Judge this book by its cover: An interview with Joey Hi-Fi

Joey Hi-Fi knows that a picture is worth more than a thousand words, no matter the length of the book he’s designing the cover for. For him, context and emotional appeal is the starting chapter to good design. He creates jackets worn by literature and knows all too well that literally speaking, people tend to judge them by their covers. In light of Graphic Art Month we chatted to Joey to find out about this niche facet of the design industry, his long-time collaborations with author Lauren Beukes, and what he thinks about the future of physical books.

Joey Hi-Fi

Joey Hi-Fi is an alter ego. Tell us about his origins and how he got into book cover design.

I started drawing as far back as I can remember and I haven’t stopped. When I was seven years old our family moved to a tiny seaside town. ‘Twin Peaks by the Sea’, as I call it now. There were a few cafe’s that sold old comic books (2000AD, DC and Marvel comics). I was smitten with them. They combined two of my favourite things: illustration, typography and stories. Comic books provided my first windows into the art world. I remember thinking, ‘how do you get a job doing this?’.

Years later, I ended up studying graphic design at what was then the Durban Technikon. At that time in South Africa becoming a full time Illustrator for me wasn’t a viable financial option. So after graduating I worked as graphic designer for many years. When I moved to Cape Town, I decided to moonlight as freelance illustrator at night. To hide my nocturnal activities from a studio I was working for, I decided to work under a pseudonym. I was watching an episode of The Simpsons where Homer decided to adopt a power name. That name being MAX POWER (which he got off a hairdryer. Classic Homer). I thought it would be neat to have a quirky ‘power name’ myself. After a brainstorm with a friend, inspiration struck. That night my alter ego ‘Joey Hi-Fi’ was born. *Cue cracking thunder and lightning*

Eventually, I quit my day job and moved onto book cover design and illustration in a full-time capacity. I wanted to specialise in book cover design which incidentally involves illustration, typography and stories! My first book cover was for Lauren Beukes’ first book, Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past. Lauren convinced the publisher to give me the gig. That cover ended up getting me a lot of work!

Joey Hi-Fi

What do you say to those who tell people not to judge a book by it’s cover?

If that were true, I’d be out of job! A good book cover design has a deep emotional appeal and thus the power to entice readers.

Some say good design is intelligent and not just clever. What are your thoughts?

One of my book cover design heroes, Peter Mendelsund, described his process as “finding that unique textual detail that…can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book.” In other words, a great book cover visually encapsulates the book inside in some fundamental way. A book cover can be visually clever, but if it lacks understanding of the source material, it risks misrepresenting the book and thus failing to connect with the reader. A good book cover has an intelligence and gut-level emotional appeal that helps a reader instantly recognise that this book is for them.

Joey Hi-Fi

Writers can sometimes spend years crafting their creative labours of love. The very least you can do as book cover designer is read it.

How do you distil an entire book into one image?  How does the process work from start to finish?

Well, that depends on the brief from the publisher. On occasion you get a brief where the publisher has a strong idea of what they want creatively (For example, we want the protagonist on the cover or it needs to look like a playing card). So for the most part they have made some of the initial creative decisions for you. On other occasions you get creative freedom which is where I feel I do my best work.

As for process: simply put, It starts with understanding the source material. That is why I always begin my process the same way, by reading the book. It’s important to understand the tone & mood of a book, well as what makes this story unique. Once you have that understanding, it’s easier to distil the story into a single image.

It pains me when I see a novel I love with a cover that is misrepresentative of said novel. One of my favourite mantras is “With great writing comes great responsibility”. Writers can sometimes spend years crafting their creative labours of love. The very least you can do as book cover designer is read it.

Usually after reading the book I have a clear idea of what concepts I want to explore. I then decide on one and I focus all my time and energy on taking that single concept as far as I can. Unless I specifically get asked to present more than one option, I prefer to present the concept I feel most strongly about. My first drafts are therefore relatively finished. I try to make it as easy for the editor to sell that cover concept to his or her team. If the cover concept is approved, I craft the cover. The front cover is usually completed first (for promotional and marketing reasons). Once that is done, I move onto designing the spine and back cover. And Voila! A cover is born.

Joey Hi-Fi

Of any mistakes you might have made so far, which have been invaluable and why?

Saying ‘yes’ to projects I wasn’t comfortable doing or that I wasn’t suited to, and then in turn missing out on projects I really wanted to do as a result. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. It’s also easy to be pigeonholed into doing one illustration/design style and thus repeating yourself. There have been times a successful cover I’ve designed has led to briefs asking for exactly the same approach, illustration style or design – again and again. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Take risks.  

You’ve designed the book covers for Lauren Beukes which all have a distinct style. What inspired this?

Firstly: Her words. All her novels are full to brim with striking imagery. Secondly: Her. I love working closely with authors during the book cover design process. Often it makes for better book covers. With Lauren, she always has unique insights which I value. Who understands their book better than the author after all? We also tend to share the same creative vision and the desire to try something different. For all her covers I’ve looked at what is currently on the shelves, and gone in the opposite direction.

A cover image nowadays also needs to be like Ant-Man. It needs to have impact at a small size.  

You’re represented by Alexander’s Band. How necessary is it for designers to have agents?

Necessary. No. A definite advantage. Yes. You get access to projects you may have not necessarily got yourself – both locally and internationally. It also helps immensely to have someone to negotiate on your behalf. Some creatives have a tendency to undervalue themselves. I know that to be true in my case.

How do you think the e-book is affecting the book cover design industry?

With the advent of self-publishing, the marketplace is rather saturated. Plus, with e-book sales eclipsing that of traditional paperbacks, book covers are clamouring for attention online. When I first started designing book covers there was definitely less appreciation of what a good book cover could do. Today, that is definitely not the case. Publishers have recognised the value of good book cover and its ability to connect with readers. 

A cover image nowadays also needs to be like Ant-Man. It needs to have impact at a small size. A chief concern for publishers is how a book cover will look on various electronic devices. Most notably the book cover needs to work well as a thumbnail-size image. You can design a great book cover but if it doesn’t work as a thumbnail-size image in today’s marketplace it will more often than not be rejected by publishers. For that reason, a bold, simple image has the most impact. My work tends to be quite detailed, so when I’m working I constantly check what my illustration or design looks like as a thumbnail-size.

Joey Hi-Fi

You’re working on your own graphic novel. What have some the challenges and triumphs been so far?

I’m co-creator and co-writer of Survivors’ Club. It’s a horror comic book series that Lauren Beukes and I are writing for Vertigo Comics (an imprint of DC Comics). I always thought I’d end up more on the art side, but I must say writing is hugely rewarding and fun. The challenges? I had a healthy respect writers before this series, but now, even more so. Writing a comic book is hard work. On some days it’s the mental equivalent of a punishing day’s work as a prisoner on the KIingon planetoid prison, Rura Penthe (from Star Trek VI). Or at least that is what it sometimes feels like!

I’m very lucky to be working with Lauren, who is an absolute genius. I cannot stress that enough. Even though scripting a comic book series is mentally challenging, our work together is always so much fun. We call our writing sessions ‘creepy playtime’. It involves a lot of acting, wordsmithing and discussing all manner of bloody toe-curling horror. The triumphs? Working with and learning from Lauren, as well as the rest of the super talented team on Survivors’ Club (Shelly Bond, Rowena Yow, Ryan Kelly, Eve De La Cruz, Inaki Miranda, Bill Sienkiewicz and Clem Robbins). Lauren and I got to go to New York Comic-Con last year to launch our first issue and then Los Angeles. On the trip I got to have dinner with Gilbert Hernandez (Love & Rockets) and Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Fatale). It’s an odd feeling to literally have your childhood dreams come true!

Of all the work you’ve done, what has been your favourite and why?

Man, that is question Kryptonite! It’s really, really…really tough to choose. The cover for Zoo City will always hold a special place in my heart. The attention and awards I got for that cover opened a lot of doors for me. In many ways it was career defining.

Joey Hi-Fi

Where do you see the future of book cover design in 10 year’s time?

I do believe books will always need covers. It’s just a matter of how books evolve. With the advent of various e-book readers, you’re starting to see quite a few animated book covers out there. It’s an interesting creative option that e-book readers afford the publisher and book cover designer. I think perhaps in the coming years that animated book covers may become the norm which means I may need to take an animation course or two! Although I do like to think that traditional books and their covers as we know them will still have a place. Perhaps they will become the literary equivalent of vinyl records.

Keep up with Joey on Twitter and view his portfolio here

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