Observations Abroad

with Joan Wong — Part I


Joan Wong worked at Penguin Random House in New York for the past five years as a book cover designer.


Among her well-known work are the paperback covers of the Crazy Rich Asians series by Kevin Kwan, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. She could easily have stayed at her job indefinitely and followed a fairly predictable path of success as a designer.


However, in evaluating her next steps, this plan sounded a little too safe. She decided to leave her full time job in order to embark on a year long trip around the world that began in October 2017.

The first conversation of this series between myself, Charis, and Joan took place two months into her trip while she was in Prague.

Visual designer Joan Wong

Joan Wong: My first thought—well food related, so I’m in Prague and I went to a couple of Czech restaurants. And one of the big dishes they have here is like beef goulash with dumplings. And by dumplings, it’s not the dumplings that we’re thinking of.


It’s kind of like really soft bread. No filling. Just like slices of really soft dense bread that soaks up all the sauce from the goulash.


Charis Poon: I feel like if it’s not wrapping something it’s not a dumpling.


Joan: That’s what everyone says, but that’s what they call a dumpling.


And it’s kind of my favorite thing because when I eat bread I tend to carve out the middle, the center mushy part and I just eat that. And this is like, they did that for me with meat and sauce and it’s delicious.

Charis: That sounds really good.


Charis (VO): Joan Wong worked at Penguin Random House in New York for the past five years as a book cover designer. Among her well-known works are the paperback covers of the Crazy Rich Asians series by Kevin Kwan, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Half Of A Yellow Sun, and We Should All Be Feminists.


The We Should All Be Feminists book cover gained a life of its own and was seen replicated on posters during the Women’s March.


In fact, Dior essentially uses the same typeface, tracking, and layout as Joan’s book cover design for its We Should All Be Feminists t-shirt, though she’s not credited.


 Joan was on track for a successful career as a book cover designer the kind of career that includes winning awards, being on panels, and having authors actively request her work for their publications. Of course all of that can still happen.


She could easily have stayed at Penguin Random House following similar trajectories as heavyweight book cover designers like Chip Kidd and Peter Mendelsund.


And this path has its attractions: a secure paycheck, steady rewarding work, and industry recognition. However, in evaluating her next steps this plan sounded a little too safe for this moment.


She decided to leave her full time job in order to embark on a year long trip around the world that began in October 2017. Her itinerary included Croatia, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. The whole thing is made possible because of the program Remote Year. This conversation between myself, Charis, and Joan took place two months into her trip while she was in Prague.


Joan: Remote Year is a program that allows people who can work remotely to live in a different city every month. They set you up with a place to live and a place to work and flights in between each city.


Charis: Did you have any expectations about what Croatia would be like? 

How would you describe it to me?


Joan: Split was a small town. We stayed right by the ocean, the Adriatic Sea. It is a beach city. I think what I expected was more touristy. And it was very touristy but I was expecting touristy in the sense, the way Cancun Mexico is very touristy, with white sand beaches and a lot of beach umbrellas and people hanging around but it was… No hotels just small buildings and the beaches were… The biggest difference is the beaches were full of little pebbles instead of white sand.


Charis: That doesn’t seem to make them very good beaches.


Joan: You would think! Except I actually found it really convenient because sand wouldn’t get everywhere. So you can have the beach experience without the messiness of the sand. And if you have flip flops you don’t have to worry about your feet hurting. But other than that it was actually kind of preferable. So we stayed right by the stretch of the coastline. I think my biggest struggle with Split was that it was so small.


Charis: Where are you from originally?


Joan: Yeah, well I’m from New York City so a lot of other cities are going to 

feel small.


Charis: Most of the world is probably going to feel small.


Joan: Right, but it was also we stayed in this area where we only had maybe three or four restaurants to start with. And then at some point during the month they had to tear all these restaurants down because of tax violations or something like that.


Charis: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy.


Joan: Yeah. So after a while we didn’t have any places to eat. Everything closes fairly early. It was also a lifestyle that I never thought that I would live—to be so close to the beach.


I never thought I would be beachfront for a month. The working space in Split is owned by Remote Year. It’s got really great lighting and these open tables and it’s really well decorated.


But it’s hard to get work done when you’re always surrounded by 50 budding friendships. So you’re sitting down and you have plans to be productive and you see someone, you know, planning to go to lunch and you think, “Oh I’ll go too.” Or you see someone that you haven’t spoken to for a little bit and you think, “I’ll just start a conversation with this person.”


Charis: And you were saying how actually not a lot of people have jobs similar to yours. They don’t work in the same kind of field.


Joan: Well the great thing about Remote Year is that they take people of all backgrounds so everyone has a different kind of job. So everyone works in different industries. There are people here that are still connected to their full time jobs.


Charis: And they have to work at the same time as the people back at their home office.


Joan: So time zones are a big deal for them and they are tied to the workspace at certain hours whereas I’m not.

“But also you don’t want to get to a point where you feel like, ‘Well, this life that I’m living is better than the life of people who are staying put.’ Because everyone has their own situation; everyone’s finding their own way. I think just stay humble and count your blessings.”

— Joan Wong

Charis: It’s interesting because I would think that the time zone would affect you in some way too because the majority of your clients are in North America and I know some of your jobs are really time sensitive where it might be back and forth over a couple of hours. What happens if you’re not awake when they need something revised?


Joan: Well, so to give a little background on the kind of work that I do. I’m a freelance graphic designer, but in a very niche field. My clients are mainly publishers. So a lot of my work is designing covers for books, but I also do editorial illustrations for certain news outlets. So for example, I do op-ed illustrations for The New York Times, for The New Yorker, and New Republic things like that.


And the book covers are not very time sensitive. It’s usually, I get the job, I send them the first round of designs maybe three weeks later. The op-ed illustrations are extremely time sensitive. So the way it works is usually someone from, for example, The New York Times contacts me and they give me a little bit of information on what the article is going to be about, they ask about my availability, and they need to know in 15 minutes.


I need to respond to that email in 15 minutes to get the job. There are times even while I’m back home in the same time zone where I’m not constantly checking my email and I would miss the job.


Charis: You could be out at lunch and you’d miss it.


Joan: Exactly, exactly. If I am available and I respond in time, they usually want to see sketches in the next three hours, and then they want to have the final three hours after that. So it usually is at least a 24 hour turnaround.


That makes it a little bit difficult with the time zones although, right now I’m in Europe and so usually if they email me in the Eastern time zone after noon, it would be late afternoon. It would be 7 hours later in Croatia.


Charis: So it’s still possible but it would mean that you might be working really late.


Joan: Yes. Working really late and maybe missing evening plans with people.


Charis: Have you experienced the time zone difference stopping clients from 

finding you. Does it bother them that you are not in person in New York?


Joan: I don’t think it bothers my publishing clients at all. I’m not even sure how many of my clients…I don’t openly tell them that I’m working remotely. I don’t hide it. It’s just I feel like I always deliver when they need it.


Charis: Because you don’t even meet them in person in New York anyway.


Joan: Exactly. 80% of the art directors I’ve worked with I’ve never met.


Charis: Got it.



Joan: I don’t really see that being that much of an issue. There are more editorial jobs I have had to turn down because of the time difference, which is a shame.


Charis: Have you thought about trying to find work locally? Where are you right now?


Joan: I’m in Prague, Czech Republic.


Charis: Right. So has it occurred to you to find work in Croatia or Czech Republic or wherever you are next. Or is that kind of not the intention.


Joan: I haven’t proactively done that.


Charis: So you’re in Prague now and you did mention that you felt like the Prague working space was better for you.


Joan: Well that’s what I said at the beginning of the month. I still think that that working space is more conducive to productivity. But the great thing about Prague, probably my favorite thing about Prague, is that there are cozy cafés everywhere. 


Every other block is a great café to work in. So I actually haven’t gone to the 

working space in a couple of weeks because there are so many places to check out.


Charis: Do you find a difference at all in working in Prague vs when you were working in New York? In terms of the working space that you’re in, does it affect you in any way creatively or in productivity to be in a café in Prague vs a café in New York?


Joan: I think Prague cafés are cozier and you’re meant to stay there and set yourself up for the whole day. A lot of the places are made for that. The people who work there expect that. Whereas in New York you always feel a little bit rushed. So it’s nice to know that no one’s going to bother you if you really just stay there for a really long time.


You know, I did expect a new environment to inspire me creatively and maybe subconsciously on some level it is. But I haven’t seen it reflected in my work yet.


Charis: That was what I was thinking about. Because I feel like this is something people say a lot, that if you go travel more and see places that you’ve never been before then it will somehow inspire new things.


Especially when you’re people like us and you’re making things from scratch, right, from zero. And I was wondering, so you’ve been abroad now for two months and if that idea is actually true.


Joan: I was kind of hoping it would be more true than it is so far. I think I am taking in more things visually and I’m more visually stimulated and I do think that subconsciously on some level that must be doing something.


And maybe currently my client work is not the type of work for all of that to come out yet, but being exposed to all these new visuals is great and inspiring, but it’s also countering the fact that there’s so much to adjust to. I think part of creativity yes, is the inspiration but it’s also, you need to be at a certain level of comfort and you’re just constantly being pushed to be in a new environment you have to adjust to.


You know, I used to work on an iMac versus now I work on a laptop. I don’t have all the tools that I need readily available because I used to work in an office space and the scanners and the printers are all there and now it’s just a little bit more of a compromise. Everything around me, the people around me, it’s all a little bit different. And all of those little things add up to suck up a lot of your energy. I’m assuming that must affect my work ethic as well.


Charis: Of course. There’s obviously comfort in having the same desk. Like there are cons to full time working, but definitely a pro is that you get to make your workspace perfect. Now your workspace is… especially because you find working in café’s is easier, your workspace literally changes every day—the view, the people who are next to you.


Joan: I’m kind of hoping that adjusting to new workspaces will start to feel normal for me.


Charis: And maybe it’s too simplistic of me to suggest that, you know, you take a weekend trip to Amsterdam and then the Amsterdam scenery immediately translates itself in your work. That’s definitely something out of a TV show, right. And the reality of the way inspiration works is more complicated then that.


Joan: Also the reality of my work is that, yeah, you love to just, I saw a lot of really interesting architecture in Amsterdam and a lot of beautiful scenery that’s visually inspiring, but if I don’t have the right project or the right outlet for it, that’s not going to come out.


Like for example the current thing I’m working on is a movie poster. There’s nothing to do with Amsterdam. There’s nothing about that trip that I can put into this project. And so maybe the key is to either work on a personal project or maybe do something for each city.


Charis: Well, yes, like I would want to encourage you to do personal projects related to how you’re traveling, but I also think maybe the ideal thing that happens is half a year later you are doing a project where it’s like, this is perfect, this weekend trip to Amsterdam back in November. It’s now the time to use that inspiration.

“I’d like to be a little bit more self-assertive in terms of, ‘Yeah like today I have to work and so I’m going to work. I don’t care what you guys are doing. This is what I need to do for myself.’”

Joan: Exactly. And I actually feel very inspired by the people that I’m meeting instead of the places that I’m in. So I’m working on a project called “Sister Life.” Basically, “sister life” is a term I read about in a book. It means the life that you could have had or the life that could’ve been. So everyone has them.


Something happens to you or you make a decision and your life takes a different course. And that other course is called a sister life because it’s related to you but it’s not your life.


And so I’ve been collecting stories from people about their sister lives and having them write about what their sister life could’ve looked like had they not done this thing or had they not left that relationship, had they not majored in this instead of that, had this loved one not passed away.


Things like that. I recently took a trip to Berlin and I stayed in a hostel and met some people there and I’ve been asking them to contribute. I already got some contributions, but also everyone after me pitching this idea has shared their story verbally with me. And it’s always interesting. And it’s also just the best way to really connect with someone because they’re sharing something personal with you.


Charis: To speak a little bit more about remote year and the people that you’ve been meeting. You told me before that there is a larger philosophy to Remote Year.


Joan: So Remote Year, they do a lot of practical things for you. They basically handle a lot of fussy stuff of traveling. So you don’t have to book your own hotel or Airbnb, you don’t have to find your own workspace, you don’t have to book your flights, or think about how to get from the airport to the apartment. Things like that, they take care of all of that—which is great.


Charis: Yeah that’s big.


Joan: And they provide you with a community of people to travel with. So these are all practical things that they do for you, but they also, I would say that they also believe they’re part of a bigger movement. They think more and more people are going to be working remotely in the future.


They kind of embrace that idea that one day we can all be digital nomads and do this. And so they do… they do believe that they’re kind of in the forefront of this movement.


Charis: Do you personally find yourself identifying with that deeper philosophy?


Joan: I think that everyone who is doing Remote Year, myself included, is a very privileged person. This is not something that everyone can afford to do in terms of money, but also time. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this. I’m so grateful to Remote Year that they’re making it so easy for me by handling all the logistical stuff.


But I do think that we have to be a little more self aware of how lucky we are to be able to do this and not turn this into something… I do think that they’re touching on something where there are more people who are capable of doing this both financially and with time and with their lifestyle than we think.


And that there are a lot of people who are not doing something like this out of fear. And they don’t want to change. But then there are also a lot of people who are just… don’t have the means to. And so I fear that if we normalize this too much it’s excluding people.


Charis: Maybe it’s not the idea that Remote Year is a normalization of remote working that’s dangerous, but it’s the idea that this is a better lifestyle. That the person who is willing to take a leap and do Remote Year is somehow more courageous or, do you know what I mean, like more adventurous or just somehow a… like this adds value to you as a person.


I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about is potentially dangerous about really pushing this idea.


Joan: Yeah and obviously there’s definitely value in travel and to take leaps and take risks.


Charis Poon: I mean I feel this way too when I get to travel as well. I mean I’m not traveling for a year like you are. But even just traveling for two weeks, I’m joining you, right, in Japan.


I’m really aware that me being able to do that is not something everyone can do and it does come down to the kind of job that I have and financial security and being able to take time. Just a lot of factors falling into place.


Joan: And you’re right about what you said before, like I think it’s important to… you chose to take this risk. It’s paying off for you. I think you can pat yourself on the back a little bit for like making that big lifestyle change. It is very brave.


But also you don’t want to get to a point where you feel like, “Well this life that I’m living is better than the life of people who are staying put.” Because everyone has their own situation; everyone’s finding their own way. I think just stay humble and count your blessings.


Charis: And I think also as a creative person, as much as I want for you to be inspired by your travels, I also don’t want for you to be reliant on that. You should be able to be equally as creative if you never leave New York or if you never leave home.


Charis: So the next time I speak to you what’s something you want to have accomplished?


Joan: I think that one thing I’d like to achieve maybe not by next month but by the end of this year is to be more comfortable and independent in my decision making on what to do for this year.


I think one of the biggest struggles so far has been one, being pulled in too many different directions in terms of the freelance work that I have to do and also balancing that with all the activities that are available, all the things you have to see and all the people that you have to meet and trying to find the right balance on what to do when and not being influenced by what other people are doing while I’m doing this.


I’d like to be a little bit more self-assertive in terms of, “Yeah like today I have to work and so I’m going to work. I don’t care what you guys are doing. This is what I need to do for myself.” Or even just like tomorrow, you know maybe I’ve done a lot of group activities, maybe tomorrow I need to take the day for myself.


Even if there’s a party going on, even if there’s something really cool that a bunch of people are doing—I’m choosing to take care of myself and have some alone time to stay at home and read or something.


I’ve been sort of doing that but I don’t think I’ve been doing that enough and I’ve been doing it with a lot of guilt. Feeling like I’m missing out on things. And I’d like to not feel guilty and just think this is what I need to do for me and that’s that.

To see more of Joan’s work, take a look at her portfolio or follow her on Instagram.

Take a look at Joan’s Sister Life project and contribute your own sister life story. For the second part of this story, click below.

David Kenji Chang talks with the founder in his LA studio and new shop to talk about his life’s work and staying weird in a weird world.