He’s even played the part of himself on the soap opera One Life to Live. I first discovered Chip Kidd’s work in Batman Collected, a book of Batman memorabilia. Designed and written by Kidd, Batman Collected opened with a short anecdote where Kidd was about to buy an overpriced and damaged rubbery Batman logo meant to go on the end of a stick; a “floppy thing”, that Kidd admitted was of dubious actual worth but of substantive value to a collector.
Continuing in a pop sophisticate tone, the book went into detail about the design of a superhero; something that I had never considered before. It concluded with an illustrated cut-out Batman comic by the artist Chris Ware that I would never, ever assemble, because it was too perfect there on the page.
A year or two after reading Batman Collected, I found myself in New York, working as a book designer, starting with the literary thriller Why Stomach Acid is Good For You. Book design was something that started off as a job and soon became an obsession, as I began learning about the designers of my favorite books. And that’s when I realized that I owned a lot of books that had been designed by Chip Kidd. These were the covers that seemed to say “Over here!” without screaming, mumbling, or you know, seeming weird. They were designs that had come to life, in a good way.
But there was more to Kidd than book design or Batman collectibles: he also wrote books with characters who lived and breathed design; The Cheese Monkeys which captured the intensity of a first year of college, and The Learners which explored advertising, art, and the experiments of Stanley Milgram. And then there’s Batman: Death by Design, which Kidd has described as the Batman movie from the 1930s that was never made.
Kidd has a new book out, called “Go,” which is the first time he’s written about design for a much younger audience. Like all of his work, it’s beautiful and exciting. In this interview he talks about Batman as a graphic designer, some of the graphic design lessons in his novels, nerdiness, and being a fan.
Up until now, most of your writing has focused on characters who are learning about the design that’s all around them. Go is the first book that will show people how to design things for themselves. Did you know before you started The Cheese Monkeys that you wanted to do this kind of book?
No, I didn’t at all, and never would have thought of it had Raquel Jaramillo—an editor and art director at Workman Publishing—not suggested the idea to me. I really owe it to her. But I should also respond to your question by saying that GO is also about learning that design is all around you.
What was writing Go like? Did you have a specific person in mind when you were writing it?
A) It was very difficult for me, because I don’t have kids and am unfamiliar with how to teach design to them. I was totally out of my comfort zone, which was a compelling challenge for me.
B) No, I didn’t have a specific person in mind, other than the intended audience is children TEN and up. But that also meant I couldn’t deal with a lot of the subjects that graphic uses all the time, namely: sex, political propaganda, and selling a mass audience on habits that are not good for them (cigarettes, booze, etc). Luckily for me, I work in book publishing, so I was able to use examples of my own work that didn’t directly deal with these issues.
When you’re creating a book jacket, is your directive like in The Learners, where you’re creating a need for the book?
The Learners is an usual case, because I’m also the author. But to literally answer your question, I cannot create a need for a book, no matter what it is. That is the book’s job. I can try to create an interest in a book, based on the design.
What is the biggest misconception about book design?
Hmmm. I guess as far as I’m concerned, it’s the idea that a book cover can literally sell a book. I’ve been trying to debunk that theory my entire career. A book jacket can get someone interested in a book, but the book itself has to make a reader reach for his wallet.
This is kind of a nerdy question, but . . . you wrote The Cheese Monkeys in Quark. Was it ever distracting? I remember the view of Quark being kind of glitchy at times.
At this point, nerdiness is its own kind of cred, which I think is GREAT. As for writing in Quark, my only complaint is that there are now so many different versions and it’s hard (and expensive) to keep up. In the interest of full disclosure, “GO” was written and designed in InDesign.
How did you meet (illustrators and comic book artists) Chris Ware and Charles Burns?
By being a fan and introducing myself. But beyond that, in both cases I said “I think you’re a genius and I have a job that I want you to work on.” They both said yes, and it grew from there.
You’re a fan of Batman and wrote the lauded Batman: Death by Design. Is Batman a designer? In your book, he’s perfecting a grappling gun.
Batman/Bruce Wayne is most certainly a designer, and I felt that in the comics that hadn’t been emphasized enough. Beyond the engineering, here is a character who has taken the idea of a motif and exploited it to its most powerful and unforgettable extreme.
The Batman who was in Death by Design didn’t know everything. Was that intentional? Did you set out to say, “Listen, the thing about Batman, is that he doesn’t get it right the first time . . .”
Yes, definitely. What fun is a Batman who is infallible? That’s one of the narrative problems they’ve always had with Superman. I think one of the very best Batman stories, “Year One” by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, is so good because he’s figuring it out as he goes along and making a lot of mistakes in the process (a concept that was then used for the movie “Batman Begins”).
Part of your process has been using real objects for book covers—I’m thinking of the fork in the Augusten Burroughs novel A Wolf at the Table, the tattoo gun in BangkokTattoo. Do you keep the objects?
Ha. I do keep the objects. I think this approach makes for an effective message because these are things we can imagine wielding in our own hands. Some of them we have (fork) and some of them we’d like to (tattoo gun).
Before The Cheese Monkeys you wrote Batman Collected, and, in the introduction, you buy a floppy thing. Do you still have it?
YES. It is the most gloriously useless sort of object you can imagine. But what I really liked about it was that the artwork of Batman’s face is still the version from the 1950s, even though the floppy thing was issued in 1966. I know this is splitting hairs, but try to imagine if someone tried to market ‘Sgt. Pepper’ by still using the Beatles in their collarless gray jackets.
The Cheese Monkeys has this impressive amount of tension between the teacher and his students. In one scene he torches the project made up of the matchsticks to show the student how to more effectively convey the idea. Have you had professors or instructors who were that adversarial?
Oh, yes. That specific story is quite true. One kid made the word ‘Hot’ out of matches, and the teacher (dearly departed Bill Kinser), who smoked a pipe in class, put his Zippo lighter under it, and fired up. We nearly evacuated the room. Brilliant lesson. Legendary.
Could you talk about proofs? What is your criteria when you review a proof?
If you mean a press-proof, I am looking at basic logistical issues of whether or not the printing and colors are correct. Incidentally, when I show sketches in-house, I always print them out (on a Cannon Fiery), trim them, and wrap them around books. It’s been that way for quite some time. It’s much, much more convincing than looking at a flat image.
You created the cover of David Rakoff’s last book, as well as many of his previous books, and were friends with him for a long time. Did Rakoff see the cover before he passed away?
Yes, he saw and approved a version of it, I used a different, pre-existing, piece of art by Seth. That was certainly the most heart-breaking job I ever had to work on. It was a race to the end to get it done before he died. David was an utter, brilliant, delight, and I was proud to call him a friend for over two decades.
Where did the advice about holding a pen and a pencil from Sketchy Spear come from in The Learners?
I made it up. Fiction writers tend to do that. Seriously, it was a mash-up of half-remembered advice from various drawing classes in college.
Do you sketch out type or a design before starting a cover, or are you at the computer from the start?
It all depends on the cover. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve never been much for sketching, even back in school before the Apple arrived. What matters most is the concept, and that’s always before the sketch phase anyway.
Could you talk about the significance of the cover of your new book– the stop symbol framing the word “Go”?
It’s basically one solution to the question of “How do you teach a ten-year-old about irony?” It’s also literally designed to get your attention.
It can’t be easy to find time to write books as well as create as many covers as you do. How do you do it?
I am the laziest person in the world. Seriously. My employers at Knopf are infinitely patient with me, as long as I get my work done. But part of the key to getting anything else made is that I’m married to someone who is also consumed with creative work (J. D. McClatchy) and we do not have children. Or pets. Or houseplants.
I am fascinated by this because I’ve heard a lot of productive people say this. Is laziness part of a process, does it help if a deadline is closer?
Well, first—thank god for deadlines or I’d NEVER get anything done. When I say I’m lazy, I do mean it, but more specifically in the context of how much work I actually do on a given day. I can waste time like no one’s business, and alas, often do. I just know I could be more productive if I worked at it harder, but it also becomes a “quality of life” issue.
How has your view of book publishing and book design changed since you started working at Knopf?
Hasn’t changed a bit. I love it more than ever. It’s the best job in the world, for the best writers. I am the luckiest guy on Earth.
(Note: If you enjoyed this interview, you should check out Kidd’s interview with Milton Glaser, his interview with the AV Club, and his regularly updated website. His conversation with Neil Gaiman is very funny and illuminating. Also I may have mentioned a few hundred times in this article that Batman Collected is one of the best things ever.)