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Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, Part 3

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 the final part of our interview with Chip! If you missed the earlier segments, catch up on Part 1 here, and Part 2, here!


TRC: Can you talk about GO, your graphic design book for kids, and why you decided to write that book?

CK: Well I did that book because Raquel Jaramillo --- an editor and designer at Workman who I’ve known professionally for years --- called me up one day and said, “I have an idea for a project --- let’s meet!” So we met, and she said “nobody’s ever really done a book to teach graphic design to kids.” And as soon as she said it, I knew it was true. There’s tons of books on creativity for kids, but not specifically what we call graphic design  --- which is a combination of image and words that you put together in order to solve a specific problem --- for ages 10 and up. So it was really her idea. But she asked me to do it. It was a real challenge. It’s not anything I would have thought of on my own, to be honest.

TRC: Why was it so challenging?

CK: Because it was all stuff that I didn’t learn until I was in college. So, how do you make these ideas understandable to a much younger person? But also to a generation that’s dealing with this anyway? Not that we didn’t deal with it when I was a kid, but it’s different now. You can design on TV, basically, and they are!

It was also challenging to figure out how basic to make it. Some people looked at it and said to me that it was way too sophisticated for a 10- or 11-year-old, so I changed a couple of things. Graphic design is such a huge subject that it became about “how much is enough to at least get them thinking about this and how much is too much?” And frankly, the hardest part of that to me was the typography part, because when do you stop? Which typefaces do you talk about?

And a lot of this stuff is frankly kind of objective.  You’re talking about taste. This is a reflection of my taste in graphic design. And my style is no style. My style is what I call pluralism, which is really varying from cover to cover while paying attention to a couple basic ideas about up and down, left to right, big and small, top and bottom, color, how image and type interact…that kind of thing. But another graphic designer could do another graphic design book for kids and it would be completely different.

TRC: Do you have any advice for teens and 20-somethings who are interested in getting into graphic design and, specifically, book cover design?

CK: Study graphic design history. There are tons of books for that. When I was in school there was only one, but now there’s a bunch of them. And then learn about conceptual thinking and how to do it! The computer can’t tell you to make a bird that also looks like a person [as the image on the cover of THE ORENDA does]. It’s that kind of thing that will set you apart from someone who simply knows how to use Photoshop.

TRC: When you were younger, were you interested in art and design?

CK: Oh yeah, absolutely. I drew all the time and I loved comics. I loved to read. And movies and movie posters --- and reinterpreting movie posters and rock band logos and all of that stuff.

TRC: And what about reading; were you a big reader?

CK: Yeah!

TRC: What were some of your favorite books when you were a teen and 20-something?

CK: No real surprising answers --- THE GRAPES OF WRATH, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, CATCHER IN THE RYE, which frankly I don’t think holds up well at all! 1984, definitely.

When I was in college, a really big one for me --- even though I think it’s a glorified soap opera --- was THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand. I think anybody who goes into any sort of design field will get something out of that.

But it also sets up all sorts of points for argument about egotism and “just because you’re creative and smart, does that give you certain rights that ordinary people don’t have?” One of the main points of the book is that it does. And you can definitely argue that that’s not the case. But look at pop culture! There’s a lot of people who do feel that! And that sort of hit at just the right time. I was probably about 20.

TRC: So you were a classic kind of guy?

CK: Yeah, but there were also a lot of comic books that I was also really into at the time. When I was a senior in college, some of the landmark ones were happening --- THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and THE WATCHMEN, but also MAUS by Art Spiegelman. And I was into all of those sort of simultaneously.

So working with those now is like a dream come true. And also to be able to go from something like this [points to BUILDING STORIES by Chris Ware] --- which is considered “valid” as art and literature --- to Batman and Superman. And I think when someone writes and draws them really, really well, it’s just as valid.

TRC: Are there any other particularly exciting projects you’re working on now that you want to talk about?

CK: I’m probably going to do another book on design, which is going to be more about process and recognizing when design doesn’t work and how to make it better.

TRC: Would that be for an older audience?

CK: I think so, but I don’t really think about audience that much. GO was obviously a major exception, because the brief was “let’s make design understandable to someone who’s 10 or 11 or 12.” Whereas this other thing, I’ll keep in mind that if a kid picks it up, it will be interesting, but I think it’s also for people who appreciate design but aren’t designers.

And I just see so many examples of “here’s this thing, if the person who did it was a better designer, it would be better, and this is how” --- prescription pill labels, for one. The germ of this started with a piece I did for McSweeney’syears ago, because I take Amtrakall the time. And the “design” of theAmtrakticket has gotten a little bit better, but it’s awful. And it’s the perfect example of “look, this isn’t something that needs to be beautiful. This is something that needs to tell you what train you’re taking, where it’s leaving from and what time.” It’s that kind of thing that I’m thinking about. It’s less about, “let’s make something beautiful.”

TRC: Can you tell us what it felt like when you found out that JURASSIC PARK was going to be made into a movie?

CK:There wasn’t one moment. Part of the whole thing was that, we knew, even as we got the manuscript, that Spielberg had already bought it to make a move of it. So that was a given. But the second part was, I made the cover (which has my name on it), and I can’t even remember if the book was out yet, but I got a call from Universal saying “we want to buy the rights to this.” And as an employee of Knopf, I had to refer them to our rights and permissions department, because I didn’t own it; Knopf owned it.

And movie companies do this a lot --- what they said to me was, “we want to buy the rights to it just in case we might want to use it.” And so then the third part is when the movie came out, and it was like, “Oh my God!” It’s not just the poster --- it’s the whole identity of the park and the movie.

I think the interesting thing for me was that the drawing itself wasn’t altered, which I thought was great, because, of course, once they buy the rights to it, they can do whatever they want to it. And, of course, the typography’s different. But the drawing’s the same.

TRC: How did you draw it originally?

CK: I went to the Museum of Natural History and this was in the gift shop, and I bought it. [He gets out VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY AND EVOLUTION from his shelf and opens it to the page that the cover is based on].

TRC: I like how you have a post-it right there --- you know what people want to see!

CK: But that reminds me, there were also some other things I was looking at in here. I really liked that [points to another picture]. I thought that was really cool. I liked the idea that that would wrap around the spine.

TRC: People always think about covers, but there are other elements to book design too --- the spine, the back, the front matter, etc. When you’re conceptualizing a design, do you think about all of these elements at once? Or does it often start with a cover and then expand into the other parts?

CK: For me, it pretty much starts with the front and spine together.

TRC: Lastly, You’ve been a graphic designer for 25 years. Do you have any inkling what your next 25 years will bring?

CK: Frankly, I hope more of the same. I’m working on writing more, but, you know, I hope I’m doing this for a long time.