Deez Interviews: Meet the illustrator behind the Crazy Rich Asians cover & some of your fave NYT op-eds

Happy Friday, Deezers!

Today’s interview gets arty with Joan Wong, the designer behind some of the recognizable book covers out there + a dizzying amount of editorial illustrations for outlets like The New York Times and The Economist. She talked to us about the thrill of seeing her work out in the wild, her year spent working abroad, and how those crazy tight design turnarounds work.

^^Some of Joan’s work!

The interviewee: Joan Wong (follow her on Insta @jningwong!)

The gig: Designer & illustrator at JoWoHo, her own art studio

So, you grew up with formal training in the arts via studying at Parsons and Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School — but how did you get into book covers and editorial illustration?

I was an avid reader and always took special notice of covers. It was junior year of college when I realized that book cover designer was an actual full-time job, and it was the first profession that I had an emotional connection to. It married storytelling and visual art. I took a book cover design class with Gabriele Wilson at Parsons, and then became her intern to learn more about designing in the publishing world. By the time I graduated college, I was able to secure a designer position at Vintage Books of Random House.

I didn’t start editorial design until 2016 when some of my colleagues were freelancing with The New York Times. This was around the time of the presidential election, and I wanted to be involved in the coverage of the news, so I asked my coworker for an introduction to one of the art directors.

You've designed the covers for some of the most recognizable books in modern literature, like Americanah, We Should All Be Feminists, and Crazy Rich Asians. What's it like to see your work out in the wild and become part of the the visual language of pop culture?

It’s definitely exciting to see my work out in the wild. Sometimes, it’s just a person reading a book with my cover on the subway, and my heart still feels warm from it. It’s especially gratifying when a book reaches heights — greater than what was expected. Crazy Rich Asians really blew up after the movie came out, and it became a film that spearheaded conversation about Asian representation in Hollywood.

We Should All Be Feminists has become a popular feminist manifesto and when the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave the commencement speech at Wellesley College in 2015, every student was waving a copy of it (<--see this at 38:33) in support of her and the movement. During the 2017 women’s march, I saw that cover enlarged and recreated with markers and cardboard as protest signs.

Seeing these books help progress minority representation and female equality is very powerful. I’m just grateful that I got to work on these projects and my cover gets to go along for the ride.

You also create timely editorial illustrations for news outlets like the NYT, The Guardian, and The Atlantic. How does the tight turnaround usually work for these projects?

The news moves fast, so the turnaround time is usually no longer than a week. The tightest deadline I’ve experienced is when working on New York Times op-ed pieces. I would be on call for a week, which means that you have set aside time to work on an assignment whether you’re needed that day or not. Every morning, I would get an email that either says that they are all set with illustrators for the day, or it gives me a topic to work on for the day. You deliver sketches in the afternoon, and the final illustration goes out in the evening.

After your time at Random House, you took a year to travel and work abroad — the freelancer’s dream! What was that like?

I spent three months in Europe, three months in Asia, three months in South America and three months in Berlin. It was an amazing year of seeing and working in new environments, and I’m very lucky to be in an industry that allows me to work remotely and have that kind of autonomy with my time.

I started the year with a program called Remote Year. They help you find a place to live and a co-working space for a fee. They also provide a community of people to travel with. Working in different locations, as well as different time zones, started off a bit challenging, but like most things, you just get to used to it. I used to worry about the self-discipline of freelancing, but deadlines exist even if you don’t have the 9 to 5 hours, so that pressure to finish in time is still there.

This is kind of a big open-ended question, but in a media landscape where stock images and iPhone photos are a dime a dozen, what do you think about the value that truly original illustration offers?

I think having a well thought-out illustration for an article cuts through the noise. Stock photos are a dime a dozen, and it looks it.

But I’m also not precious about how my editorial work is received. There’s new news everyday, and the nature of the work is ephemeral. If I can create something that could get someone to stop scrolling to examine a bit closer, even for a few seconds, that’s enough for me.


Don’t forget to follow Joan on Insta @jningwong, and have a pleasantly ephemeral weekend!