Designing The Zoo City Cover
A Literary Feature

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 23 March 2010
Category: Books > Features Comments View Comments

In a (semi) exclusive, we examine the cover design for the South African edition of Lauren Beukes' forthcoming novel Zoo City, which is published by Jacana. We talk to the artist, Joey Hi-Fi, and bring you a behind-the-scenes gallery taken from the concept document that shows the evolution of the design.

Today a handful of online publications, including, are breaking the news of Zoo City's South African cover design but we didn't just want to show you the image, we wanted to find out the story of how it came about. Therefore this article has both interviews with the artist, publishers, and the author, as well as a gallery with images from the concept document that Joey Hi-Fi, the artist, presented to Jacana, the publishing company. He has kindly annotated them for us as well so if you're interested in design you will find the showcase particularly informative.

But first, the cover (with a quote that may or may not change, as that decision is yet to be made):

Zoo City cover by Joey Hi-Fi

I highly recommend that you take a moment and just look at it to note all the detail as it's easy to get lost in the typography and stark black-and-white design. Much of it will, of, course, make more sense once you've read the book (I imagine, having not yet read it myself) but it provides an interesting, engaging feel for the potential story within.

The Designer
This is the fourth cover that Joey Hi-Fi has worked on for author Lauren Beukes - first was his design for Maverick, in 2005, followed by his design for the South African edition of her debut novel Moxyland in 2008, which we covered in an extensive interview with Lauren in 2009, and his work as illustrator for the international edition of Moxyland in 2009. I questioned Joey Hi-Fi about his experiences developing the cover and his multiple collaborations with Lauren Beukes.

MJW: The Zoo City cover is very typographic in nature, as well as in black and white rather than colour. It's the polar opposite of the John Picacio cover for Angry Robot's international release of Zoo City (as well as the cover you designed for the South African edition of Moxyland). Talk us through the design process and the decisions that were made along the way.

JH: Often when doing covers for publishers based overseas the brief is a lot tighter. They usually have a set idea of what they want. I work as illustrator mostly, which means you get to do the illustration but not the cover design. For me the best cover designs are the ones where the typography and photography or illustration are conceptualised together. So on the final cover they work well together. Working with Lauren and Jacana I'm given the freedom to explore various cover concepts.

On Moxyland and Zoo City I got to read the entire book first. Usually on book cover commissions that is not the case. You have to rely on the information supplied by the publisher. I find reading the novel first gives you the inspiration to do something special with the cover. I usually make notes of elements or themes in the book that could spark an idea for the cover.

The opportunity was there to do a cover design for the local market that was very different to the John Picacio/Angry Robot cover. So after reading the book Lauren, the publisher, and I met for the initial briefing. What's great about working with Lauren and Jacana is that we can all sit down and share initial ideas, as opposed to publishers based overseas, where it's mostly done via email, skype, or phone. Often we look at other book covers we like - or don't like - as well as other visual references we find inspiring. I find this helpful in getting a feel for a direction for the cover design. I don't like doing covers that look like anything else out there. So looking at other covers ensures you don't repeat what someone else has already done. We also discuss whether we feel photography or illustration would work best, and what we feel the "tone" of the cover should be. For the Zoo City cover I felt strongly that illustration would work best.

I then started conceptualising the front and back cover. With Lauren's novels it's difficult to choose one image that would sum up the book. She creates such rich and complex worlds. One of the central characters in the book is the menacing Marabou Stork. So initially I thought it would be interesting to do an illustration of the Marabou Stork using various parts of animals, buildings, and other elements from the book. Then I found the title typography worked very well in the format. And that in the words "Zoo" and "City" there was something interesting I could do with the typography. I decided to illustrate the title by using animal parts, buildings, and various other elements from the novel to create the letters (this is where reading the novel beforehand proved invaluable, since I had my notes on the various elements in the book I liked). Lauren also supplied me with a list of all the animals that feature in the book.

Instead of just presenting a rough idea to Lauren and Jacana, I wanted to show them an initial draft of my concept. I also wanted to present two ideas. So I started working on both the Marabou Stork illustration and the typographic version.

Since the story is set in the urban landscape of Johannesburg, I wanted the style of the illustration to be quite urban, gritty, macabre, detailed, and a bit magical in keeping with the underlying menace, magic, and mystery in the novel. To find the illustration style I experimented with various techniques. Eventually I found the aesthetic I was looking for, and illustrated the first draft.

The illustration was in black and white at first but the more I looked at it, the more it just felt right. The black and white had real impact, and captured that urban/gritty/macabre/magical aesthetic I mentioned earlier. Plus there are not many book covers on the shelves that are just black and white. So in that regard it adds to the uniqueness of the cover. I looked at adding a background colour, but it seemed to detract from the impact of the black and white.

I showed Lauren first. She loved the illustrated title concept for the front cover. We also decided to use the Marabou Stork illustration on the back cover, since they worked so well together. A few days later we met with Pete from Jacana - who also thought it worked very well.

They both then gave me their input on the first cover draft. There were very few changes, and I started crafting the illustration/design. This week I am busy finishing the back cover.

We also discussed printed "effects" or "finishes" for the cover. And decided on a spot UV for all the black printed areas. It will give it a glossy sheen.

MJW: Were you aware of the John Picacio cover while you were working on your design? Had you seen it?

JH: Yes. In fact I saw his very first Zoo City cover rough, and the drafts thereafter. He is an extremely talented illustrator! As I mentioned earlier, part of the brief from Jacana and Lauren was that they wanted the local cover to be very different to the John Picacio/Angry Robot cover.

MJW: What initially catches one's eye about your design is the stark black and white contrast but when you start looking at it more closely the amount of detail is astonishing. You've merged and morped visuals using both positive and negative space - how do you even begin to put something like that together?

JH: Part planning... part trial and error! I started by setting the title in the font I had chosen. I then looked at each letter and took note of the negative spaces I thought could be used for a particular element in the illustration. I had already illustrated animal parts etc separately for the various letters. So I knew basically what animal or element was going to "make" each letter. Once I had all the illustrated elements I needed, it was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. When I had illustrated the basic shape of the letters I was able to see what the negative spaces looked like, and choose an element that would work in the space. I looked at each negative space individually and thought "that could be a Marabou... or that could be part of a building". I then worked them into the negative space to see if they worked. If not, I tried another. This was the trial and error part! Eventually it all fitted together perfectly.

MJW: You have been designing covers for Lauren's books since her first release, Maverick, in 2005. What's it like working with her and how do you ensure that the covers are all very different and distinct?

JH: Lauren is fantastic to work with. She is always available to answer questions etc - and provide inspiration, which is a refreshing change from other commissions - where "Professor X"-like telepathy is often required to decipher briefs and what clients want.... Plus we work very well together. Our mutual dislike of the mainstream definitely helps ensure all her covers are different and distinct. In terms of book cover design - I often look at what the mainstream is doing and head in the opposite direction and see where it takes me.

MJW: Lauren provided a lot of reference information for the Angry Robot cover. Did she do the same for you or have you developed a sort of symbiosis or mind-melding synergy in having worked together for so long?

JH: Part mind-melding synergy - part reference information! Lauren is very thorough in providing reference. She gave me all the photographic reference she sent to John Picacio, plus some additional stuff too. I prefer getting as much information as possible when working on commissions. It really helps the design/illustration process. You never know what small sliver of information will spark a great idea. We often brainstorm and discuss cover concepts together. So I also know what book cover aesthetic she likes and dislikes. That helps streamline the creative process.

MJW: What inspires you?

JH: Aah... that question again. For book covers I'm a dedicated disciple of Chip Kidd and gray318.

Besides that I'm an an avid collector of oddities, comic books, films, novels, and music. My work is Inspired by influences as varied as EC Comics, Daniel Clowes, Jack Kirby, Conrad Botes, Charles Burns, Alan Fletcher, Alan Moore, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and bands such as Explosions In The Sky, Handsome Family, and Arcade Fire - to name only a few.

MJW: What tools do you use?

JH: That depends on the commission. My trusty Wacom tablet - and mostly Illustrator, Photoshop... and old-school FreeHand (when I feel nostalgic).

MJW: How does cover design differ from other forms of design? It's usually a close collaboration between the designer and the publishing company, and often the author isn't even involved. How does that impact how you work?

JH: Yes, mostly that is true. The author often has very little input. I prefer to talk to both the publisher and author if possible. It helps the creative process immensely. The more information the better! Cover design is very challenging, especially if you want to try something that is a bit different. Often the conservative/tried-and-tested approach is the route chosen. But if you have a good working relationship with the publisher it makes it easier to deviate from the norm. But as challenging as cover design is - it can be equally rewarding. It combines the disciplines of typography, photography, and illustration, which are three of my favourite things! Seeing a book cover I designed on the shelf still gives me goosebumps.

Zoo City cover details by Joey Hi-Fi

Showcase: The Evolution Of The Zoo City Cover Design
We have exclusive images from the Zoo City concept document that Joey Hi-Fi prepared for the publisher, complete with additional annotations that he provided just for

The Publisher
Pete van der Woude is a publisher at Jacana who was intimately involved in the Zoo City project. When the John Picacio/Angry Robot cover was released and everyone was speculating as to what the South African edition's cover might look like - would it be the same cover or would the publishers go with a different design and/or designer, for example - I contacted Pete for his perspective for the article I wrote for BOOK SA. He chose not to comment (though we had an interesting side discussion about cover design in general), instead preferring to wait until all the decisions had been made and the local edition's design had been made public.

That time is now, so I asked him about the experience of working with Joey and Lauren, as well as the publishing decisions that were made.

MJW: Why did Jacana decide to go with a different cover for the South African edition of Zoo City?

PvdW: We liked the John Picacio cover but we wanted to do something different, something more inclusive of the themes of the book, and also something less aesthetically science fiction.

MJW: Lauren has a long association with Joey Hi-Fi and the two seem to complement each other well. Did this contribute to the decision?

PvdW: When we decided to do a South African cover Joey Hi-Fi was the first designer that came to mind, and it didn't hurt that we have worked with him in the past..

Zoo City, art by Joey Hi-FiMJW: Did you consider any other local artists? Is it important for Jacana to use local artists?

PvdW: Joey Hi-Fi was the first designer that we approached and his initial ideas were enough to make up our minds. We basically only use South African designers.

MJW: Do you feel that the South African and international markets differ? How so? How does cover design factor into that?

PvdW: Keeping in mind that there are often differences between the UK/European and US covers, it is obvious that there are differences between the South African and international markets. The book buying population in South Africa is relatively small when compared to overseas markets, which means that more books are competing for fewer buyers. International covers can afford to be more specific to the genre in which they are published, while South African covers tends to aim for a wider appeal.

MJW: A black and white cover is quite a bold move, as is a typography-centric design. It's quite a contrast to the international cover. Tell us about some of the thinking and decision making that resulted in these choices.

PvdW: Black and white has great visual contrast and appeal and was always the basis for the colour palette of the cover design. We discussed covers with the author while the book was being written and came up with a few mutually acceptable ideas and then took these ideas along with covers that we liked to the designer. The Zoo City cover as we have it now is very different from what we had first envisaged - but that's what you expect from a top designer such as Joey Hi-Fi. Although the cover is typographically based at first glance, it contains such an amalgam of visual imagery that I'd be cautious about labelling it typographic.

MJW: Talk us through the process of developing this cover.
PvdW: As above. It really was a combined effort between author, publisher, and designer.

MJW: Was it difficult having to remain silent about the local edition while the buzz was building about the international cover by John Picacio?

PvdW: To a certain extent, but I think we were quite confident that we would come up with something equally exciting, if not more so, for our own edition of Zoo City. We have not been disappointed in our choice to go local. A question form my side - if you saw the two books next to each other an a book shelf, which would be the first that you would pick up? I think that is the ultimate test for the success of a cover design. If a person is compelled to pick up a book he/she will be more likely to buy it - and the cover does the compelling.

The Author
We've written about author Lauren Beukes extensively in the past [ try here, here, and here, for example ], so she needs very little introduction. Her first novel, Moxyland, was well received both locally (in a country not specifically known for its interest in genre fiction) and internationally. Zoo City, therefore, has become a highly anticipated launch for 2010 and the stories behind both of its covers make for fascinating reading all on their own.

MJW: I imagine that having multiple, amazing covers is similar to having multiple, amazing children (neither of which I know anything about), and you have now gone through this process with two different books - Moxyland and Zoo City. What is it like working with and providing two artists that have different styles and influences the same visual references and author guidance, and seeing completely different interpretations of your book emerge via their distinctive creative processes?

Every time I've gone into a cover meeting (five covers over three books and three different publishers) I had very specific ideas about what I wanted - and every single time the artist has come up with something entirely different that surpasses anything I could have imagined.

There's a reason I'm a writer not an artist and, generally, I think authors who are lucky enough to have a say in their covers should select their artists carefully and then shut the hell up and trust in the process.

Both covers blew me away, they're inventive, striking and diametrically opposed and yet both work perfectly for the book.

Both artists were great to work with, they were both really open to ideas and suggestions and reference material and they included me from the beginning.

That said, my only real contribution was reference material and suggestions on very minor tweaks. They had the ideas locked down already.

When I'm writing, I keep a lot of pictures on file as reference material (for Zoo City, I also had a lot of YouTube videos, specifically on how animals move) and when I did my research trip to Joburg and spent several days in Hillbrow, I took photos on my cell phone, so I had a fair whack of references available.

But these were probably more useful as an ideas bank, a mood board.

Because John's was character-driven, we talked a lot about what the characters should look like and I sent him a lot of references of South Africans. It was very important to both of us that the portraits weren't just true to the book, but true to South Africa. These are not Somalians or Kenyans or Nigerians or some jungle tribal fantasy, but contemporary and cosmopolitan South Africans. It's gritty, urban, and totally true to my vision of the characters.

Joey Hi-Fi came up with his own ideas after he read an early version of the book and really just asked me for a list of animals and Hillbrow reference shots, although he has snuck three faces into the final design.

MJW: Joey Hi-Fi has designed all your book covers, so you have quite a rapport with him - is this comforting, and do you then have certain expectations of his work, or, because it's new material every time, is there the same level of surprise and anticipation as what you would presumably experience working with a new artist, such as John Picacio?

It helps that Joey Hi-Fi is one of my best friends. We've known each other for about 10 years and he's a genius designer. This was obvious 10 years ago even before he was doing covers for Wired and Bizarre and New Statesman magazines. When I wrote my first book, Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa's Past, the publisher was open to using him and he blew us away with the concept he came up with.

It's great being in the same city as Joey, because we can sit down over drinks and wade through references. With the Angry Robot Moxyland cover for example, we sat in a hair salon and went through the fashion magazines looking at clothes and hairstyles that would suit the characters. [ Read Lauren's blog post about the cover. ]

What I love about Joey's work is the way he incorporates hints of the story in the cover design. On Maverick, he found all these weird objects at the Milnerton Market from a plastic UFO for Elizabeth Klarer, who believed she had an alien love child in 1958, to a devil puppet for Glenda Kemp who incorporated that into her strip show when she wasn't dancing with her python.

With Jacana's Moxyland cover, every badge on the monster hinted at a plot point, from the growling security dogs to the biohazard sign.

And the same with Zoo City. Every element means something. It's significant to the story.

Joey crafts eye-grabbing covers that become richer after you've read the book.

I think if you look at the different covers Joey's done for me alone, there's a clear indication of his range. It's always a surprise. His versatility is staggering.

With John, it's more of a signature style. His paintings are distinctively gorgeous. You can spot a John Picacio from a mile away.

He plays within his style and I loved the idea he came up, the sense of energy.

There was a huge sense of anticipation about how he would translate the characters and again, he veered away from the ideas Marco [Gascoigne, Angry Robot publisher] and I had and came up with something much more dynamic and interesting. He's a total pro with an incredible vision.

His cover immediately conveys a sense of what the novel is about, this strange merging of animals and humans, it's intriguing and strange and evocative and just beautiful.

The Publishing Director
I asked Jacana's publishing director, Maggie Davey, for a quick quote regarding her thoughts on the cover, the book, and working with Lauren and Joey Hi-Fi. She had the following to say, which I think sums up everyone's sentiments perfectly:

"Lauren is one of the finest fiction minds at work in South Africa today. Her international audience is growing rapidly.

A Joey Hi-Fi cover is a special thing - as you can see. He's got edge, range, and wit. That, and a gorgeous style.

I wish they'd collaborate on a graphic novel."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Showcase: The Evolution Of The Zoo City Cover Design
We have exclusive images from the Zoo City concept document that Joey Hi-Fi prepared for the publisher, complete with additional annotations that he provided just for ShowcaseShare/Bookmark

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