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"You'll never make a living designing jackets," the lecturer told young Alison Forbes when she was studying design and illustration back in the early 1950s. Maybe not just jackets, but what about the whole book?

With a bit of inspiration from Frank Eyre at Oxford University Press, who made her see that such a life was possible, Forbes graduated from Melbourne Tech (now RMIT) and became the first full-time independent book designer in Australia. Her career spanned more than five decades and hundreds of titles, and on May 25, she will be inducted into the Australian Book Designers' Association Hall of Fame.

Book designer Alison Forbes at work in the early 1950s.

Photo: Mark Strizic

It's been quite a journey for a designer who started out freelancing in her spare time while she was employed as an illustrator for The Melbourne Herald, "doing happy housewives taking casseroles out of ovens".

In those days, the Australian book industry was nothing like it is today. For one thing, it was tiny – "quite often there was only one person in a publishing house" – and there was little choice in paper or binding cloths or typesetting – "You couldn't use italics much anywhere".

Forbes' dream-like cover design for the first edition of Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock.

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The attitude was provincial, in thrall to the English publishers. Forbes looked at Australian books largely designed by printers, then at overseas books in the shops, and decided she'd make the Australian publishers do them her way.

Luckily her employers appreciated her ideas. She did most of her work in the early days for Eyre and for Andrew Fabyini at Cheshire, "he was very important to Melbourne cultural life at the time". One of her commissions was designing and illustrating Alan Marshall's autobiographical novel, I Can Jump Puddles, which won her the first of many awards.

She worked directly with Marshall, drawing sketches from his family photos. Most of his archives were destroyed in a fire, but she still has her copy of his manuscript. "It was going to be published with Alan as a fictitious character called Bill, but they changed the name back, and 'Alan' is written over the original Bill."

Despite the lure of more lucrative advertising work, she stuck to book design. "I could push my fees just high enough, because I had little competition. And I liked the people in publishing, I enjoyed meeting the authors. I wasn't very interested in advertising people."

Some of Forbes' favourite designs are history books, including The Land That Waited.

Some of her favourite designs are history books: The Land That Waited, about the colonisation of Australia, and The Art of the First Fleet, featuring works by little-known artists. She also designed the first editions of Robin Boyd's The Australian Ugliness and Picnic at Hanging Rock, which she didn't think much of at the time: she preferred Joan Lindsay's previous book, Time Without Clocks.

Another favourite commission was Russel Ward's 1958 classic The Australian Legend, about the creation of the Aussie character in the 19th century. "I did the picture research, I found a lot of lovely stuff, very funny drawings from The Bulletin. My standard is, if they don't make me laugh, I don't use them."

Forbes' book designs have earned her a place in the Australian Book Designers' Association Hall of Fame.

With modern technology, it's comparatively easy to do several versions of a cover and decide on the best one. But in her day, Forbes had to make her key decisions before she started work. "I certainly didn't do seven designs for one jacket, which I believe is fairly common now."

What does she think of today's book covers? "Some are shatteringly good, some are terrible. But it's always been that way. We were a little threatened a few years ago when self-publishing took off, there was a return to amateurism. But those books are better now and generally the standard is much higher."

Janesullivan.sullivan9@gmail.com

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