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Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, Part 2

For our second Real Talk Publishing feature, we talked to Chip Kidd, the Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House. Chip told us about his graphic design philosophies, his day-to-day responsibilities, the favorite covers that he's designed  --- including JURASSIC PARK --- and more. Read on to see Part 2 of our interview with Chip, and be sure to come back on  Tuesday, April 22 for Part 3! If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

TRC: Can you tell us about your day-to-day and your general responsibilities?

CK: One of the things I like about this job is that the quality of the books I have to work on is very high. And they’re so varied! You have a novel, and then within a novel. Is it a thriller? Is it poetry? Is it a literary novel, for a lack of a better word?  Then you have all kinds of nonfiction. I just found out that I have to do a book on the Camp David Accordsfrom the ’70s by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. I love that in that sense, it’s all over the place.

We run in seasons, so right now, we’ve just finished the designs for what’s coming out in the fall. And then I’m reading new manuscripts. The next thing we’ll dive into is spring 2015, so we’re all sort of working on a bunch of stuff at once that is all in different stages of completion, from reading a manuscript for something that’s way down the road to actively designing something to seeing through a proof that the printer does. This one [shows me a copy of THE ORENDA by Joseph Boyden]was a little complicated because of the texture involved. It’s coming out in May, and this is in the home stretch, and this is the last thing that we see before we have books in hand. And it’s not that big a deal, but the printer printed this wrong --- they’re cutting off the bottom and there’s three-eighths of an inch at the top. Something like that is simple --- it means they just trimmed the proof wrong --- which is not a big deal…except they can’t do that for the final or it’s a big problem.

And I think it’s kind of great, because there are things that come up that you aren’t expecting, and some of them are good and some of them are not so good. But I still find the work very compelling, very interesting. I have to deal with a lot of email. We have junior people here but I do not have an assistant, which is fine with me --- I want to answer my own email and I want to answer my own phone; it’s easier for me to know all that’s going on. But for better or worse, dealing with email is a big part of my day. But it also enables me to send files digitally for people to look at. And, of course, that’s been the case for years and years now, but for a long time it wasn’t.

TRC: How much do you interact with the other departments at Knopf ---editorial, marketing, etc?

CK: Personally, I’m pretty psyched that I don’t have to sit in many meetings. But occasionally, somebody from marketing will have a question or a problem. I deal with them, but it’s more about getting them the materials they need to do their jobs.

TRC: How much interaction do you have with authors?

CK: It varies a lot depending on the author. Like I said before, some of them want to get very involved. It’s about their book; it’s not about my cover. So if they want to get involved --- or some people would say “interfere” --- frankly, it is their perfect right to do so.

And sometimes it’s a delicate balance. Because there are definitely some times when I think the author doesn’t know what’s best for them or what’s best for their work --- they get so invested in it that they lose perspective. And when that happens, I try and get the editor to step in and help. But they also can be in a tricky position, because we’re all ultimately serving the author --- we want to do what’s best for their book. So, you know, you just take it case by case.

This [points to THE ORENDA] is a historical novel that takes place in Canada about a native tribe in the 17th century. A Jesuit missionary goes to try and convert some of the members of the tribe, and he basically gets captured by them and learns about their culture. So, for this, I actually did the drawing and I hand-rendered this type. But this sailed right on through. There really wasn’t anything altered. I met the author and I think the book’s terrific, but he definitely had a kind of pull back and “you guys do it” approach.

TRC: What is your favorite part of your job?

CK: Well, there are a couple of them. When something I’m really excited about goes off to the printer, that’s a wonderful feeling. And then seeing what it’s actually going to look like! But before that, there’s the kind of “Eureka!” moment when you figure out the right concept and visual approach. And that’s a two-part moment, because you figure it out for yourself and then you’ve got to get it approved by everybody.

TRC: And what about the most frustrating part?

CK: Well, the most frustrating part is when we feel that we’ve done the right thing and somebody else who has a say in it --- sometimes it’s the author, sometimes it’s the marketing department, sometimes it’s the sales force, sometimes it’s the buyers --- doesn’t. And then our Editor-in-Chief has to decide what we do.  And that can be very frustrating because I think there’s a lot of preconceptions about what a bestseller looks like and what it doesn’t. And I maintain that nobody really knows anything --- they only know when something is a success, and the cover helps, but it’s usually not about that. It’s usually about word-of-mouth, or something just happens and a book becomes a phenomenon.

TRC: Can you tell me about the Knopf design team?

CK: My boss, the Art Director, is a woman named Carol Devine Carson, and she’s been here as long as I have. It’s interesting because we are a team and yet we also are individuals. One of the great things about book cover design is we each get credit for what we’ve done [points to his name on THE ORENDA jacket], and that’s really important. We all have our titles that we’re working on. Carol really makes sure that everybody’s working on a couple things that they’re really passionate about.

TRC: How do you all decide who designs which cover?

CK: Two times a year we have what’s called a launch meeting. It’s basically a “here’s the new list” meeting. I think the next launch meeting is in May for spring 2015. And it’s really, really interesting. We basically all sit in a big conference room, and one by one, the editors introduce us to the books they have on their list. It’s not a pitch meeting, it’s an “OK, we’re publishing this” meeting, and they say “here’s what the book is, here’s who the author is, and let’s get excited about it.”

And for something like this [points to THE ORENDA], we’ve never published the author before, so it’s introducing him to the sales force. And the whole design team is there, and publicity and marketing.

And there are certain designers who develop professional relationships over time with the author --- like I do the Murakamistuff and the James Elroy stuff.  And then it’s all very organic. Sometimes our Editor-in-Chief wants a certain designer to work on a certain title. It’s very “figure-it-out-as-we-go-along.”

There are certain titles where somebody works on something for awhile, and for whatever reason they’ve done a bunch of stuff and it’s all gotten rejected, and then sometimes the art director will basically say “alright, we’re going to give you a break from this and have somebody else work on it now.” That does happen.

But I think about watching “Mad Men,”and one thing we don’t do, and I don’t think other publishing houses do either, is compete against each other. If you’re working on a certain title, that title is yours, and it’s up to you to do it and get it approved. If that doesn’t happen, then it could go to another designer, but it’s not like you have two designers working on one title in what we call “a bake-off.”

TRC: Are there any covers that you wish you could redesign if you had a chance?

CK: The one main one was an art history book called THE SHOCK OF THE NEW by Robert Hughes,which I had done a paperback version of early on that was really, really bad.  I don’t even know how it got approved. And he did a new edition of it and I got to do a new cover for that. And it’s much better.

TRC: Why didn’t you like it?

CK: It’s just typographically very naïve and clumsy. And I had a sort of concept that I thought I was going for, and it got watered down and watered down and watered down until it just didn’t look very interesting.

TRC: Can you tell us about a few covers that you’re particularly proud of?

CK: I always try to point to recent stuff because I always try to maintain a level of excitement about newer things. I’m totally excited about THE ORENDA. I’m really excited about the Haruki Murakami [COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE], and I’m hoping I don’t have to change it. Without being too “advertising agency” about it, you’re kind of only as good as the covers that you just did or the covers that you’re going to do, and I don’t think that that’s a bad attitude to have. It’s not about “I’ve done this and this and therefore you should like what I’m doing next.” The covers constantly have to prove themselves.

TRC: Can you tell us more about the book and cover for COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE?

CK:. It’s definitely Murakamistyle, but it’s more of a human story. There’s no real supernatural aspect to it, which there definitely is to 1Q84. It’s about five friends --- they’re super best friends in high school and then one goes away to college. The others go to college too, but they all stay in the same hometown. And then he comes back the summer before his sophomore year, and all of a sudden one of them says to him on the phone, “you are never to contact any of us ever again.” He basically gets cast out by the other four.

I call it “an emotional mystery.” It’s like a break-up, but a break-up with no explanation --- he doesn’t see it coming. At one point, he describes himself and his friends as five fingers on a hand. And then superficially, each of their names in Japanese means a color --- one’s red, one’s blue, one’s white, one’s black. But his name doesn’t have a color, so he’s colorless. And then he becomes obsessed with trains and ends up as an engineer for the transit system in Tokyo.

And all of these ingredients have gone into why this [pointing to the cover] looks the way it does.