Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Chip Kidd, book cover designer, unmasked
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Whoever first said "You can't judge a book by its cover" has been lost to the ages, but Chip Kidd, the most celebrated of book cover designers, isn't arguing.

At 39, Kidd has designed more than 1,500 covers for authors from Michael Crichton to John Updike. But he says that judging a book by what's on its jacket is "irredeemably shallow."

He asks, "Would you want to be judged by your face?"

But don't people do that all the time?

"Yes, but it doesn't mean you should."

Kidd's work is now the subject of a book, Chip Kidd (Yale University Press, $19.95) by Veronique Vienne, a designer turned writer, who offers another view:

"Whether or not we know it, we all judge a book by its cover. Its role is to communicate not only what the book is about, but who will enjoy reading it. There is a subliminal language of images and typography that speaks directly to the subconscious mind of the potential book buyer."

Some covers, she says, can be misleading: "Serious anthropological studies can be disguised as mystery novels, but more often than not, they accurately reflect the mood, the style and the literary merits of what's between the covers."

And no one does that better, Vienne says, than Kidd, who has been described as a "design demigod," an "inky colossus" and "the closest thing to a rock star" in graphic design.

Such accolades seem to embarrass Kidd, who calls them "ridiculous" and admits to being "inky, but only on a dwarfish scale." He says the first cover he ever noticed was "no doubt for some sort of Batman comic I saw when I was about 3, enough said. Or maybe not enough said: the colors, the forms, the design. Batman himself is such a brilliant design solution."

A serious collector of Batman memorabilia, Kidd has designed and edited several books devoted to what Vienne describes as his "childhood obsession and lasting adult passion."

After graduating from Penn State, he went to work in the art department at Knopf, a leading literary publisher, in 1986. It was a time when books were replacing the covers of record albums as what Kidd calls the "cool, neat thing" for graphic designers.

Some of that had to do with the smaller size of CDs, which Kidd says "is not conducive to a bold, visual style," and the emergence of rock videos that make "the kind of visual statement album covers used to."

Vienne cites another difference: "Music stores are dark, with lots of reflective surfaces that make it difficult to look at graphics. Bookstores are more likely to use natural light and invite you to linger. It's an environment more conducive to graphics."

Kidd says the design process is "pretty simple, unless it becomes complicated."

It begins with the book's manuscript: "I read it, I brood, then eventually respond. Along the way, I may or may not involve photographers or illustrators or any amount of ephemeral detritus that washes up on my shores in the pursuit of solving the problem. And that is what it always amounts to: visually solving a problem." And that, he says, can take from 10 minutes to six months. He also talks to the author, who, he says at Knopf, "has final say, so it's a logical starting point."

Vienne, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, praises Kidd's ability to stretch "the visual boundaries between words and visuals by choosing pictures that appear at first glance to be non sequiturs."

She cites his cover for The Abomination, Paul Golding's 2000 novel about a child whose sexual identity makes him an outsider.

Kidd used a simple black and white photograph of a child's stuffed bunny rabbit standing on its head.

"It's not obvious," Vienne says. "But it's unsettling. The image makes you want to find out more. A nice cuddly thing turned upside down. It forces the reader's mind to make a leap."

Kidd also wrote a well-reviewed novel, The Cheese Monkeys, loosely based on his college experiences, and is working on what he calls not a sequel but "Episode Two." He says, "I'm aware a vast majority of human beings didn't read The Cheese Monkeys."

In her book, Vienne foresees Kidd eventually reinventing himself as a writer "too involved with his own writing to design the jackets of his books."

But Kidd cites two factors: "A: I love my job. And B: It pays the bills." (He says Monkeys sold about 50,000 copies in hardcover and paperback. Not bad for a debut novel, but no blockbuster.)

He also says he finds designing a lot easier than writing but can see gaining more attention and respect as an author, rather than as someone who designs covers for other authors.

"Which is the way it should be," he says. "The content inside is more important than the image on the cover."

Chip Kidd has designed more than 1,500 covers since 1986. His comments on four of them:

Who's Irish ?

Gish Jin's 1996 collection of stories about the immigrant experience: "The key here is spirit — to project the exuberant joy and rebellion of the kid in the story. I felt that if I could get that across, then I could pull readers into it."

Brazzaville Beach

William Boyd's 1991 novel: "One of my favorite covers ever because it's SUCH a great book! What I did was try to mimic the scheme of great cigarette packages, because the heroine of the story chain-smokes. I attempted to 'ape' the design of an African cigarette package that would have been used in the novel."

American Rhapsody

Joe Eszterhas' 2000 semi-fictional version of President Clinton's personal problems: "My editor-in-chief, Sonny Mehta, said to me, 'With this one, let's just give everyone a big kiss.' So I did."

Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton's 1990 thriller: "The trick there was figuring out how to show a dinosaur without actually showing one, and the answer was to do a sort of X-ray silhouette of a dino-skeleton. The producers of the movie obviously agreed, because they bought it and ran with it."

© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY

No comments:

Search This Blog