Under the Covers: Chip Kidd Discusses His New Novel and Designing the World’s Best Book Jackets
Called the closest thing to a rock star in graphic design by USA Today, Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director of the storied Knopf publishing imprint of Random House, has utterly redefined the book jacket and book packaging.
No longer simply disposable ephemera for the dissemination of marketing messages and contemporaneous quotes, Kidd captures a thoughtful expression of the book’s character in design… a look into its soul if you will.
Kidd’s covers (click here for a sampling) have been adorning the works of some of today’s most celebrated authors including Orhan Pamuk, Oliver Sacks (whose contract stipulates Chip Kidd’s involvement with each book), William Irwin Thompson, John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Crichton, David Sedaris, and James Ellroy (who calls Chip Kidd the world’s greatest book jacket designer) for twenty years for Knopf and freelance for a number of publishing houses.
Kidd has a central ethos which he illustrates with dexterity and wit in his first novel, The Cheese Monkeys: good is dead. Not an existentialist nugget of Nietzschism, but rather a call to excel in both our work and our expectations. Why accept the merely good and the adequate, when we can strive for the great?
Author of two novels, Kidd has also curated and packaged a number of coffee table books. He’s the Editor-at-Large of the Pantheon Books’ graphic novel line. On top of all that he’s written for a number of magazines including McSweeney’s, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and Print. And he fronts his own band,artbreak. He’s also a pretty snappy dresser… and his mom’s really nice.
I (and my students) had the opportunity to sit down with Chip Kidd at the opening reception (hosted by his mom) for his kickoff appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia for his book tour in support of his new novel,The Learners. Chip graciously answered my questions while his mom made sure that we all had enough to eat.
WRR: Your novel, The Cheese Monkeys, operates on two levels in skewering art school pomposity but also making a statement about the importance of design in solving real-world problems. Do you think that graphic design really can save the world?
It’s a satire by making fun of it and I guess I’m making fun of the sillier parts of art school. But, at the same time I also try to build a case for the fact that you can get a good education in graphic design — or frankly in anything — if you have a really good teacher.
I’ve been to schools all over the country, I’ve taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York for six years. I’ve been to the most prestigious ones… and to ones that you wouldn’t think that there was much going on. I think that if you have a good teacher that you respond to and that has imparted some kind of message to you — that you get and understand — and can really learn from.
That’s what it’s about. So I tried to set up this idea that this state university is a silly place to get an arts education, which it starts out to be. And then, when the Winter Sorbeck character comes along its like, “Wow we really could learn something here.” And one of his lessons are that graphic design can save the world.
He’s sort of a ridiculously intense character. But I also wanted to make him have some really valid points that really get the kids thinking. But then also, the Himillsy Dodd character — she’s her own kind of ridiculous — will make certain points that challenge him, that sometimes he thinks are really interesting, and sometimes he thinks are just annoying. But she has her own points that she wants to make.
So I didn’t try to make it that Winter is always right, or that Himillsy’s always right, but at certain times they have their points to make. I didn’t want to stack the deck so that Winter is the “be-all-end-all” brilliant, flawless character. But he does have this “Graphic design can save the world or ruin it” thing where the swastika nearly ruined everything, but the American Eagle came in and saved it all. And then Himillsy responds — that’s actually a lot of fun too — it’s not just about the symbol, but what’s behind it.
It’s going to inspire people to do… or not to do. So can graphic design save the world? No. People can save the world. Basic human decency can save the world. If that’s what we decide we want to use, then graphic design can be a part of it. It’s not that it’s an insignificant part.
But again, it’s like somebody asked me about how important the book covers I did were. And to me hands down, it’s not really the book covers but the books themselves. So if I can get more people to read The Road by Cormac McCarthy through the cover, then so be it. But it’s the book itself that’s really important.
And then someone like Oprah comes along and says “bling.” It’s going to sell 3 million copies. Well good for her… and she’s doing far more for the book then I am.
But I don’t want to downplay it. Graphic design is really important. But, it’s really the message that it’s conveying that’s the most important thing.
WRR: In your sequel to The Cheese Monkeys, The Learners, Happy embarks on a journey to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Prof. Winter Sorbek, and enters the world of advertising circa 1961. Would this be a tale of lost innocence, which seems apropos entering into the decade of the turbulent sixties?
It’s very much a tale of lost innocence. Basically what happens — without giving too much away — is that Happy falls into this groove. It’s his first job. He really likes the people he’s working with and he really likes what he’s doing. Then he gets a seemingly innocuous assignment to design an ad to recruit people for this scientific experiment at Yale. Very simple.
But it turns out to be simple, and not so simple. Then I go into this typographical digression when he freaks out because he’s got to fit all this type into a relatively small space and he’s got to prioritize it all… And he wants you to read that first, and he wants to draw your eye here, but this is actually the most important thing. He does it, sends it in, and it starts running in the local newspaper.
Then one of the characters from The Cheese Monkeys comes back and — in their own way — encourages him to answer his own ad that he designed, and take the experiment at Yale. And what happens from that, totally screws him up basically.
And he’s both utterly fascinated by this… by what’s happened to him, and how it’s happened, and also by the fact that he designed the ad in the first place. But then what he learns about himself completely puts him in a downward spiral. And so in the last third of the book, he has to somehow reconcile all of this, and try to figure out how can he resolve this, and try to start over. So very much a loss of innocence, but not in any conventional way.
WRR: You’ve reminded me of a conversation that you’ve had with the great Milton Glaser (from The Believer, September 2003) about the morality and responsibility of what we do as graphic designers, and that it is very complicated. It’s a responsibility, whether you might be persuading somebody to do something, or stop doing something. What do you think in those terms?
Well, I am very lucky in that sense as I am in an ivory tower… and I know it. I’m in this place where I don’t have to worry about that moral quandary very much, because Knopf — which is where I primarily work — is one of the best publishers, frankly, in the world. So, I don’t have to worry about designing covers for books that I think will do harm.
We publish — and I’m not trying to take the moral high ground — Bill Clinton’s memoir and we published Carl Bernstein’s exposé of Hillary. Not because we wanted to operate at cross purposes, but just because we felt that the books, each in their own way, were valid.
I love Milton. Milton is a great inspiration to me. But one of Milton’s recent projects is a vodka bottle for Donald Trump. And that has me scratching my head… That’s like strike one… and strike two. What’s strike three? I mean, I love vodka. But I don’t know if I’d design something to encourage people to enjoy it.
But… it’s easy for me to sit here and say well, “You shouldn’t ever do anything that would compromise yourself.” Whatever. But, I also know people have mouths to feed.
WRR: You wrote The Cheese Monkeys directly in Quark Xpress (an industry standard page layout program used by graphic designers) 3.3. Which version of Quark did you write The Learners in… and what fonts did you use?
Quark 5 and then 6.. that’s how long it took. There are a couple areas where there are display fonts… I’m talking about how if you take a message towards the end of the book — and the message is “forgive me” — and if you say it in different fonts, it’s going to say the same thing… but it’s going to mean different things based on the way it looks.
Other than that, typographically, there aren’t many tricks. I didn’t want it to be this kind of screaming visual. There’s just enough gimmick in it without seeming like a novelty, but I still wanted to make it seem like a prose novel.
WRR: Your work has graced the covers of some very important books and you’ve worked with some truly great authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Michael Crichton, John Updike, David Sedaris, Orhan Pamuk, Oliver Sacks, William Irwin Thompson, and James Elroy to name a few. How does it feel to be a part of a cultural touchstone every time one of these books hit the bookstore shelves?
I think it’s very important not to take any of that too seriously. Like I said, this gets back to the whole thing that it’s really about the books. It’s not about the covers.
All those people you mentioned… it’s a total honor for me to be associated with them. I am fully aware that they are going to be who they are regardless of what I do. It’s just a nice convergence. And I’ll be the first to say that my career is piggybacking on theirs, and not the other way around. I am very lucky that they did what they did… and I was allowed to have a small association with it.
WRR: Do you pick your own projects?
A lot of them I pick and some of them are assignments from Knopf. But I’m fortunate that most of them, I pick.
WRR: I was curious about the process of conjuring up the stop-dead design that will halt the typical book browser in their tracks. What informs the creative process in distilling the sum of hundreds of pages into a single, arresting composition that immediately conveys a book’s persona?
It’s probably not a good idea to approach it that way. I think it’s much more intuitive. I mean, I’ve been doing this over 20 years now and you build up a certain amount of intuition about what can work for a certain project and what won’t.
You want to make it conceptual. You want it to somehow be striking. You want to engage the reader, but you can’t think too hard about things like demographic, or would this appeal to women, or would this not appeal to women, or does this look like it’s for kids. I think a lot of it… you have to go with your gut.
WRR: So… we’re talking beyond branding?
I’m not a big fan of the “B” word.
WRR: In recent years, Chip Kidd has moved beyond the packaging of content produced by others and has begun producing his own content (The Cheese Monkeys, The Learners, and Mythology among others). This leads one to wonder is Chip Kidd the ingenious stylist and interpreter who has evolved into a storyteller… or is Chip Kidd the storyteller first utilizing his innate narrative ability to form a visual-verbal connection with the reader?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that. Other than to say that at some time I liked the idea of going from just designing the surface of other projects to creating the content myself… and a novel’s sort of an extreme example of that.
But books on comics which I’m really into: Peanuts, Batman, all of that stuff… figuring out “Well, nobody’s ever done that, like a really comprehensive book on vintage Batman toys (Batman Collected).” So, if I don’t do it at some point, somebody else is going to. So figuring out how to do it, and what that means, and generating my own stuff. But I am still very interested in doing work for other clients.
WRR: You would seem to be quite the multi-tasker, as I’ve read that you have up to fifteen projects running in various stages of completion at any given time. Given your output of up to 75 jackets per year as well as editorial responsibilities in shepherding the Pantheon Graphic Novels line, as well as being a novelist, and having a band… how do you mentally switch gears in order to maintain focus on the task at hand?
Well, I think that it’s like channeling your Attention Deficit Disorder. I can pay attention to this for a little bit, and then I can leave that go and then work on this for a little bit, and then leave that go and work on this for a little bit… and of course the computer is the great enabler in all this stuff.
What you can now do in 10 minutes would take you three days conventionally, just typesetting alone. That is amazing. But I’m really glad that I learned the conventional way: typesetting, waxing things down, marking it all up for the printer, etc… I actually enjoyed that. I think after five to six years, we converted to the computer. But now I couldn’t do all that stuff that we’re talking about… if I didn’t have the newer means to do it.
There are all sorts of other factors. Frankly, I don’t have a family to take care of. People are like “how do you do it all?” What else do I have to do? Not a whole lot — which is not a complaint — but if I want to work till 11 o’clock, I’ll work till 11 o’clock. Or if I want to work all weekend, I will work all weekend… and I don’t have to worry about it.
Also the person I’m with, Sandy McClatchy, he’s got very much the same work ethic, just like “let’s break for meals, or let’s go to the movies.” But like, working through the weekend is something that we enjoy, because we very much love what we do.
Actually, I feel quite seriously like I’m totally lazy and slacking all the time. I’m not saying that to evoke anything.
WRR: The catalog of graphic novels that you oversee from Pantheon includes beautifully packaged work from today’s greatest cartoonists including Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth), Art Spiegelman (In the Shadow of No Towers), Dan Clowes (Ice Haven), Charles Burns (Black Hole), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), and Ben Katchor (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer) among others and has redefined comics as respectable. Can you talk about the success of this line and what we may expect in the future from the Pantheon imprint?
God, that’s a whole other discussion. This basically grew out of artists who I really like and care about — and who had projects that needed to be published — so that was a very fortunate circumstance… especially with Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. We’ve got books by these people and others signed up for future publication.
We’ve got interesting things. But it’s more about quality than quantity. So last year we released two books, and this year we’re releasing six. So it’s all about what is there and what should be published.
WRR: The web, television, films, and video games are increasingly becoming the mediums and venues of popular culture. Are you concerned about the future of print with the proliferation of screen-based and experiential media?
WRR: So to those proclaiming the death of print…
There is an entire generation of 8 year olds reading Harry Potter across the globe and they’re not downloading it. They are waiting in bookstores overnight to be the first to get their copies.
Now, I am a hard-print guy. The work I do is hard copy print and is meant to be archival. But things like flyers that you get in the mail — that you would immediately throw away — if I’m going to get that as a piece of spam in an email… it’s dead. So be it, that makes sense to me. But the book has survived.
WRR: Is good really dead… and how can we see to it that it stays buried?
As long as you can do something great, then you don’t have to worry about good.
WRR: Very good.
No, very great.
Recent awards and recognitions for Ogline’s illustration work include a 2008 Graphis Gold Award as well as recent inclusions in Society of Illustrators Los Angeles Illustration West 47, Creative Quarterly 15, and Creative Quarterly 13 award shows. Tim’s illustration work has been published by a number of different periodicals including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, the Utne Reader, Outdoor Life, This Old House Magazine, Institutional Investor, Philadelphia Style, Loyola Lawyer, How Magazine, and The Florida Review among others.
Ogline is also a former Adjunct Assistant Professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
Tim Ogline in this Edition
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