As a ninth-grader in the early ’90s, one of Jo Walker’s teachers assigned her a project about rainforests. Walker had been reading about how McDonald’s was linked to the devastation of the Brazilian rainforests via their beef suppliers clearing land for cattle and feed, but rather than offer a staid, expected academic response to the homework, Walker thought bigger—namely, in the form of a humongous hamburger, beef patty, bun and all, which her mom helped her craft. Walker arranged some miniature cows on the burger and shot a series of photographs showing the burger slowly being obliterated bit by bit.
“Looking back on it now, that wasn’t the nicest thing to look at—but I’m always really interested in ideas rather than making any beautiful bit of artwork,” she says. “I wanted it to be interesting and to have an idea behind it,” she says.
As a kid in Oxfordshire, England, Walker was constantly moving around the country because of father’s job as a mechanical engineer for the Royal Air Force. Walker describes herself as the “black sheep” of her academic parents and siblings thanks to her lack of math skills and preference for visual learning. When she told her father that she was considering becoming an artist, he suggested an alternative career: hairdresser, given her skills with a pair of scissors.
Luckily, around the age of 17, she found her own future when she learned about graphic design, and she instantly seizing upon the craft. Walker headed to Kent to do a foundation course and then began working toward a degree in illustration and design at the University of Hertfordshire. At school, she wasn’t connecting with what she was studying and was close to dropping out when her professor Paul Burgess suggested that she look into book covers. Walker began working on a Sylvia Plath cover for a project and was elated by the freedom she found in creating a jacket—a joy she maintains to this day.
“You have all of these different methods of representing somebody else’s work and doing it justice,” she says. “That’s such an amazing thing to be able to do, and it excites me because every book is so different and so varied, and you can go about it in so many different ways. It’s just always interesting. You never get bored.”
After school she took a gig at Minerva Press, and then moved to Bloomsbury and Penguin Random House before landing in 2008 at 4th Estate (HarperCollins), where she showcases her wildly versatile skillset today, maths be damned. When it comes down to it, perhaps the goal with every cover is no different than it was with that giant hamburger so many years ago: She simply seeks to create something interesting with an idea behind it.