Zoe Norvell: Designing Book Covers On The Go

Zoe Norvell is a Washington, DC-based freelance cover designer. Earlier this year she "went nomadic" and spent 4 months travelling while designing book covers on the go. She visited 8 countries in Central and South America while maintaining her normal cover workload. Read on to learn about her fantastic journey.

To be a great designer, I believe one must live an enriched life. Designers find inspiration everywhere we look—from famous museums to dusty junk shops to the colorful currencies of other countries. In order to express the world visually, it’s important to me to digest as much of it as possible. This is one of the many reasons why travel has always loomed large in my life. Going to a new city or a national park is a feast for my eyes and a shot of adrenaline to my creative muscles! Traveling forces me to look beyond my desk, beyond Pinterest or Tumblr, and go straight to the source.

After living in Brooklyn, NY for ten years, I packed up and moved out at the end of 2017. For the last four months I’ve been a “digital nomad,” living in and visiting eight countries in Central and South America: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. In late December, I flew south with my MacbookPro, drawing tablet, notebook, a large bag, and a loose itinerary. During this time away, I upheld my usual work load—working on over 30 book covers.


This new lifestyle was a test of sorts: Would I be able to work efficiently or would I feel constantly distracted? Would the transience energize or exhaust me? Would I be lonely traveling solo? And how would my mood affect my performance? I’m happy to report positivity in every aspect. With the growing popularity of co-working spaces, I was able to work as efficiently as before. I absolutely felt energized each time I arrived in a new city, and with more and more people going remote, I was rarely lonely. 


While living in Costa Rica, I worked on various books including The Farmhouse on Laragh Lane, for Simon & Schuster.


My travels have indeed enriched my life. Every place I visited was incredibly different. I soaked in the old graffitied walls in Valparaiso (Chile), the wooden milagros of San Miguel de Allende (Mexico), woven, indigenous fabrics of Chile, and the way the sunrise is reflected like a Rorschach image on the Bolivian salt flats.  

When you’re in a new place for only a few weeks, there is no time to waste. I felt extremely motivated to see as much as possible in every city I went to. I saw inspiring artworks in the Museo Nacional de Arte (Mexico City), the sculpture museum at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico City), the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Santiago, Chile), the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno (Mendoza, Argentina), the Museo Carlos Alonso (Mendoza, Argentina), and in countless galleries in artsy San Miguel de Allende and Valparaiso.

These experiences did not necessarily translate into projects on my plate immediately. The vibrantly painted houses in Nicaragua did not have a direct effect on the finance cover I was working on that day. I can’t show you how a particular poster in Mexico City affected a forthcoming cover of mine—but with every new city, new architecture, and new experience, I strengthened my creative muscles. The same way that I use Pinterest to store images for future designs, I collected inspiration from my travels to add to my creative toolbox. An artist is constantly observing: you collect, collect, and collect anything that catches your eye until one day a project comes across your desk—and there’s a spark. Consider Japonisme: Japanese prints made in the 1830s did not reach France until the 1850s. The influences of this new style wouldn’t become evident in Impressionism until later in the 1890s. 

When I was living in Nicaragua in January, I worked on a book for Biblioasis based in Angola. Having never set foot there, I spent time looking at photos of Angola online to help me visualize the story accurately while I read the manuscript. Perhaps one day I will be asked to design a cover for a book based in Mexico and my time there will help me to get it right. Sometimes a certain fruit takes several months to ripen, but that shouldn’t prevent you from planting its tree.


In January, I designed Transparent City for Biblioasis while living in Nicaragua.


I did notice, however, that travel had an immediate effect on my mood: exploring excites me and I took that enthusiasm to my laptop. As a creative, my mood is inextricably linked to my work. When my life is more fulfilling, I have found that I am generally more satisfied with what I produce. Working while on the road means I was still spending 6-8 hours a day in front of the same screen, using the same Adobe programs—but everything that bookended my workday was varied, engaging and stimulating. I utilized that positive energy when I needed to buckle down and be productive.


Selina’s Medellin location


I much prefer working from a co-working space over a cafe. At a cafe, you’ve got to keep buying croissants to earn your keep. At a co-working space, your day pass includes Wi-Fi, coffee, charging ports, ample desk space and the right to be left alone. Some spaces are open 24 hours so you don’t need to worry about getting kicked out when you’re in the zone.


I got my first taste of life at a co-working/co-living space on this trip. The first place I traveled to was Costa Rica. I stayed at Outsite located five minutes from a quiet beach on the southern shores. With my own kitchen, a 24-hour office space, a yoga studio nearby, and a small community of likeminded creatives, I easily developed a healthy, personal routine.


Outset’s Costa Rica location


I also stayed in an office space with accommodations in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Although SJDS is mostly known for surfing and for its raucous backpacker nightlife (neither of which are conducive to working), what brought me there was NomadLife. This turned out to be a pretty special place. I was immediately impressed with the other residents there: 25-35 year old freelancers from all over the world, all of whom were very serious about their businesses. I met freelance writers, app developers, web developers, life coaches, online advertisers, a couple of graduate students, and a team of about a dozen recruiters from a popular travel company Remote Year.


NomadLife in Nicaragua


When I started my day at 8:30 a.m. each morning, the property would already be buzzing with members glued to their laptops. We would break for lunch, chit chat, and then it was back to our screens until dinner. Life continued like this for the three weeks I lived there in January. Several people I met in SJDS I would later see again in other countries.

In February, I continued north to Mexico City (locally known as CDMX: Ciudad de Mexico). For years, I’d had friends from Brooklyn telling me what a great place Mexico City was, so I was excited to finally experience it for myself. CDMX, a land-locked city of 9 million people, felt immediately different from beach life. I stayed in two different AirBnBs in the Condesa/Roma Norte areas—the so-called Williamsburg of Mexico City.


Desk spaces in Mexico City AirBnbs 


I was now living on my own which meant socializing was no longer simply on the other side of my bedroom wall, but that didn’t matter—CDMX is a total hub for freelancers. That same group of Remote Year salespeople were also in CDMX and I even overlapped with a Parisian writer I had met in Montreal last summer. We freelancers seem to flock to the same places! A couple of times I worked from an amazing, laptop-friendly cafe called Blend Station and one day I ran into a friend I had made in San Juan del Sur weeks before. In CDMX I worked on various projects including Atrophy for Write Bloody and Man with a Seagull on his Head for Biblioasis.


Designs for Man With a Seagull on his Head for Biblioasis, designed in February from Mexico City


Next, I went to the incredibly charming town of San Miguel de Allende, located north of Mexico City. San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has attracted artists from all over the globe for decades, evident in its never-ending streets of galleries and artist studios. It was also in this paradise that I ran into my first major Wi-Fi issue: the Wi-Fi at the AirBNB I had booked with my family was down for our first three days there. I wasted a whole day running from cafe to cafe searching for good Wi-Fi until finally I discovered a co-working space: Espacio.


Espacio office in San Miguel de Allende 


Don’t remember what bad internet feels like? That’s because we’re spoiled with high-speed in most parts of the US. But believe me, it’s impossible to work when you’re stuck on a stock photography website, waiting for images to load like it’s 1999. I worked on Sadness, Love, Openness for Shambhala Publications from San Miguel de Allende.


Designs for Sadness, Love, Openness for Shambhala, designed in San Miguel de Allende


After San Miguel, I flew south to Panama City. PC was my first bust: I just wasn’t feeling it. For me, the city’s best quality was its abundance of nice co-working offices, which meant I got a lot of work done. I was in PC for nine days and worked from four co-working spaces, a Starbucks, and my hotel’s lobby. I spent $26 total on office space in PC by using free day passes from Coworker.com. I enjoyed testing out different places before returning to my favorite one, Workings Obarrio.


Workings office spaces in Panama City


In March I returned to Mexico, this time on the coast in Quintana Roo. I lived in Playa del Carmen with three girls I had met in Nicaragua. After a lot of moving around, it was nice to be in one place for an entire month. It was also nice to be living with three freelancers who lived my same schedule. We worked Monday through Friday and then spent the weekends exploring quiet beach towns like Mahahual, Bacalar, and Tulum. Playa has a lively expat community which meant it also had several co-working spaces to choose from. One of my friends joined Nest for the month, but I preferred to move around. In Playa del Carmen I worked from Altus, Selina, my favorite coffee shop, and on the quiet rooftop of my hotel. I worked on several covers that month, including Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.


Co-Working spaces in Playa del Carmen, Mexico


In April, I left Central America, touched down in Colombia, and spent the next two weeks in Medellin. I’d been told over and over again that Medellin was a great place for freelancers—and it was! After working from Selina offices in Costa Rica and Playa del Carmen, I was excited to stay in one full time. In Selina Medellin I booked a private room just four floors above their 24-hour co-working office. I found that Medellin attracts freelancers who are seeking a steady place to live for 2-3 months, not weeks. I can see why and I plan to go back. At Selina Medellin, I was working on various projects including A Very Large Expanse of Sea, forthcoming from Harper Collins.


Selina’s Medellin location


After Medellin, I flew south to Santiago, Chile. With Santiago as my home base, I was again able to explore some great places on the weekends: Valparaiso (on the coast) and Mendoza, Argentina. Santiago is a huge city with over 30 co-working options. I worked from Edge and also toured STGO Makerspace which is uniquely suited for makers and inventors. In April, I worked on various projects including The Iconoclast’s Journal, forthcoming from Biblioasis.


Designs for The Iconoclast’s Journal for Biblioasis


At the beginning of May, I unplugged for a week to fulfill a major bucket list item: A three-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, also known as the Bolivian Salt Flats. The variety of bizarre and beautiful geological wonders that I saw on this trip blew my mind! It was the perfect ending to the first chapter of life on the go. I’ll spend a month in the states before swapping out my suitcase and heading to Europe for the summer. 

All in all, the four months went well. I loved certain cities, liked others, and tolerated Panama. I never lost a bag nor damaged my computer. And thankfully, I never had to deal with my biggest nightmare: laptop issues. Whenever I opened my laptop, I would sometimes fear being greeted with the black screen of death. Since the day I left the states, I knew that I’d be totally screwed if my MacBookPro died on me one day. It happens! We’ve all been there. But what if it happens when I’m (literally) thousands of miles from the nearest Apple Store? I knew that if this ever happened, I’d need to fly home and buy a new computer—and fast!


Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.