“I tend to prefer tangible materials”: Manshen Lo and her love of illustrating for publications
The London-based illustrator offers an insight into what it takes to master the medium of cover art, from textual interpretation to (somewhat unintentionally) avoiding trends.
- Olivia Hingley
- 9 August 2022
For Manshen Lo, there’s something incredibly special about illustrating for books and magazines. The illustrator, whose back catalogue spans animation, website identities and artful character studies, has spent the last few years predominantly drawing covers for publications. She loves the medium for the way it pushes her to read “with a different mindset” and how it allows her to work with physical materials – “like many other nostalgic people, I tend to prefer tangible material,” Manshen tells It’s Nice That. It’s the sort of work that helps her connect with other artists. “Making cover art builds a meaningful connection between the author and my work; I get to look at things from a different angle, because I have to translate from their literary world.”
As is to be expected, the act of visually reimagining someone’s words involves a fair amount of interpretation, a fact Manshen which tells us is often quite “instinctive”. This is because, sometimes, all she’s given to work off is a few paragraphs of text. Luckily, it’s a process that the illustrator has grown to love: “I enjoy capturing the poetic atmosphere hidden between the lines,” she says. Moreover, in a time when book covers are becoming more and more homogenous, the illustrator has also become pretty good at sticking to her own style. “I have to admit I’m not very aware of trends,” she muses, “most of the time, I just put my head down and do my own thing.”
On the flip side, Manshen is also aware of how much power the cover has to influence its audience. As we've learnt here at It’s Nice That, it’s common practice in the visual design world to eschew the proverb of ‘not judging a book by its cover’. Manshen adds, “It’s a great privilege to be allowed to make an image that will undoubtedly tint the audience’s view about its content."
GalleryManshen Lo: Meng Ya Magazine, February & April (Copyright © Manshen Lo, 2022)
Last year, one of Manshen’s most significant projects to date arose working on one of 2021’s most anticipated titles – Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World Where Are You? A “super secret project", it was also incredibly well timed. When it came in, Manshen had just finished Normal People, a book she greatly enjoyed. The brief came from cover designer Jon Gray who wanted to include illustrative vignettes of the main characters. “The idea was to see enough of the cast to recognise them,” Manshen details, “but also not too much as to leave space for the reader’s imagination.” And certainly, with this in mind and by looking at Manshen’s previous character studies – with their ability to both simultaneously be mysterious and recognisable – it really is no surprise to see her work align with the brief. She backs this up by adding how “melancholy” her characters are often perceived, thus matching her illustrations to Rooney’s pensive subject matter.
Over the past year, Manshen has also been creating some beautiful work for the Chinese literary magazine Meng Ya. Yet again, the brief was one that personally resonated with Manshen; it's a publication she was “hooked on” as a teenager. Creating a cover for each of the 12 months with fairly open guidelines, Manshen captures the varying “moods” of the months, all the while keeping the covers “ambiguous”. Throughout the project so far, the month of June – with pink, yellow and green hues evoking the summer months – has been Manshen’s favourite piece. Now, having caught a serious bug for working with physical materials, Manshen’s looking forward to some personal projects that will get her away from the computer. Who knows, maybe she’ll be able to fit in a spot of reading too.
Manshen Lo: Meng Ya Magazine, June (Copyright © Manshen Lo, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.