the creative stuff. And also more recently trying my hand at illustrating children's books.

The main difficulty for both things (other than questioning my ability as an illustrator/designer 47 times a day), has probably been time. Which is an incredibly boring thing to say, but is, unfortunately, the truth. I quit my full-time job to make room for these aspects of my life, and I've become much more conscious of the freelance jobs I take on so that I leave room for these creative endeavours. As a creative person, guarding your time is one of the most difficult but important aspects of life.

Have you ever found it difficult to get work? And if so, how did you ensure you became busier?

I definitely found it difficult to find work when I graduated from university and moved overseas. It took me months to get my first multimedia design job. In between hospitality shifts, I did illustrations for friends (mostly in the form of sleeves for mixed CDs I’d made), created an online folio that I continually updated and contacted magazines and small publications for small editorial illustration jobs to try to build my folio.

When you’re assigned a book cover to design, what is your process?

I usually start by reading the brief, but if there isn’t one, I’ll have a conversation with the editor and/or publisher working on the book to see if they had a particular vision in mind, and then I start reading the manuscript. As I read the manuscript I will write down or sketch out ideas in my notebook and I find this helps with the end result a great deal. Checking back in with the editor/publisher and my art director, Miriam Rosenbloom, during the process is also essential.

What does your work set up look like?

It’s pretty tiny. Just a desk in my lounge room with a computer, drawing tablet, a big bottle of ink and a bunch of brushes.

How would you describe your style of illustration?

That's a tough question, because perhaps I'm a bit too close to it to know how to describe it. My friend Cameron who worked at Penguin with me used to say that my style was very 'analog', which is hilarious and probably true. I definitely like doing lots by hand. Maybe also loose, scribble-y and pattern-y?

What are the best things about your job?

The people and the writing. Publishing is full of smart, thoughtful, imaginative and supportive people, and I always feel lucky to be surrounded by this inspiring network.

And I so admire people who can write. Not only for their talent, but also for their dedication to a project that can sometimes be years in the making. It is such a privilege to create the package to represent the end product of a writer’s time, love and passion.

And finally, what three tips would you give to someone hoping to become a designer or an illustrator?

I’m not very good on the advice front because I feel like every designer and illustrator has their own unique approach to things. But things that I tell myself and wish I listened to more are: make more time to be amongst things that inspire you. Make more time to draw for fun. Be grateful for all of the excellent people and positive turn of events that have led you to where you are right now.

Check out more of Allison’s work at /


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