Joan Wong’s parents had a problem: They weren’t in the best school district in Brooklyn, and they wanted their daughter to have a solid education. They had their eyes on a prestigious middle school in Coney Island—but you had to have a talent, and you had to audition with it to get in.
Joan Wong thought she had a problem, too: “I didn’t really have a talent, because I was 10.”
In retrospect, it seems she was incorrect.
Wong’s parents had seen her drawing around the house, so they had her audition for the art focus and in she went. As her schooling continued, Wong auditioned for the Fiorello H. Laguardia High School Of Music & Art and Performing Arts… and again, she got in. Afterward, she applied to Parsons School of Design… and she got in. The emergence of her raw talent and her artistic development seem born both of serendipity and fate.
“I’ve sort of been an art major since I was a kid, but it very much wasn’t my decision,” she says. “It was sort of just out of necessity. But I’m really happy with how things turned out.”
Pressured to choose a major at Parsons toward the end of her freshman year, she selected design. But having been reared on painting, drawing, and illustration, the notion of creating visual work to move consumer goods didn’t feel like a natural fit. And then she discovered book cover design—and in it, she found an ideal form, one focused a bit less on salesmanship and more on capturing the tone of an author’s words, forging a conversation between art and language, instead of, simply, a wrapper.
“You’re helping to sell something, but you’re selling ideas, and narrative, and literacy,” she says. Simply put, “That made me feel good.”
She embraced her journey and strategized. She took a cover design class taught by Gabriele Wilson, which led to a productive internship with Wilson, followed by one with book cover designer and art director Rodrigo Corral, and after graduation, a job at Vintage Book. Among her earliest projects: the cover for Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which further exploded when it became the first Hollywood film in more than two decades to feature an all-Asian cast. The work founds its way back to Wong’s parents, who are immigrants from Hong Kong, and who accidentally kickstarted her career so long ago.
“They’re very proud of my work, but they don’t have a full understanding of what I do, really. So when Crazy Rich Asians came out, and when their peers knew of the movie—and then therefore knew of the book—it was like, ‘Oh, your daughter did the cover? That’s pretty cool.’ It was big enough that it reached people beyond the design world.”
After five years with Vintage, Wong went freelance, and now works on editorial illustrations for a variety of top-tier clients, alongside, of course, book covers. Here are five that display her artistic roots and the deep connection her imagery forges with its subject matter.