“I found my feet and have been running ever since.”
Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While the internet and social media might have us believe that our ideal job is a mere pipe dream, the individuals who have these jobs were, believe it or not, in the same position once, fantasising over someone else’s seemingly unattainable job.
But behind the awe-inspiring titles and the fancy work events lies a heck of a lot of hard work. So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?
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Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to women who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.
They say never judge a book by its cover, but book designer Alissa Dinallo might beg to differ. The Sydney-based freelancer has been working in book design for over a decade and in her time, has designed some of Australia’s most notable book covers. After cutting her teeth at Allen and Unwin and Penguin Random House, Alissa made the jump to freelance at age 25.
Off the back of a whirlwind few years navigating her own business, becoming a mother and dealing with house renovations, she’s finally settling into her own. Read on to hear how her career journey has evolved and to learn about her best tips for making it in the design industry.
What do you do and what’s your official job title?
I’m a book designer, I run my own business working for publishers across Australia, the US and the UK.
Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship/entry level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story.
I studied visual communication at the University of Technology Sydney. While I was studying, I met the fantastic Zoe Sadokierski, who was my tutor and also a book designer. She picked up on my enthusiasm for publication design and in my final year of study she landed me a casual job at Allen and Unwin archiving books.
I worked at Allen and Unwin for a year archiving their digital files, and during this time I fell in love with book design. After a year working in archiving and production, I became a junior designer and learnt the art of cover design from the talented Lisa White. I enjoyed working in-house, but my ultimate goal was always to be freelance [and to] run my own business, however, I didn’t have the confidence or experience to go out on my own.
I worked at Allen and Unwin for three years before moving to Penguin Random House as a designer under the Lantern imprint. Here I got to work on illustrated titles (cookbooks etc.) with some other incredible designers (Daniel New, Evi O and Emily O’Neill). After a year at Penguin Random House, the Lantern imprint was folded. Instead of finding another in-house job, I decided to make the move I’d always wanted and start my own business. I was 25 at the time and had no idea what I was doing, but I found my feet and have been running ever since.
What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? Can you tell us about one in particular?
I’ve had a few hurdles over the past 10 years, but I have found they can end up being more positively defining than your successes. I found the pandemic really tough. I fell pregnant in December 2019 and by March 2020 I had to give up my studio in Surry Hills and work from our home (which we had just bought and was completely falling apart).
[From] 2020 to 2022 I juggled my business, a huge renovation and motherhood. These were some of the toughest years of my life as I had to totally reset the way I worked. It was a mess in the beginning but I’m finally starting to find myself again, now that we’ve moved back into our place and my daughter is two. I still need to finish fitting out my new studio space though… I don’t even have a bookshelf!
These years forced me to think about the importance of agility and efficiency in your career [and] business. It’s important to make sure you are able to bend and turn with the waves of life, lean into chaos and work efficiently when time is scarce.
What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?
Books are a collaborative effort, an accumulation of so much hard work from so many different people. There’s the author of course, but also designers, editors, typesetters, publishers, agents, production, publicity, sales and marketing and booksellers.
What’s the best part about your role?
Reading great manuscripts! There’s nothing better than getting a new fiction title and devouring it in one night (recently Search History and Between You and Me). I also love being able to recommend genuinely good books to people.
What would surprise people about your role?
Behind every book cover in the bookstore, there are often so many brilliant draft covers that never see the light of day. I’ve always wanted to set up a website full of killed covers. I also don’t read every book I design.
What skills have served you well in your industry?
There are lots of ‘skills’ that serve me well in my role (design, illustration, typography etc.) but what has really helped me along the way, I think, is that I’ve always been passionate about visualising the reading experience. It’s something I was interested in at university and has transformed into a love for consolidating a story, concept [or] manuscript into a single frame.
The other thing is that being a book designer is more than just designing covers. Typesetting is also such a valuable skill that taught me a lot about the beauty of how people read. I really love typesetting long-form content (i.e. entire books). There’s something so cathartic about the methodical practice of it.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day?
It’s becoming harder and harder these days to learn the ropes of book design, as so many publishers are shedding in-house designers and using freelancers who already have experience. If you’re interested in book design, you can always start out in production in-house and transition into design from there.
Check out The Australian Book Designers Association. They often have events, including the annual Book Design Awards, where you can mingle with other designers and publishing folk. It’s a good idea to get familiar with the industry too. There are so many publishers out there, especially beyond the big trade houses.
Also, reach out to your favourite book designers (you can always find who designed your cover by looking at the back cover or the imprint page of a book). There are some designers out there who employ interns or junior designers. It’s also just nice to connect with designers you like.
What about a practical tip?
Start designing the covers of your favourite books and start a portfolio! It’s the best way to show publishers what you are capable of.
Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.
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