Victo Ngai on the pressures of illustrating well-known book covers

The illustrator’s images catapult viewers into other worlds. Here she discusses her latest project reimagining the covers for the Divergent book series

Victo Ngai is an LA-based illustrator from Hong Kong and she’s created editorial illustrations for titles such as the New York Times and New Yorker, while also working on storyboards and animation art for the likes of NBC and Dreamworks. 

I was an only child born to working immigrant parents. We moved around a lot when I was little so I didn’t have a lot of friends and started drawing to pass time,” Ngai says of how she got into illustration. “These drawings tend to have an element of fantasy, whether it’s having imaginary friends, or travelling to otherworldly places, or turning the bullied into the hero. When I started drawing, the walls around ceased to exist and my reality became infinitely bigger and richer – anything was possible which gave me a sense of purpose and confidence that I didn’t know I had.”

Top: Artwork for Mixc World Launch. Above: Artwork for Mixc Spring Festival. All images: Victo Ngai

There’s a fantasy element to Ngai’s work and she’s become known for creating absorbing worlds full of mystery and intriguing characters. “I draw the way I do because I don’t know how to do it any other way. I think good art is honest art, and the style is no more than a habit of drawing, an extension of the artist’s life experience, taste and personality,” she explains. “For example, I naturally gravitate towards complex images and find navigating visual chaos quite intuitive, this probably has something to do with growing up in Hong Kong, which is always hustling and bustling, packed with textures and information.” 

Ngai was recently commissioned by HarperCollins to create a series of covers for the tenth anniversary edition of the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Commemorative versions of Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant, along with a companion novel Four: A Divergent Collection, are to be published next month, all with reimagined cover art by Ngai.

Cover for Divergent 10th anniversary edition, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books

“This has been my first time creating panorama covers, and the idea was to show a sweeping view of the dystopian Chicago while highlighting key moments from each of the four books,” explains Ngai.

“It was a fun challenge coming up with a composition and colour palette that work as a whole and as individual segments. I took a page out of one of my favourite Lord of The Rings covers by the brilliant Barbara Remington. Gradients are used in the sky to shift the key colours of the covers seamlessly from one to the next. These key colours are further enhanced by the step-back design by designer Erin Fitzsimmons.”  

Cover for Insurgent 10th anniversary edition, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books

More than 42 million copies of the Divergent book series have been sold, so the pressure was on for Ngai to create something that felt true to her as an artist, but also honoured the books for the fans.

“I definitely did not want to disappoint the fans and tried to make the art as authentic to the story as possible. I am really glad the repackaging direction is completely different from the original covers, so the comparison is less direct,” she says.

Cover for Allegiannt 10th anniversary edition, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books
Cover for Four: A Divergent Collection 10th anniversary edition, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books

“It also really helps to have had Veronica’s blessing from the very beginning, she liked the IMAX Divergent poster I did back in 2014 and recommended me for this project. I also had an amazing team at HarperCollins who trusted my visions and gave me more creative freedom than I thought possible for an IP as huge as Divergent.” 

When working on a commission, Ngai typically starts by breaking down the assignment into keywords to better pinpoint the core message she needs to communicate. “Then I brainstorm to find stories and metaphors inspired by these keywords, this is very much a free association process,” she explains. “After that, I start thumb-nailing to crystalise the concepts, the ideas are often transformed and evolve in the process. The final art is analogue and digital techniques.” 

Cover art for the Flowers of Shanghai, restored 4K Criterion Collection edition
In the Mood for Love silkscreen print

The Divergent series is not the first book cover series Ngai has worked on and past projects have seen her create covers for Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, V.E Schwab’s Vicious, and Lauren Shippen’s A Neon Darkness. “I love the range of topics I am given to tackle, from SFF to coming-of-age, romance to thriller and many more,” she says. “The process of translating words and abstract concepts into visuals is very much like a puzzle game, and I enjoy it tremendously.”  

The exclusive 10th anniversary editions of the Divergent series will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, and available from June 1; victo-ngai.com  

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes