Beautiful Covers: An Interview With Chip Kidd

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The work of Chip Kidd spans design, writing and, most recently, rock ’n’ roll. He definitely has the charisma to get ahead in that third field. He is best known for his unconventional book jackets, but he has published two novels of his own: The Learners and Τhe Cheese Monkeys.

The work of Chip Kidd spans design, writing and, most recently, rock ’n’ roll. He definitely has the charisma to get ahead in that third field. He is best known for his unconventional book jackets, but he has published two novels of his own: The Learners and The Cheese Monkeys. Uninterested in design trends and fashions, he often draws inspiration from collectibles and memorabilia.

Kidd is now busy creating his masterpiece, a graphic novel born from his lifelong fascination with Batman (he regards himself as Batman’s number-one fan). He has teamed up with comic-book artist Dave Taylor to illustrate the story in an astonishing way, conjuring a Fritz Lang aesthetic with a healthy dose of Kidd’s own sensibility. Batman: Death By Design is set to be released in spring 2012 through DC Comics.

Chip Kidd at the Typo London 2011 conference. (Image: Gerhard Kassner)
Chip Kidd at the Typo London 2011 conference. (Image: Gerhard Kassner)

Until then, here’s an interview with Chip Kidd, previously unpublished in English, that will get you into the mind of one of design’s most original and charismatic practitioners.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Q: How did you get into the business of jacket design?

Chip Kidd: It happened to be the first job that I was offered. I studied graphic design in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, but I knew that when I graduated I would go to New York. So, I did. I just went to every graphic design place that would see me, but eventually ended up at Random House. And it was an entry-level job, as assistant to the art director. Well, it wasn’t really what I had in mind, but I tried it for a while. It gave me a start, and it’s 24 years in October.

One of Kidd's most recognizable covers. His artwork was adapted for a $1.9 billion movie series that you might have seen
One of Kidd’s most recognizable covers. His artwork was adapted for a $1.9 billion movie series that you might have seen.

Q: How did your persona in the design world emerge?

Kidd: The thing about book covers, I think probably in most parts of the world, is that the designer gets credit on the jacket for what they’ve done. For most graphic designers, that’s not the case, in terms of how it works in print or TV commercials; you don’t see who made something on the piece itself. But in graphic design, you do. What was getting out there was the work itself. Over time that built up, to the point where people started to recognize my name.

Q: Did it take you a long time?

Kidd: It seemed long at the time, but it probably took two or three years, which in retrospect isn’t that long at all.

Q: Was that in the beginning of your career?

Kidd: Well, I started in 1986. I started working right away. I wasn’t doing a lot of designing at first — it was more doing the assistant stuff. But I started actually designing after six months or something like that. It seemed, in retrospect, to happen quickly or right away.

For David Sedaris’ Naked, Kidd designed a wraparound featuring boxer shorts that, when removed, reveals an X-ray of a pelvis.

Q: What about the chain of command? In your talk at Typo Berlin 2009, you joked about issues with editors, editors in chief, authors, marketing people. Do you find that challenging or frustrating? Or do you expect people to just listen to you?

Kidd: I think it’s good that I am being constantly challenged. I think that’s important for doing good work. If people liked everything I did just because I did it, as opposed to whether it was actually good or not, that would be a problem — both for me and for them. What I don’t like, and I don’t know any designer who does, is when you feel that you’ve done the right work and then it gets rejected, for whatever reason. And then you have to go back and redo it, and you think you’ve done it well, and that gets rejected, too.

So that, I think, is a kind of challenge I don’t like, frankly because it doesn’t always seem to be about whether it’s the right design or not — it’s about some sort of political situation within the job; for example, everybody likes it, but the author doesn’t.

Q: So, marketing people and clients often make your life hard. Does it get better as you go on?

Kidd: It doesn’t seem to. [Laughs] On the one hand, yes, it gets better because I’ve gotten a reputation as someone who knows what they’re doing, and so a lot of authors will go along with that. Then you build up trust with an author if you’ve worked on their books for a long time. That part of it is fine. But then there’s this other area where things get rejected by publishers for various reasons that I either understand or don’t. Or I deal with people rejecting me directly, which is very frustrating. That part, for me, hasn’t gotten easier.

Books are very… Each book is in its own way unique. It has its own set of problems, own set of circumstances, and that doesn’t seem to change. So, there will always be an idiosyncratic nature to the work.

Kidd’s own literary debut was a novel set in a design department at a university in the 1950s. He saw the cover as an opportunity to use graphic devices that he wasn’t able to get away with when working on other people’s books.

Q: Speaking of marketing, people will often want books to be, say, red in order to sell more. Browsing your website, I realize you don’t seem to believe the cover sells the book. Do you see the cover as part of the book?

Kidd: It is a part of the book. It’s literally your first impression — it’s the book’s face. Regardless of what kind of book it is, this is the way you’re going to visually preserve it first before you open it. But this doesn’t have much to do with someone buying it. People tell me they buy books for their covers. But it’s not a sales tool in the sense of you’re going to buy it because you like that cover. Really, what the cover should do is get you to open the book and start to read it and investigate it. And at that point, the book is going to sell itself to you, or not.

I very much try to downplay the jacket as a sales tool, because I think that publishers invest too much intellectually in this concept, and they can actually make my work much, much harder than it needs to be. And certainly with the advent of buying books on the Web, you’re not going to buy a book from Amazon because of the way it looks. It’s just not the nature of how that works. The problem arises when you get a bunch of people in a room looking at a jacket and determining the fate of the design based on preconceptions of how the book will sell, about how this design will help the book to sell.

Q: Does this lead to a battle with marketing, whose job it is to sell books?

Kidd: Yes, it can — and I think often needlessly so. You know the idea: men will buy a book with a woman on it.

For his first monograph of book cover designs, Kidd did the unexpected and featured an open book on the cover.

Q: Do you try to solve such problems diplomatically?

Kidd: Diplomacy is always the best way to go, in almost any situation in life I think. But usually, I am working through an art director, who is dealing with the marketing people directly. And then the marketing people will talk to our editor in chief, who will then talk to us. It’s rare that I deal with them directly.

Q: What about typography? What’s your view on modernist book jackets (the kind you see from Switzerland) and typographically rich covers.

Kidd: It’s hard to talk about these things in general. Personally, in terms of my typography, I think it’s pretty conservative and not very adventurous, because I worry about something looking trendy. Most of the books I do are hardcover books that are meant to be kept for a long time. I’m always thinking, what will this look like in a year? What will it look like in five to ten years? And of course, it’s impossible to know, but you have to try and envision that.

Which is not to say everything should be boring and predictable — there are ways to be creative with it. Personally, I’m much more inventive with the imagery than with the typography. An image will be more powerful than the words or the title. Or if you play around, you can create a tension, an interesting puzzle for the reader to solve. And that’s much more about the imagery than the type.

Kidd got a chance to indulge his obsession with Batman, working here with photographer Geoff Spear to showcase a wide range of collectibles celebrating the Caped Crusader.

Q: Do you try to avoid fashions?

Kidd: In a way, yes. Personally, I feel I never know what’s fashionable anyway. I see what people are doing, and sometimes I see typography that I think is really interesting, and I think I wouldn’t be able to do that even if I wanted to. Which isn’t a criticism, just an observation. My skills with type are extremely limited. In terms of fashion, I don’t know what it means from one minute to the next.

Q: How do you manage living in a big city and resisting the fashionable influences around you?

Kidd: I don’t take myself out of it. I just observe what people are doing, and I do something else. I go against it. This is one of the things one of my teachers at school told me: find out what everyone in the class is doing, and then do something completely different. And that has always made perfect sense to me.

Kidd is a master of letting photography do the heavy lifting. While working on a book with Geoff Spear, he discovered an image of a scuffed bird shot with a macro lens. It came in handy when Kidd later designed Haruki Murakami’s novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

Kidd: I’ve written two novels. Those to me are much more personal than me doing a book cover for somebody else. I don’t see somebody else’s book cover as a very personal form of expression. If it was, I would be taking advantage of the writer, I think unfairly. And it is perceived that way — “Oh, this is your art!” — like somebody else’s book cover is my art. Which technically may be true, but it shouldn’t come out that way. It should come out as me trying to serve their art, as opposed to me trying to serve myself.

Q: Sounds similar to the differences between the artist and the designer.

Kidd: I’ve always seen a strict division between the two. Somebody will ask me what I do, and then say, “Oh, you’re an artist.” And I say, “No, I’m a designer.”

For a novel about parents breeding children in order to maintain a carnival sideshow, Kidd used striking typography with a vibrant orange.

Q: What’s your view on ugliness?

Kidd: The same as my views on beauty. They’re extremely subjective. It’s very hard to say. Something that I find very ugly others find very beautiful, and the opposite. It’s very hard to articulate that.

Q: What’s so fascinating to you about memorabilia, comics and other collectibles?

Kidd: I appreciate them as aesthetic objects. But there’s also a nostalgic value to them — certain things I had as a child that I really enjoyed that I lost or broke. Then you become an adult and try to reclaim that. Now eBay makes that more accessible than ever. But I genuinely do get an aesthetic pleasure out of these objects, which is [expressed through] the Batman collected book that I put together, which has Batman toys from 40 years ago.

Q: So, you’re a collector?

Kidd: Oh, yes.

One of Kidd’s most striking covers, designed for the fourth installment of Osamu Tezuka’s award-winning Buddha series.

Kidd: I’m definitely affected by it. But I have very strong opinions about it, in that I think somebody like Roy Liechtenstein basically is a fraud who got everybody to buy into what he was doing. And paintings about comics became far more important to critics than the comics themselves. I’m much more interested in the comics themselves. I couldn’t give a shit about a decontextualized panel that was stylized by this person. But everybody bought into it, amazingly.

Similarly, do I think Warhol was a great artist? Yes. But should he have given half the money to the guy who actually designed the canvases or the Brillo box or any of that other stuff that he totally appropriated? It’s based on something that somebody else made — that person should get credit, too. And they didn’t. I’m very much against that. It’s an abuse of the original designer.

Q: What would you do if the book format dies?

Kidd: I know, that’s an increasingly vital question. I can’t really say. I don’t know. If that’s eventually what happens, I’ll figure it out once I get there. I don’t believe that people want to read books on the screen. I think some people are… I just don’t think it’s going to go the way the music LP and CD went. It doesn’t have that function in the culture. But even eBooks — they have some kind of visual thing for their cover, so who knows? Maybe that’s what I’ll be doing. If I haven’t killed myself by then.

(From Typo Berlin 2009)

A special Thank You to our Typography editor, Alexander Charchar, for making this interview possible.

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