Judging books by his covers
Famed graphic designer Chip Kidd shares how he comes up with book covers, including that iconic Jurassic Park dinosaur silhouette for the bestselling Michael Crichton book.
GRAPHIC designer Chip Kidd knows people literally judge a book by its cover. For nearly 30 years, he has created designs that lodge in popular memory.
Naked, the 1997 collection of revealing personal essays by American humour writer David Sedaris, gota jacket that could be removed to strip the book down to the bone. Jurassic Park, the 1990 novel by Michael Crichton, was represented by a dinosaur silhouette now symbolic of the four- movie franchise. How does Kidd do it? First, he reads the book to find out what the story looks like. The entire book? “Itall depends on which book it is,” Kidd says on the telephone from New York, where he lives. “With Haruki Murakami, if there is a full manuscript, I’ll definitely read it.”
Kidd, who turns 52 this year, started out as an assistant to the art director at publishers Knopf in 1986 and has since become one of the world’s best- known book designers.
He freelances for various major publishing houses such as Harper-Collins, butis mostly known for his work with Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon Graphic Novels and other imprints of the Penguin Random House group.
He has designed covers for Oliver Sacks, James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, among others. He says he would love to create book covers for Nobel laureate and Knopf author Alice Munro, but she has a long- standing relationship with another designer.
He turned Neil Gaiman’s inspirational 2012 speech “Make Good Art” into a book in which every single page literally illustrates the key concept. Kidd also used quirky fonts and page design for the two novels he wrote in the Noughties, Th e Cheese Monkeys and Th e Learners, based on his experiences in college and the pre- computer age of graphic design.
He created a Batman graphic novel for DC Comics in 2012 and has edited comics for Pantheon for over a dozen years. He acquired and published the American edition of Singaporean artist Sonny Liew’s The Art Of Charlie Ch a n Hoc k Ch ye, a creative retelling of Singapore history through the perspective of a comics artist. ( The Art Of Charlie Ch a n Hoc k Ch ye is on exhibit at the Mulan Gallery in Singapore till March 24; visit mulangallery.com. sg.)
“I do believe it’s a masterpiece,” says Kidd of the book, which was justpublished in the US – with the author’s original cover.
This is high praise from someone who has worked with luminaries such as Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi. Both these artists won major awards for their respective visual histories of the World War II Nazi pogrom againstthe Jews and the Iranian Revolution.
For more than 20 years, Kidd’s covers for Murakami’s novels have been what readers first fall in love with when the English translations reach stores around the world.
The designer is a huge fan of the author as well, enjoying the writer’s insight into contemporary Japanese culture and his magical realist style.
For the 2011 translation of the 900- page 1Q 84 , a tale of a woman who moves between parallel planes of existence, Kidd designed a semi-transparentjacket overlaying a human face. When peeled away, the title appears as negative space on the image.
New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin panned the story, but loved the cover. Her review read: “In the case of 1Q 84 , there is a startlingly clever Chip Kidd cover to create an air of the irresistible. The actual text? Notso much.”
Kidd’s other designs for Murakami novels are similar: simple and memorable at first glance, with deepening complexity the closer one looks. Murakami’s Colorless Tsu ku ru Ta za ki And His Y ea rs O fP ilg rim a ge, published in 2014, had a cover with a “palm” made of differently coloured pillars or fingers. The colours evoke the names of the titular character’s four friends and the design also includes a Tokyo subway map, hinting at Tsukuru’s involvement with trains.
Two or three weeks of thought can go into each design but Kidd hits the bull’s eye firsttime, more often than not.
“With Murakami, I’ve been very lucky. Since the firstfive books, the first design has been chosen,” he says.
For more details on his design process, he refers us to his TED Talks – the global conferences held to disseminate “ideas worth spreading” – freely available online .( The Art Of First Impressions talk is attinyurl.com/jfr6uue and On The Jurassic Park Logo is attinyurl.com/htk8kfx.)
In two 18- minute videos posted in 2012 and lastyear, Kidd speaks about how to leave a good first visual impression and how he came up with some of his bestknown visuals. Each video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
Kidd describes his work as a balancing act between clarity and mystery. He follows advice received during his graphic design studies in Pennsylvania State University in the 1980s: Do not underestimate the audience. Withhold enough information to add mystery. Give them credit for what they already know.
He expands on this in Judge Th is, a primer on good design he wrote and published with TED lastyear.
Asked for other advice for aspiring designers, he says: “Frankly, I don’t know what advice to give them. You have to have some talent, you have to work very hard and you have to get lucky and get somebody to give you a break.” He works on an Apple computer and enjoys having access to “thousands of fonts”, but some of his best work comes from low- tech solutions. For the washed- away font on the cover of D ry, Augusten Burrough’s 2003 memoir of battling alcoholism, Kidd printed out the title and threw water on the paper so the ink ran.
For Jurassic Park’ s famous semi-fleshed out dinosaur skeleton, he wentto the Museum of Natural History in New York, bought a book on dinosaurs from the gift shop and looked through it for ideas. A diagram of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton caught his attention so he made a photocopy, traced over itand began filling in the outlines until he was satisfied. The end result: movie icon history.
“I still do things by hand if I’m going to cutup a piece of paper or lettering by hand, but I don’t miss that something thatwould take me three days to do, I can do in 15 minutes. I don’t miss that a tall.”
He likes it when an author has definite ideas about the cover and shares them up front.
“Oliver Sacks would sometimes have an idea of what he wants and sometimes he wouldn’t. Murakami doesn’ t get involved until there’ s a final design and he’s always approved.
“I would rather talk directly with the author atthe beginning. It’s his book and his book is more important than my design.”
Creative guy: Kidd still works by hand if his design calls for it – he threw water at one design to get ink to run – but is just as happy to save time and work on a computer if he can.
Kidd turned Gaiman’s inspirational speech into a creative book in which each unique page exemplifies Gaiman’s message about making good art.
Among the iconic covers Kidd has designed are the ones for Naked, Dry and – the most well- known – Jurassic Park.