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Are Those Books Even About Trees? – Joey Hi-Fi on the African Book Cover Acacia Tree Scandal

Acacia trees vs Joey Hi-Fi

Award-winning book cover designer and illustrator Joey Hi-Fi spoke to Books LIVE about the recent “acacia tree scandal” that blew up around South African and African book cover design.

Twitter and the book community were abuzz after Columbia University PhD candidate Simon Stevens posted a graphic of thirty-six African book covers, all featuring an acacia tree and a glowing orange sunset. He received 629 retweets and 265 favourites for his efforts.

The picture was picked up by Africa Is A Country, and then the international media, with The Washington Post, Quartz, Book Riot and Gizmodo – to name a few – seizing upon the story’s viral-potential.

But not everyone agreed on the insidiousness of the acacia tree cliché. Steve Connolly, managing director of Penguin Random House South Africa, took to Twitter to voice his disagreement:

Books LIVE decided to speak to Joey Hi-Fi, AKA Dale Halvorsen, undoubtedly the closest South Africa comes to a celebrity illustrator. Hi-Fi won a British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) award for his cover of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. In 2012 he won Ranting Dragon’s Cover Battle for the cover of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and this year was shortlisted for The Kitschies Inky Tentacle award for the cover of Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now and another BSFA award for the cover he created for Dream London by Tony Ballantyne. And all this without an acacia tree in sight.

Zoo City (SA edition)The Shining GirlsBlackbirdsThe Spiral House Apocalypse Now NowThe Big StickDream London

Hi-Fi has a decade of experience as a freelance book designer and illustrator, but was quick to point out that other designers “may have had different experiences”, and that freelance designing differs from working in-house at a publisher.

Books LIVE: You could argue that it’s possible to pull out forty covers from books published in the last year and support just about any argument. On the other hand, visual shorthand is crucial to a cover’s design. Do you think the “acacia tree scandal” is overblown?

Joey Hi-Fi: I think what the “acacia tree scandal” does do is highlight the continued misconceptions about Africa. Most notably that we are somehow one country – and not a diverse continent. Although I think “scandal” is a strong word. You could select covers from any genre and make the same “book cover cliché” argument. For example I remember seeing a Buzzfeed post in 2013 that featured “19 book cover clichés”. Although I thought it was, at least in part, more about the dangers of using stock photography indiscriminately on book covers.

Any genre has it’s visual clichés. For example, the young adult genre for the most part sticks to the same rigid formula – that of the angst-ridden teen posing on the cover. It’s a symptom of some publishers being risk-averse and playing it safe. Visual shorthand is an important part of cover design, but inspiration for the cover design or illustration needs to drawn from the book. I personally prefer covers where the cover design is inspired by the mood and tone of the book – rather than than just the genre in which it sits.

I wonder how many of those books actually mention acacia trees prominently – or at all? I’d be curious to hear what a designer who worked on one of the “acacia tree covers” would reveal about their process and how they arrived at that particular cover design. I’m sure it would be interesting.

Do you think this is a problem specific to books being marketed overseas, or is it a South African issue as well?

I’m not sure how many of those books were designed and published locally. The problem does seem to be more prevalent in books being marketed overseas though. When you say “Africa” to person outside of Africa, certain visual clichés spring to mind. It is so easy in publishing for those clichés to find their way onto a book cover.

The acacia tree motif has been condemned as “lazy design” using “visual cliches”. Do you think this is fair, considering the amount of information designers are trying to convey on such a small space?

I think it is a fair comment. Although I think it is easy to label it “lazy design” and point the finger in the designers direction. Lazy design may be part of the problem – but I think the issue is a bit more complex than that.

Other than cultural stereotypes – I think publishers playing it safe, budget, rigid genre specific book cover design, the indiscriminate use of stock photography, designers (and even publishers) not knowing enough about the book, deadlines and even how much book cover designers get paid, are some of that factors that contribute to landing an acacia tree on a cover or two … or thirty-six.

Every book has it’s own personality, mood and tone. A book cover designers (or illustrators) task is to capture that mood and tone visually on the cover. The first step in that process is gathering as much information about the book as possible. I make a point of reading the entire book, and if I’m unable to do that I will chat to the author or squeeze the publisher for more information. Without a clear idea of what the book is a about, it’s so easy to fall back on visual cliches.

If all a designer knows about a book is its title and that it is set in “Africa”, certain visual stereotypes come in to play. And if that designer is not willing to do any further research or explore alternate concepts, chances are that you may get an acacia tree silhouetted by the sun on the cover.

In a marketplace chock full of book covers clamoring for attention – why wouldn’t you want your book to stand out? I always prefer creating a new piece of artwork for every book cover I work on. I’m a firm believer that a good – and different – book cover can impact sales positively.

What other constraints do you think cover designers face?

From my experience freelance book cover designers and illustrators (at least locally) eke out a meagre existence. I love books – that is why I chose to be a book cover designer. For me it’s an honour to put a visual face on another creative person’s work. So I put in a lot of late nights. A labour intensive cover design or illustration can take two weeks to a month to complete. There is a limit to how much publishers offer per book cover. And often the fee seems to be the same whether you decide to just use stock photography or illustrate the cover. So to make a a decent living as freelance book cover designer, quantity – not quality – is required … you can see how that may encourage “lazy design” or shortcuts.

Publishers – please reward the book cover designers who are willing to put the extra effort into their craft.

Do you consciously avoid cliches when designing your covers?

Whew. As much as I can – but sometimes it isn’t entirely a book cover designers decision. Although I prefer to start with a clean creative slate and let the mood and tone of the book determine the cover art, sometimes a brief from a publisher arrives with it’s own set of constraints. For example: They definitely want the book’s protagonist on the cover. There is always some way you can try do something interesting and different though, even within the constraints of a tight brief.

Do you have any African book cover designers, or covers themselves, that you admire?

Sadly, I can count the local book cover designers I have met on one hand! We seem to be a rare breed. Although not full-time book cover designers, I do enjoy the cover design work of Adam Hill and Jordan Metcalf. I do have certain local book covers I admire. I like the covers for Acid Alex by Alex Lovejoy, At The Fireside: True South African Stories by Roger Webster and Pompidou Posse by Sarah Lotz, Clever Blacks, Jesus and Nkandla by Gareth van Onselen … to name a few.

nullAt the FiresidePompidou PosseClever Blacks, Jesus and Nkandla

Who are your design influences?

They are pretty varied. Everything from alternative comics to Edward Gorey to old books and oddities. In terms of book cover design – Gray 318 and Chip Kidd are always an inspiration.

You worked closely with Lauren Beukes on The Shining Girls cover. Do you always discuss covers with their authors, or do the publishers have the upper hand in the design process?

That really depends on the publisher. Generally publishers do have the upper hand. Some publishers exercise more control, others value the input of the designer and author more. I have personally been involved in projects where the publisher has approved a cover – only for it to be vetoed by the author. In the end we came out with a better book cover.

I make a point of reading the book beforehand and if possible chat to the author. Often the author sends me visual references or additional pieces of information that spark an idea for the cover. With Lauren we always swop ideas. For both The Shining Girls and her upcoming novel Broken Monsters I asked to combine her photography (that she took on her research trips) with my cover illustration. They fitted the mood and tone of the book perfectly. So where possible I enjoy working with authors. After all, It is their months (and sometime years) of creative work you are putting a visual face on. It’s important to me that not only the publisher – but that the author also loves the cover of their book.

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