Chip Kidd | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd, a graphic designer and author, received a 2007 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for one of his innovative book covers

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Extended Interview

You wear many different hats—designer, editor, writer. For which are you most passionate?

That's an interesting question. Ah, I mean the cop-out answer is I'm passionate about all of them. I think one thing was meaningful to me at some point was to turn from becoming a designer to becoming an author and I don't mean just a writer, but I mean generating the content as well as deciding what it was going to look like. I think that's the thing that interested me the most, whether it's a novel or a book of comics. That's what I'm most passionate about is the authorship.

You have designed some 1,000 book covers. How do you keep them unique?

I depend on the writers to not write stale books. I get a sense from reading the manuscript that the writer is doing a really good job, so that kind of cheers me on to do the same visually.

What ideas do you try to steer clear of in your book designs?

I try to avoid something that's literal. I did a cover several years ago for the novel My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk. The title is in blue. But of course rules were made to be broken. I did Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, and what's on the cover? A pretty horse. But it was showing just the mane, not the entire body, as if the horse became a part of the landscape.

What was your most challenging cover to design and why?

A new translation of the New Testament, that was very daunting, but very satisfying because I used a photographs by Andres Serrano, who is a very controversial photographer. It was a close-up detail of a dead man's face basically, with his eyes half-open. The publisher took a chance and went with it. Ultimately, it totally backfired and it was all guilt by association because of this photographer. No bookstore would carry it, basically.

Are the covers you consider your best work the same ones everyone considers your best, such as ones for Crichton or Sedaris?

I think the one superficial thing those books would have in common, they're all best-sellers and they're big best-sellers. I think the challenge as a designer in trade publishing is to do something that's an interesting design, but that also has a mass appeal. I think what I strive for is to constantly debunk what that means. The cover for Dry for example [which looks soaking wet], that's the cover for the paperback. The publisher initially rejected the design and went with a completely different design/designer. The publisher of the paperback said, "No, we want the original that got rejected." And the book did great, the paperback did better than the hard cover. And it's like, well, then what does a "commercial jacket" mean? It doesn't have to mean what everyone thinks it does. I like trying to surprise people.

What book before your time would you have liked to design the cover for and why?

The Catcher in the Rye. There's a final scene with a carousel in Central Park, so the original design is a very stylized, very of-its-time [1951] drawing of a carousel horse. I think I would try and represent Phoebe somehow, but again, not in a literal way.

How much input does the author give usually?

It all depends. Sometimes they'll literally design it for you even though they may not know that's what they're doing. Or sometimes, you know, they'll give you complete carte blanche, or some kind of combination of the two, somewhere in between. They're all different.

Does marketing or branding ever interfere with or influence a cover concept you want to create?

I'm pretty lucky as far as that goes. Every now and then, somebody from marketing will chime in about something or other. And sometimes they're right. But, no, I feel pretty lucky that way. In a sense, I'm sort of in an ivory tower.

Does the genre you're covering matter in the design?

The challenge is to subvert the genre basically. It's like what can a crime thriller look like that isn't predictable or we feel we haven't seen before? And it's hard. Often, you try and you fail and you move on. But I had to redesign the Philip K. Dick's Minority Report and that was an interesting challenge. I didn't want it to look like "science fiction," but it should still look appropriate for the subject matter.

Has becoming an author changed the way you design book jackets?

It hasn't changed the way I design book jackets. I think it's made me more alive to dealing with authors. Because again, I'm spoiled because I'm a writer designing my own cover. In the one sense it's a burden, on the other I can't imagine the fate of my book jacket being in someone else's hands to sort of decide for me. I think for some writers it's very traumatic. You know, they get a jacket they don't like and they don't know whether to speak up or accept it. Having seen the publishing process as an author, it's made me a little bit more sympathetic than I used to be.

Does a typical idea come from the book itself, the author, something on the street, a flea market, a dream, or what?

It's totally everywhere. Absolutely. And the nice thing about books is the deadlines aren't as crazy as somewhere like a magazine or, God forbid, a newspaper. So, you have the luxury of time usually, to read a book and let it kind of like simmer and percolate in your head. And waiting for the right solution to come along, whether it's something you come up with on your own or a piece of art they you see in a gallery. I would definitely recommend anybody who wants to be a book jacket designer to move to New York City.

How is a book cover different from an album or magazine cover?

Hmm. Well, the album cover, for all intents and purposes, it's weird, because it's like the walking dead. They still exist and they still get made, but it's almost like "why?" With everybody buying music online, it's literally been reduced to the size of a postage stamp. For at least 10 years now, the music video has completely replaced the album cover as the key piece of visual iconography connected with a certain album.

Magazine covers, by in large, they're just dying to tell you everything. They can't tell you enough. All the smattering all over the front of the magazine. They're just shrieking at you everything inside. Where a book cover, if it's done right, is going to just suggest a sensibility, it's going to be a lot more coy and a lot more discrete.

How has book jacket design changed over the past 20 years?

Overall, it's gotten a lot smarter. I think there are more designers and publishers who want to see challenging stuff. I think the experience of going into a bookstore is much different, visually, than it was 20 years ago.

Will books become obsolete with digital technology?

I love this question because it gives me the chance to reiterate for the umpteenth time: No, the book is not going anywhere. The book is already the most concise piece of technology to deliver what it delivers. When the last "Harry Potter" book came out, kids weren't downloading it. They were lining up at bookstores. People like something they can pop into their bag. People didn't carry their Sgt. Pepper album all over the place—they would go home and listen to it.

What do you say to the axiom "Don't judge a book by its cover"?

My reaction is, Oh, go ahead.

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