Design Beyond the Cover: Isabel Urbina Peña

When book cover designer Isabel Urbina Peña finishes designing a book cover, she's not finished designing for the book. (Say that five times fast.)

After translating a book's wordy innards into a visually arresting cover, the NYC-born, Venezuelan-raised, Brooklyn-based designer takes the process further, expanding the cover concept to include a background which she photographs and includes in her online portfolio. For example, Urbina Peña's shoot for Irvine Welsh's The Sex Life of Siamese Twins features reflective water droplets in the same flesh tone Urbina Peña used for the book cover. Her shoot for Javier Marías's The Infatuations features small, white bits, almost as if the china cup on the book cover had shattered.

"I mostly decided to shoot books the way I do, because I wanted to show my vision of the story beyond the cover and also have an excuse to experiment more with lighting, photography, art direction and styling," Urbina Peña told Spine. "I’ve been showing my covers this way since I started in publishing and it never ceases to impress me that people remember it! When they meet me they always have a positive comment and luckily that attention has also turned into more and more job opportunities."


Image: Isabel Urbina Peña


The opportunity to work on Sex Lives and Infatuations came about when Urbina Peña was working full time at Vintage & Anchor books, at Penguin Random House. (Urbina Peña now runs her own studio.) Urbina Peña is a huge Welsh fan, and immediately jumped on the opportunity to create a cover for the paperback version of Sex Lives. At first, she considered using an illustration for the book, a twisting, manic, sadomasochistic story of two women obsessed with bodies, and each other.

She ultimately decided to use a photograph by Gaea Woods of a girl who has a particular plastic-like quality to her face. Urbina Peña manipulated the image, turning the one girl into two — "a doubled-face-fake-Siamese," in her words. Welsh thumbs-upped, and the cover was a wrap.


Image: Isabel Urbina Peña


For The Infatuations, Urbina Peña took themes that run through the book and combined them with the book's setting. "A lot of the book happens in a coffee shop but it's also about the fact that appearances can be deceiving, and they are always more than what you perceive of them, more than just the top layer," she explained. "The image seemed to work as a great rhetorical figure to capture the idea of something simple and intriguing: the backbone of the story capture in a melting cup."

Like Welsh, Marías thumbs-upped and Urbina Peña is now waiting on his approval for the paperback cover for his latest novel, Thus Bad Begins. She's also working on designs for the paperback version of Dave Eggers's Heroes of the Frontiers and a reissue of his What is the What.


Now that she's running her own studio, Urbina Peña's work isn't limited to book covers. She's working on branding and designing books for several artists, releasing hand-lettered 'zines (titles include It's Not Okay, Rants from a Stranger, and, coming this month, What's the Matter) as well as a small line of patches, buttons and art prints. She's also tackling a custom typeface for a beauty client, which has been "a great change of pace."

"Book covers tend to be a shorter turn around and typeface design takes a lot of work, patience and looking close, from the details in the letterforms to the system as whole. It’s been a great challenge because it’s my first time doing a handwritten style typeface and finding that balance between having it feel less mechanical and creating a system that works flawlessly has been a really great exercise and learning experience."


To see more of Urbina Peña's book cover photo shoots, as well as find out what else she's working on, visit

Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.

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