Today’s designer and illustrator, Joey Hi-Fi, talks about two books – Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, published by Hodder & Stoughton, and Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, published by Angry Robot.


How did you become an illustrator? Was it an area you always wanted to explore, or did it simply happen?

Fabulous secret creative powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic pencil and said… By the power of Grayscale!

Ok – Jokes aside. I started drawing when I was a kid and I never stopped. I knew from an early age that I wanted to do something in the creative field. But at that time in South Africa becoming a full time Illustrator for me wasn’t a viable option. So I worked as graphic designer for many years – while moonlighting as freelance illustrator at night. That’s were my alterego ‘Joey Hi-Fi’ was born. Finally I quit my day job and moved onto book cover design and illustration in a full-time capacity.


How did you get involved with this cover? Did Hodder & Stoughton contact you directly, or did they already know your work?

Hodder & Stoughton contacted me then through Pocko (my previous representation in London). I’d also done work for them previously and they’d seen my work on other covers. Most notably my covers for Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.

How was the process of developing the cover? Was there a clear goal in mind?

My process on each cover I work on is initially the same. I start by reading the book. While reading it I make copious notes. Usually after reading the book I have a clear idea of what concepts I want to explore.

After reading Lagoon I was very excited by the possibilities for the cover. Being a fan of all creatures and things aquatic, the opportunity to illustrate my favourite denizens of the deep had at last presented itself! When life gives you lagoons you draw tentacles. Or something like that.

The initial inspiration for the cover of Lagoon came from a particular scene in the book. It’s part of the greater mystery within the novel, so I won’t get into specifics, but it involves a gathering of the various sea creatures that inhabit Lagos Lagoon. Sharks, swordfish, eels, stingrays, jellyfish, seals, sea turtles… and even giant tentacled monsters of the deep… to name a few. Tied into that event is a mysterious humanoid shape rising to the surface, large crashing tidal waves and Lagos city itself.

Lagoon is a great title to work with typographically. So I decided to combine the title with an illustration of this scene from the novel. My idea was that the negative space between the tentacles and the writhing morass of sea creatures would form the title of the novel: ‘Lagoon’.

How was the author involved? Was there some back and forth conversation with Nnedi Okorafor, any ideas or suggestions?

The back and forth was more between me and the publisher on this one. Her input usually comes in once she has seen the first draft. Thankfully she has liked all the covers I have done for her. So thus far she hasn’t asked for many changes.

Do you have pictures of earlier designs?

Part of my process includes deciding which concept is strongest – and then focusing 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. For Lagoon I presented one first draft – which was approved. I’ve included it here. You’ll notice that it’s pretty close to the final cover. My earlier designs are basically indecipherable scribbles!

lagoon_first draft  lagoon_crafted_cover

Was there anything particularly different or interesting about this illustration, interesting facts you’d like to share?

I learned that using various sea creatures to construct type is easier in your mind than on paper! While working on the illustration I kept thinking to myself ‘This is like aquatic themed Tetris’.


How did you get involved with this cover? Did Angry Robot contact you directly, or did they already know your work?

They contacted me directly. I had done work for them previously and they had seen some of my other covers.

How was the process of developing the cover? Was there a clear goal in mind?

Chuck Wendig was still working on the novel when I was commissioned to do the cover. That happens on occasion. So unlike Lagoon – there was no complete manuscript to read. Instead I got a very detailed brief that Angry Robot and Chuck Wendig had put together. It included a loose concept, detailed synopsis, reference for the Miriam Black (the protagonist in the book) and key elements in the book that Chuck thought might spark and idea or two. As a loose concept for the cover, Angry Robot wanted the protagonist, Miriam Black, merging ‘with a roiling flock of birds’. Other than that prerequisite, I could spread my inky raven wings and see where they took me.

My initial idea was that instead of just birds, the portrait of Miriam Black could also contain various elements from the novel. Some hidden and some quite visible. The book is full vivid imagery. Some beautiful… some terrifying.
I’ve always liked the idea of readers getting to explore book covers and find little clues and elements relevant to the plot. The significance of these ‘clues’ is revealed as you read the novel. I personally like covers that invite repeated exploration.

I started by illustrating versions of Miriam Black in poses I thought would work well on the cover. I chose one pose and started working with that. I then worked with the negative and positive spaces weaving in birds and various other elements. It’s a painstaking but enjoyable process. In a way I had created my own macabre jigsaw puzzle.

How was the author involved? Was there some back and forth conversation with Chuck Wendig, any ideas or suggestions?

I love working with Chuck Wendig. He’s always eager to answer questions and share ideas. Which for me is vital when I haven’t got a manuscript to read. On Blackbirds the message ravens were clocking up a few air miles.
It’s always great when an author is happy to share insights and ideas – but respects you enough as an artist to do what you think will work.

Do you have pictures of earlier designs?

Again – only a first draft. Which was approved. You’ll see that it’s pretty close to the final illustration and design.
The scribbles that preceded this are not fit for public viewing.

Blackbirds_serif  blackbirds_crafted_cover

Was there anything particularly different or interesting about this illustration, interesting facts you’d like to share?

Similarly to Lagoon – I learned that merging a woman with a with a ‘roiling flock of birds’ is easier in your mind than in reality!

Interesting fact: At the authors request I included just a hint of Ellen Ripley (from Alien) in my illustration of Miriam Black.


From your experience, does the publisher have the final say regarding the design of the book, or does the designer/illustrator (and in some small ways, the writer) have free rein?

I’d say in most cases it’s the publisher who makes the final call. I have very little say in what get’s approved sadly! The author sometimes has a say in what the final cover will be. It varies from publisher to publisher though. I’ve worked on a book cover where the author has basically said ‘no way is THAT going on my book’s cover’ and then vetoed the design. It happened to me once – and we ended up with a much, much better book cover in the end. Personally I value the input of the author very highly. I think authors understand the mood and tone of their book better than anyone.

Finally, what are some of the favourite book covers that you’ve seen (recently or not), from other designers and illustrators?

I’ll choose the ‘Recent-ish’ option or we’ll be here all day! I loved the cover for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (design by the legendary Chip Kidd), The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, the covers for Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’ and most recently the cover for Adam Christopher’s Made To Kill, which is hard boiled detective meets pulp sci-fi eye candy. It’s designed by Will Staehle. I could go on – and on – but these are just the covers that have sprung to mind.


Thank you Joey for this great interview!

Don’t forget to check out his website if you want to see more of Joey’s work!


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