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When Your Book Design Career Starts at Age 10 and Peaks at Crazy, Rich Asians

For Joan Wong, it’s all about finding the sweet spot between art and commercial design

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.

1
Dog Symphony, by Sam Munson

This often surreal novel focuses on a professor who journeys to Buenos Aires to speak at a conference, but when he arrives, he’s completely out of his element in every way: he can’t find the colleague who is his main contact, and night brings an all-encompassing swarm of feral dogs to the city.

“There’s something really unnerving, and dark, and sinister about it,” Wong says.

She knew the cover needed to feature a dog in some manner, and after coming across a fitting public domain illustration, she began toying with it, looking for ways to mirror the tone that pervades the entire book—a feeling that something is off. By stretching and morphing the canine, she sought to give viewers an image that is visually interesting but also leaves them a bit queasy, something that the cover typeface and the heavy black background only reinforce, forming their own collective chorus.

2
The Illustrious House of Ramires, by José Maria de Eça de Queirós (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa)

Four of the covers in this article come from the publisher New Directions, and Wong says the reason their jacket output is so strong is because of the trust they place in designers, and the many outside-the-box concepts they’re open to—including this box within a box.

In The Illustrious House of Ramires, the protagonist seeks to better his standing in life by writing a novel about his famous ancestors. Seizing on the central concept, Wong conjured up a book within a book, and utilized the repeating heads to depict a family lineage.

Whether intentional or not, the cover seems to also brilliantly depict the notion of a translated text—also a bit of a book within a book, the original in the center, and the new form dominant, the DPI of a facsimile apparent as the book jumps from one linguistic interpretation to another.

3
The Condition of Secrecy, by Inger Christensen

While reading the manuscript for this Danish writer’s essay collection, Wong came across an image embedded in the file: a print by William Blake depicting Isaac Newton in the style of a Greek hero. The print is the subject of Christensen’s essay “Shadow of Truth,” which probes the bizarre work. As Wong details, “He’s sort of underwater, but is he? Or is he outside? He’s holding a protractor, and he has this really weird, rigid posture. I think the author was very fascinated by this particular print.”

Wong began masking out sections and crudely taking chunks out of the image, much of it at random to build an aesthetic of playfulness. From there, she layered and moved different elements around—creating the digital equivalent of a print collage, and ultimately producing a striking design that is equal parts enigmatic and emblematic.

4
Night Soil, by Dale Peck

This coming-of-age story is rife with family secrets… and pottery. The protagonist’s mother is capable of making perfectly proportioned vases entirely by hand, and early on, Wong fell in love with the idea of a series of identical circular pots for the cover. The publisher wanted elements of a coal mine given the fictional family’s roots in the coal business, though, and Wong thus began developing tracks and tunnel.

Fighting a market flooded with color, Wong created a cover devoid of it—tonally matching the understated vibe present throughout the book, and creating a striking image in the process, which is completed by her hand-lettered title and author.

5
The Doctor Stories, by William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams was a physician, and here, via a medley of vessels—autobiography, short story, poetry—he shares observations on life drawn from a lifetime in the profession. The themes throughout the book prompted Wong to ponder biology—and ultimately deliver a cover that presents a simplified interpretation of amoebas.

Next, “looking for little ways to break the rules in a tasteful way,” Wong experimented with the kerning. As a result of such design decisions, some viewers participate in a visual dialogue and seek details, proverbial easter eggs. Is “ill” purposely offset, given the title of the book? (It’s not.) But perhaps what’s important is that the design inspires one to do so—and on the whole, the marriage of words and text enhances the experience of the book at large.

Such seeming randomness—like the mutations of Dog Symphony, the shapes in The Condition of Secrecy—reveal her unique, exacting aesthetic mind born of a strong background in traditional art. She might not have always planned to be an artist, a designer or a book jacket designer—but we’re better off that we’re able to view stories through her lens.

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