Design hero Joey Hi-Fi

There’s a pause when I ask Joey Hi-Fi if doors have opened since he won a British Science Fiction Association award last year for his cover art for Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City.

“Not really, no. I suppose I got, like, more respect, that’s the upside. It’s hard in South Africa, working as a book-cover designer. It’s not very lucrative and it’s tough to get new ideas out. I’m also selective about my jobs. I prefer to do things that haven’t been done before.”

When Zoo City, set in a gritty and mythical future Joburg, arrived on the market, it shattered the local fiction genre mould. So did the cover. Take a look for yourself. What appears to be typography is a neo-Gothic nightmare woven from insanely detailed pen and ink drawings of people, animals and buildings. Step back and they become words again, but from a city tearing apart and magically reforming.

Says Beukes: “When he showed me the Zoo City design, I knew that if I had seen that in a bookstore I would have grabbed it and taken it straight to the tills without bothering to read the back. I honestly think the cover had a lot to do with Zoo City winning the Arthur C Clarke Award because the packaging immediately conveyed to the judges that this was something dark and strange and compelling. He’s done the covers of all my books since I started.”

Hi-Fi’s first trademark Afro-pop cover was for Beukes’s Maverick in 2004. But it took the 35-year-old Durban-raised, Cape Town-based artist a journey to get there – what good story doesn’t have twists?

“When I told my dad I was going to study industrial design at Durban Technikon, he said, ‘So you’re going to paint signs for a living?’ Then I didn’t make it in (to the Technikon). Then someone pulled out and I snuck in – stone last.”

By the end, he won the award for best student in his department.

“Illustration wasn’t a living back then. I was a graphic designer for a long time, doing annual reports and corporate IDs. At night I started doing my own illustrations – working as Joey Hi-Fi – until I felt the time was right to be able to start making a living in illustration.”

His strength is the common South African creative experience – an ability to master several styles because you have no option but to take on most clients who come along. Pop culture comics with political barbs and kinky superheroes are also very much a Hi-Fi thing.

His recent cover for Richard de Nooy’s The Big Stick is a semiotic picnic that teases a deceptively simple account of a complex gay Afrikaans small-town boy in Amsterdam.

“Each of the tiny vignettes – from pole-vaulter to Rubik’s cube to copulating donkeys – echoes his grasp and love of the story,” says De Nooy when I ask.

Next was a spectacular cover for cult US novelist Chuck Wendig’s urban fantasy, Mockingbird. And
just this month Twitter got a foretaste of the Hi-Fi cover for Imraan Coovadia’s The Institute for Taxi Poetry.

Normal South Africans heading to work are thinking ominous and inevitable thoughts...

Says Beukes: “Joey is one of those rare book designers who insist on reading the whole book, sitting down with the author and listening to your ideas.” Astonishingly, many book designers don’t.

“It’s not just the front cover. He works just as hard on the back,” she says, “and the spine, which is how most books will spend their lives.”

» For more Joey Hi-Fi, visit www.pocko.com

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