Alison Forbes: a book design pioneer

Alison Forbes

Alison Forbes photographed by Mark Strizic, 1972

Alison Forbes (1933–) was the first full-time independent book designer in Australia. In a pioneering career which paralleled the transformative period of Australian publishing, Forbes designed hundreds of titles. Her remarkable legacy can be seen today on the bookshelves of Australian homes, libraries and schools.

In the third year of her illustration and design course at Melbourne Tech (now RMIT), Frank Eyre of Oxford University Press came to talk to students about design and the world of publishing. Always interested in books, she could not imagine a more desirable lifetime career.

Her industry experience began in 1953 as an illustrator with the Herald, freelancing as a book designer after hours. In 1955 her illustration and design for Alan Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles was acknowledged in the Australian Book Publishers Association (ABPA) Books of the Year. It was the first of many awards to come.

At the age of 23, she became the first staff designer at Melbourne University Press, combining this part-time position with commissions for other publishing clients, between 1956–63. Following a three year period gaining experience in the London publishing scene, she returned to Australia in 1966, and then worked as an independent book designer until her retirement from full-time design, around 2005.

Australian publishers of the post-war period were a far cry from the slick marketing and sales machines of today. When staff numbers were often small, Forbes had direct access to all the key decision-makers: manager, editor, production, sales manager – sometimes all the same person – and also access to the author. This contact was a privilege she valued, and remained an integral part of her process.

Over the years, Forbes worked with many of Australian publishing’s seminal figures, including Frank Eyre, Andrew Fabinyi (Cheshire), Gwyn James (MUP), Max Harris (Sun Books), Lloyd O’Neil, Sam Ure Smith, and Ken Wilder (William Collins). Harris, who worked with the designer on a several projects, encapsulated her approach; ‘The meticulous Alison Forbes hasn’t lost her advanced and distinctive sense of the highest design principles’.

Her books include Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), The Land that Waited (1967), John Cotton’s Birds (1974), The Art of the First Fleet (1988) and Robin Boyd, A Life (1995). These titles occupy a most significant position within the development of Australian culture.

Her work has been recognised by every major industry award scheme, including the Transfield Design Awards, ABPA and the Australian Commercial and Industrial Artists Association (ACIAA). In 1989 she was presented with the ABPA inaugural Award of Honour ‘for her continued and outstanding contribution to Australian book design and production’.

For over five decades, Alison Forbes designed books, never straying into commercial graphic design or advertising, tempted by the greater financial rewards, or brighter spotlight her talent would surely have demanded in these fields. The result of this singular, unstinting focus is a enduring body of work unique in its quality and quantity.

Alison Forbes was inducted into the Australian Graphic Design Association’s Hall of Fame in 2016. This article first appeared on the AGDA site, it is republished here with their permission.