In Conversation with Raxenne Maniquiz


You may not know her name, but you should! When I first saw the U.S. cover for the book When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, I immediately wanted to know who designed it. Her name is Raxenne Maniquiz and she’s the talented young woman behind the image that powerfully captures the aura of Ayanna’s book for the version published in the U.S. in March.

I openly admit that I’m drawn to books with aesthetically pleasing covers that succeed in capturing its essence. Raxenne fully immersed herself in the world of Port Angeles in order to produce her interpretation for the cover, using flora and wildlife from Trinidad that are included in the book. 

Raxenne lives in the province of Bulacan, near Manilla, in the Philippines, and attended the University of Santo Tomas, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in advertising. She’s currently a full-time freelancer, after working for 7 years at Plus63 Design Co. where she’s designed for major brands including M.A.C Cosmetics, Jordan, Adobe, Uniqlo, and others.

I am beyond thrilled to have Raxenne on the series discussing her design for this book, her overall design process, and to get to know her more as a person. Below is our conversation.

Tricia: Raxenne, thank you so much for joining me in conversation, welcome! How have you been?

Raxenne: Hi! Thank you for having me. I’ve been good. I’m busy with ongoing projects.

Tricia: I love the cover you designed for When We Were Birds! I know that you are from the Philippines, but can you tell me a bit about your background, how you became interested in graphic design, the projects you’ve worked on, and where you are now in your career?

Raxenne: Thank you! I actually graduated with a degree in advertising, so graphic design came later on when I was already working on my second job. It was at an in-house design studio for a retail group. Because the budget and staff were scarce, I also did some of the illustrations for some of the catalogs I worked on back then. I think that’s where I started leaning into doing illustration as well down the line.

Looking back, nothing was ever really planned. I didn’t think I would end up doing what I do now. Right now, I’m trying to put more focus on personal work I want to do. It is hard because, obviously, client work financially sustains me, and it’s hard to say no when freelancing has become a full-time endeavor. So, there’s that balancing act, but I don’t think I’m doing it well (laugh out loud).

Tricia: I’m sure you’re doing the best you can. You characterize yourself as a graphic designer and an illustrator. Can you explain what the similarities and differences are between these two titles in your work?

Raxenne: Hmm, I think they are both similar in the way that at the core of it all, my mission is to address the challenge presented by my client: whether it’s a branding or packaging project or a commercial illustration commission. I think both practices influence each other. I’m a graphic designer first before becoming an illustrator, so for a while, I’ve drawn artworks based on where or how it will be seen, how it will interact with the branding or the packaging, those sorts of things. It gives me direction.

Tricia: In looking at some of your designs, I see a theme that centers around flowers, small insects, and even fruit. I also noticed that your ‘color mood’ leans more toward a muted, almost matte interpretation that gives off an air of surrealness. What influenced the development of your aesthetic?

Raxenne: I just tried to maximize what I am capable of doing, which was doing traditional work. Back in art school, I was kind of good at painting technically. (Kind of hahaha!) So, I just tried to apply that when I started drawing digitally and doing that repeatedly has evolved my style. I love the precision that came with old botanical drawings and I think that was what I felt like I could actually do. I’m bad with anatomy, bad with drawing people. So, I just tried another way.

Tricia: You have worked with some well-known brands during your career. How did you become interested in designing book covers and can you tell me how this opportunity to work on When We Were Birds came about?

Raxenne: My first international book cover was The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera. I’m not sure how they got wind of my work, but I got an email from their editor regarding the project. I was a bit anxious at first because the story is amazing and I’m not sure if my style can do it justice. But they were very helpful and they showed me my previous work that they really felt like would work well with the story. And after I was able to read the story, it suddenly made sense. And I became more confident moving forward.

Doubleday, Ayanna’s publisher, emailed a few months after I wrapped up The Last Cuentista. I was really excited! I was thinking, wow! Another book cover! This time around it was the creative director who emailed me. It was Ayanna herself who recommended my work so that’s pretty amazing.

Tricia: When I first saw the cover for the U.S. version of When We Were Birds, I was like, ‘Yea! This designer understood and executed the assignment!’ Tell me about your design process for this book and what was the most important thing you wanted to capture in your design?

Raxenne: Oh wow thank you! While reading the book, I was already taking down notes because I didn’t want to forget anything. Ayanna’s setting was very lush and her words evoke such vivid imagery that I felt like I was there seeing the landscape. That really helped with coming up with concepts for the cover. I really just wanted to capture that world and evoke the story even if I’m just using flora and fauna. After finishing the story, I began sketching ideas right away so I don’t forget. I chose around three concepts I like best. I researched flora and fauna found in Trinidad and Tobago that I can use as reference. I then sketched the concepts digitally.

Tricia: Your design is very intricate and captures the elements of the story. Can you describe your design for me in detail?

Raxenne: The first sketch is called History. This concept plays with Yejide’s portrait. Instead of a normal portrait, her face is made up of elements from the story passed down to the St. Bernard women. It symbolizes how she is made up of the histories of women before her. The second one is called Time Before Time. This option shows a lush landscape at a glance, trying to encapsulate that time before time from Grandma Catherine’s story. The animals are hiding behind the tropical foliage. And finally the third sketch is called The Lovers. This plays with the silhouette of Darwin and Yejide surrounded by the Ixora plant which is found in Fidelis, the cemetery where they first met. The mementos from Yejide’s ancestors are also scattered all throughout.

Tricia: I love the way you incorporate the scarlet ibis, the corbeaux, and the Ixora flowers, which I can remember picking and sucking out the nectar from, when I was a child. What kind of research, if any, did you do to find these flowers and birds from Trinidad?

Raxenne: Oh, we have the same memory! Here, we call it Santan. We also make bracelets and necklaces and crowns out of it. As for the research, you know, I just really Googled. It’s my friend. But it takes a while (laugh out loud). So many open tabs! Those three were what really stood out in the novel, so I had to complement those with other native or endemic species found in Trinidad. It takes a while though because I like to save a lot of references. I need options for when I’m already composing the artwork. I’d think of things like, ‘this needs a bit more red here to balance it out.’ So, I’m looking for red leaves or red flora to cut through that greenery. I’m taking note of the colors of the species as I collect them to see I have a balanced selection.

Tricia: When We Were Birds has an overarching magical realism theme that adds to the aura and mood of the book. How did you try to capture this aura in your design?

Raxenne: I tried to do it by using colors. The flora and fauna are more saturated than they are in real life. There are also blue leaves scattered around. I wanted to amplify the setting by making it more vivid.

Tricia: Personally, I love an attractive book cover, and if I’m wandering a bookstore, I’m looking for covers that stand out and grab me. During your design process, are you ever thinking about making your design as attractive as possible for potential readers?

Raxenne: I don’t think so. When I was drawing the concepts, what mattered to me was the story itself. So, my main objective then was how do I interpret the story in different ways. After doing the sketches, I also designed them so I can show the creative director how the illustration can be used. But that’s it. I think making the design or layout itself more attractive to potential readers is for the creative director or art director to decide in the end. Maybe others’ processes would involve having a design first and having an illustration be drawn around it or be drawn already with the current layout in mind. But it wasn’t the case for me, so I was able to just really focus on the story.

Tricia: When you work on a book project, what takes precedence for you in terms of the message you want to capture through your design?

Raxenne: It’s really the story. It doesn’t matter as much if the artwork doesn’t make sense at first glance. I’m not sure if this is correct (laugh out loud). But I remember reading books I really loved and going back to the cover or the jacket and seeing things again for the first time because now they made sense after finishing the story. I love that feeling.

Tricia: Is there a project that you haven’t done yet that you’d love to work on in the future that stretches your creativity?

Raxenne: Hmm, career-wise, maybe something furniture related? Something huge and tangible I guess! But personally, I would like to work on an exhibit. Doing work for myself scares me.

Thank you so much for your time Raxenne! I look forward to seeing your work, especially your next book design, on my shelf! You can see more examples of Raxenne’s designs on her website and follow her on Instagram. Be sure to listen to my interview with Ayanna Lloyd Banwo for her U.S. book launch.

Photo and illustrations courtesy Raxenne Maniquiz.

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