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Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Chip Kidd, Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, Part 1

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 1 of our interview with Chip, and be sure to come back on Tuesday, April 15 for Part 2 and Tuesday, April 22 for Part 3!

Teenreads: You’ve designed book covers for more than 25 years and USA Today once called you “the closest thing to a rock star in graphic design today.” However, you obviously started somewhere! Can you tell us how you ended up becoming a book cover designer?

Chip Kidd: Well, the honest answer to that is very dull and uninteresting. I studied graphic design as anundergrad at Penn State University. That was an all-encompassing program and books were part of that, but I did not really intend to be a book designer. But I did know that I wanted to come to New York when I graduated and that I wanted to get a job doing graphic design in the city.

So, I called people up --- I didn’t know that many people so I did a lot of cold calls. Some people were able to see me, and I got a pretty good reaction to my portfolio --- this was the fall of 1986, when you carried around a portfolio in a portfolio case. When I would go to see somebody, I would make sure that I would get a reference to go see somebody else --- that’s very important! 

TRC: Right --- good networking!

CK: Yes, and this is before the “networking” word was used for anything other than television.

Anyway, the first real substantial job that I was offered that sounded interesting was being assistant to the Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf publishing. It wasn’t really what I was looking for --- I was looking for an entry-level position at a graphic design firm. But I just thought pragmatically about it, and I thought “this is a real job and it seems interesting; I should take it.” Even though the pay was very low, my rent at the time also was very low, so that corresponded! And I thought, “I’ll give this a shot and we’ll see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, I will try something else.” It was a classic case of right place at the right time.

That’s really the story. I mean, I have always loved books, but I love other kinds of graphic design too --- posters; what we now call “branding,” which when I was in school was called “corporate identity;” packaging; and what-have-you. And I’ve managed to also have my own one-man design firm on the side. That’s mostly book covers too, but every now and then it’s something that’s outside that realm.

TRC: In your 2012 TED Talk, you said that your job was to show “what does the story inside look like?” How do you go about figuring that out?

CK: I think a really important part of graphic design education is the history of graphic design. And graphic design as we know it is largely a 20th century (and now into the 21st century) phenomenon. But the history of it as we know it is relatively concentrated, as opposed to art or architecture or even fashion. All of that stuff goes back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. But graphic design doesn’t. So I could point to any one of these [books on my shelves] and give you a graphic design historical reference that inspired it.

But really, I think this job is to read the text that you have to design for and then learn how to visually interpret it. And the way I was taught was to not interpret it literally, like I showed in the TED talk --- you shouldn’t have a picture of an apple and write the word “apple” underneath it. Especially with fiction, I try not to show a literal depiction of who’s in it --- I want the readers to be able to build that in their heads. Like TRAPS [by MacKenzie Bezos], which is about four women. You get a suggestion of what they look like and what their personalities are, but you then fill in the blanks in your head as you’re reading.

And every book is different. Some authors really want to get involved, and some authors back off and let you do it, and then they react to it. And for this particular job, that’s a whole other skill: people skills. And having written several books myself now, I can identify with authors’ concerns. You work on a book sometimes for years, and then this other person is responsible for how it’s going to be visually perceived. In this time of e-books alongside the print books, I think it’s still really important. I think it will always be really important. I don’t know any author who does not want their book visually represented. It’s a visual culture and you want your book to have a visual icon.

Music has a visual presence too, but that’s really changed from “here’s the album cover for the new Michael Jackson album” to “here’s the new video” to “here’s the new YouTube clip.” Whereas books --- not that books don’t have a transitioning aspect, too --- just doesn’t seem to be the same, because the act of reading is still the act of reading. Whereas with music, it used to be the act of taking this physical disc, whether it was vinyl or a CD or whatever, and putting it in a thing and turning it on. That’s really changed.

TRC: That’s actually a really good lead-in to another question we had, which is, do you think digital publishing is changing book design? Do you think differently when conceptualizing the design of an e-book vs. a print book?

CK: I do not design differently. My design process does not change, because it is still based on a concept. There are a couple of physical kinds of exceptions to that,  like 1Q84 [where you can lift the jacket of the book and see a different image underneath] and this David Rakoffbook [points to LOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH], which has die-cut holes.

But I’ve always designed books with the idea that “the book is an object which you want to have.” I’ve always been a believer in designing something at less than the size that it’s going to be. That’s the whole concept of a thumbnail sketch --- if something is strong and works when it’s small, then it will work even better when it’s larger.

And that was way before the computer! So then the computer comes along in the early ‘90s, and now we’re designing that way. So I’ve been designing book covers on a screen for a long time --- way before e-books. It’s not just about preparing them on a screen for the ink on the paper version, but also imagining, “OK, what does it look like when it’s the size of a postage stamp? Does it still have some kind of presence when it’s that small?” And as I said before, I’ve been designing that way for a long time. So it doesn’t change my design process. One exception to that is that recently, I designed my first e-book original.

CK: Are you talking about SLEEP DONATION [by Karen Russell]?

CK: Yes!And it is interactive on an iPad --- it looks like one thing, and if you touch it, it looks like something else. I saw the demo of how it works, but even with that, I found that you have to consider the worst-case scenario, which is “what’s it gonna look like black and white, on a Kindle that doesn’t have color?” So I started with that, and it had to still work. And then it was OK, it’s “now if it’s on an iPad, what happens, what can we do?” It was an interesting experiment for me because I wanted it to be interesting but still, it’s a novella, and the main attraction is the story. I’m not making an app; I think it’s a fine line to walk.

I wanted the cover to be true to what the story is, and it still has to be graphically strong. So for that, I thought about the idea of a transition --- of going from one thing to another. So in that sense, it logistically changed the design process a little bit, but not all that much. And I also kept in mind, “if and when it becomes a print book, then what?” So I sort of have an idea in mind if that were to happen.

TRC: Do you have a “design mantra”?

CK: The real general thing is, if you look at a book cover, I want your emotional reaction to be “Wow. That looks interesting. I want to read it,” or at least, “I want to pick it up and investigate it.” There has to be something about it that makes it look really interesting --- that’s the goal.

And most of the stuff that I have up [in my office] achieves that. There’s a lot of stuff, also, that doesn’t, in my opinion. But that’s at least what you’re trying for. And that’s a very general thing. And with each specific book it becomes more, frankly, specific.

And then there’s all the comic book stuff that I do, and that’s a whole other ballgame, in a way.

TRC: How so?

CK: That’s stuff that I do not only as a designer, but as a fan, so I feel like I have an understanding about it. It’s about “how much do I want to play off of expectations and surprise people?” The Peanuts book [PEANUTS: The Art of Charles M. Schulz by Chip Kidd, Charles M. Schulz and Jean Schulz] is a good example of that. How do you take something that is really, really familiar to people and try to make them see it in a different way, but in a way that’s also true to what it is and true to the reason they loved it in the first place? And I try to do that with Batman, Superman and what-have-you.

TRC: You’ve designed so many things in your career --- book covers, book layouts, movie posters, CD covers, Rolling Stone Magazine covers and more. What is unique about designing books compared to other mediums?

CK:  It all depends. And it’s funny --- I haven’t been able to design a ton of magazine covers, but it’s sort of like a bucket list: I’ve done one New Yorker cover, three Time Magazine covers, one Newsweek cover, four Rolling Stone covers, one Poets & Writers, and that’s it. So, you have to take into account what the magazine is, who it’s for and why they’re hiring me in the first place, because usually it’s for some specific reason. Like, for Rolling Stone, it was their 40th anniversary, which is pretty special and specific as opposed to “oh, we’re doing a cover story on U2 this week.”

The thing about books (especially for hardcover first editions) is that this is the way most of these stories are going to be visually perceived by the public. The second thing is, they are meant to be archival. They are meant to be saved and not thrown away. Magazines, as we have seen, may or may not be thrown away.

I try to make things not look ephemeral, which means I want them to still look good in 5 years or 10 years or 15, and beyond. And with a lot of magazine covers, that’s simply not the goal. The goal is to attract newsstand attention or subscriber attention.  And of course, magazines are changing a lot because of digitalization.

So, yeah, whatever project it is, it really depends on what the source material is, and the needs and the problems of each specific author or publisher for each specific text. And this isn’t a value judgment at all, but I can’t imagine that People magazine would want me to design a cover for them, because what’s the point? They’ll have somebody on staff that handles that and it’s going to be about whatever celebrity matters that week. And that’s what they do and that’s what their audience wants and that’s fine, but that’s not what I do.

TRC: A very popular phrase is “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Do you agree or disagree?

CK: I throw it back at the asker and say, “Judge the cover by the cover.” If the cover designer is doing justice to the book, then that’s what matters.

TRC: Graphic design is becoming increasingly trendy --- especially the treatment of fonts. Why do you think this is?

CK: I think because most people have a computer or some kind of digital device that deals with fonts and deals with font choice. People are given this choice now that 

maybe they didn’t have before. Like “oh, I can set up my computer so my email is in Bodoni or Ventura or whatever. Maybe I should think about what that means.” That’s my theory, but otherwise I have no clue.

But I didn’t start learning about typography until I was in college. If you’re inclined to be a graphic designer, you can very easily become kind of obsessed with it because it’s everywhere. And you learn about kerning [the process of adjusting the spacing between characters] and line spacing, and once you start learning about that, then you see examples of where it’s done badly, and youreally start to notice it.

It’s like decoding the world, whether it’s a CNN screen with 12 things going on at once; highway signage that may or may not be clear but really needs to be because you’re trying to figure out where you’re going; or being in a foreign country and needing to know how to get out of the room right away if you need to. Like everything else, the means to learn about it is greater than ever before.

TRC: You designed the font for GEEK LOVE. How do you go about designing a font?

CK: I did it with a pencil and a drafting table and a T-Square! I did it the old-fashioned way because at the time that was all that was available. And really “GEEK LOVE” looks very mechanical, that’s what it’s all about --- it’s creating a logo for that book, which is a little different I think than creating a typeface. I always felt like I should have created an entire alphabet in the GEEK LOVE style, but I didn’t at the time because I just needed those letters.

And I’ll admit, I think before the computer, I was much more intent on either creating my own fonts or altering existing ones. And then with the gradual proliferation of fonts that are available digitally --- there are thousands and thousands and thousands, MILLIONS, of fonts out there --- there’s usually one to do the trick.

After Chip took a phone call about SLEEP DONATION

CK: So that was a call from the publisher of SLEEP DONATION, and they’re a freelance client of mine, and they’re very digital. What she said is for any book they publish now, the cover has to adapt to a horizontal format, a vertical format and a square format. Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but these [points to books on shelves] are all vertical. These are all taller than they are wide, which I know doesn’t sound like that big a deal, but it makes a difference.