Ankara Press illustrator Onyinye Iwu reflects on the design journey

Onyinye Iwu is a 24-year-old illustrator and designer, and the creator of our fabulous Ankara Press cover images. She reflects here on the process of bringing the Ankara Press heroines to life.

I follow Cassava Republic Press on Twitter and they must have seen some of my illustrations because Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the publisher, approached me with this project. Even though I knew that the design process wasn’t going to be easy, and this certainly was the case when designing the covers for the debut of Ankara Press, I was ecstatic. I knew that we needed a new typology, something iconic, and that was going to take some trial and error. I had to consider all elements of design, such as layout, font and colour, in a new and innovative way. In my head, I was thinking, ‘What would an African Mills & Boon cover look like?’ But we were never going to have an ‘African Mills & Boon’, rather, we were going to create something uniquely different, outside of the usual romance cover style. The design brief was very clear: ‘The tone is clean, modern and minimalist, yet African. We want the illustrations to reflect different shades of beautiful black skin and if the illustration is black and white, then the figure should be recognisably black.

Let’s be honest! We all judge a book by its cover, so, with such a strong brief, I was quite nervous with having the task to represent African Romance. What we established quite early on was that we needed these books to reflect the modern African romance from the female prospective, long gone are the days when men are the sole protagonists of our stories, romance or otherwise!

We went through a variety of designs, colours and characters but what we needed was a focus and that was the female protagonist. I revisited the brief, which clearly stated that the ‘woman should be the central focus of the image.’ We decided to move her centre stage, exactly where she should be. We wanted to celebrate Africa and showcase its women and fashion and this is why Ankara print is heavily presented in all the covers.



I had challenges getting the images of the women right. But I think the real breakthrough came when we asked the authors to send us images of what their protagonists looked like. It gave me a clearer view of who these heroines were, their characters and attitudes - and made my life much easier!

Finally, with distinct features the protagonists came to life and all I had to do now was fine-tune them and give them beautifully tailored attire and hair. This was the fun part, experimenting with different skin tones, hairstyles and outfits. I’m not a fashion illustrator but I do adore my African print fabrics, so I was in my element when designing the perfect outfit to complement the gorgeous patterns of the Vlisco materials! Then the question was whether Vlisco would give us permission to use their designs for commercial purposes. I went ahead with designing whilst the publisher approached Vlisco, who eventually replied with enthusiasm, confirming their support for our proposed images.

And here they are in all their glory! Six beautiful women ready to engulf us in their world! I’m so excited about this series; I can’t wait to read all the finished books and to design more new and exciting covers. I want to say a big thank you to all the Ankara Press team and especially Bibi for believing in me and seeing me through till the end of the project. I’m really honoured to have been part of this exciting journey.

Onyinye Iwu is an illustrator and designer who dabbles in a little bit of writing. She is Nigerian, was born in Italy and lives in the UK. She loves to work on projects that promote African literature, both adult and children’s fiction. If you wish to contact Onyinye, please tweet her @onyi_nye or email her at

Comments on this post  ( 2 )

Marilu says:

Frankly I think that’s ablusotely good stuff.

@NnejiEke says:

Onyinye is brilliant at what she does! Very dedicated as well…I recommend her strongly.

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