“You have no idea what a bestseller looks like, until it's a bestseller.”
Chip Kidd is a graphic designer of print materials. He is not a web designer, app designer, game or user experience designer. He designs and writes print books. We spoke about the meaning of digital publishing versus digital design, and what makes a bestselling book. The short answer: it’s not the cover.
Chip: I’ve always seen my job as making these objects that you want to have. Most of what I work on are hardcover books, so they’re supposed to be archival. They’re not supposed to be ephemeral. They’re not supposed to be disposable. A lot of graphic design is. Almost all packaging, for example. My job is to make you want to have a book… in your hands.
Exhibit A: Building Stories by Chris Ware is only one of Kidd’s many book designs for the acclaimed graphic novelist. Defining innovation in package design, it comes in an oversized format containing folios of different formats, paper weights and sizes. Most impressively, the oversized out-of-category packaging did nothing to stop it from being The New York Times Number 1 bestseller in the Hardcover Graphic Novel category for several months.
Chip: I just assume anything that i do will end up on an e-book cover anyway. The ironic thing is that way before e-books, i.e. since 1993, I've been designing on a computer, so it all starts as an e-book cover anyway. Whatever that means. Somebody did an e-book cover where it showed a woman floating in water and when you touched it it moved, but so what? If that’s what you want go to a movie or play a video game!
Paperhouses: You prefer the idea of a book cover as immutable.
Chip: Yeah. I think that’s a very good word for it. And if I knew what it meant it’d be even better.
Exhibit B: Cheese Monkeys. Chip’s first novel, about a group of design students coming of age in college. Loosely veiled autobiography. Though released in a more traditional 5 x 7 format, Chip pulled no punches, designing a trompe l’oeil into the edge of the paper, reading “Do you see” in one direction and “Good is dead” in the other.
Chip: When I first started in publishing, on the back page of The New York Times Book Review would be the Book of the Month Club, where everything would be this big (pinches fingers). That also ties back to a very simple lesson, which is the concept of thumbnail images. If a cover looks good this big, then blow it up… and vice-versa. I go into this in “Big to Small” (from GO: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, Chip’s upcoming primer on graphic design for children). That’s way before Amazon… All these principles were all in place. I just don’t want to read a book on a screen. And I don’t know any author who does not want their book visually represented, regardless of whether it’s an e-book original or anything else.
Ph: Do you have a favorite design going on right now in digital?
Chip: (Disdainfully) No. My sound bite is: I don’t want to do all this work and design something that can be turned off with a switch. Of course, (web design) is very important, but I also think a well-designed website at this point is all about clarity. Especially for restaurants… They want to play music, and you know… where’s the skip intro button?! I don’t need this shit. Where are you. What kind of food do you serve. Do you take reservations. That’s all I need. This goes for designers as well. They want to get all tricky and designy with sites. If I’m going on your site, I want to see your work and I don’t want to make it a big fat fucking puzzle to figure out how to do that. I think more visual artists are getting that now because it’s not a novelty anymore. So let’s denovelitize it. It doesn’t mean it has to be ugly or uninteresting. Just make it straightforward.
Ph: Do you have favorite designs? Covers you like? Or the opposite? Covers that you think are hot trash… without disparaging your peers?
Chip: It doesn’t answer your question but here’s the thing: nobody knows what a bestseller looks like, until it becomes a bestseller. So I don’t hear a lot of this personally but people say “make it look like a bestseller.” Then you have something like 50 Shades of Grey, which NO ONE saw coming. And its cover… the type is small and the images have nothing to do with the story. I mean it’s pure metaphor. But now you go into an airport bookstore and you see all these ripoffs of that. (Pause) I went to Posman’s at Grand Central. I love Posman’s and use it as my yardstick for what’s going on out there. O~ what Malcolm Gladwell hath wrought!!
I mean it’s not his fault, but I looked at the nonfiction paperback table and they’re all stark white backgrounds with some little iconic thing, and what I’d call the sensible shoe of typography. It all looks like The Tipping Point because they all want to be The Tipping Point. It’s just bizarre to me, because I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot. But who am I to say.
I’ve been saying for years, when it comes to selling books, book jackets don’t sell the book, they get you interested in it. For years I was using the example of Harry Potter covers. They aren’t horrible but they aren’t special. You don’t look at them and think, “Oh my god they’ve reinvented the novel.” It’s not the Oz books of our time.
Ph: What are you reading right now?
Chip: For fun?
Jonathan Ross watches as Chip Kidd plants one on Neil Gaiman at the end of this years Eisner Awards.
I’m reading a lot of Neil Gaiman right now because he is a friend, but also because I hadn’t read a lot of the novels. Honestly, by the time I get done with The New York Times, The New York Post, The New Yorker and New York…anything that has New York in it (laughter)… and you know, I read this (thumps a Haruki Murakami manuscript) for work, which is great.
Ph: Is there a working title?
Chip: It’s called The Strange Library. It came out in 2005 in Japan. It’s funny actually, (this book) reminds me of a Japanese version of Neil Gaiman in a way.
Exhibit C: Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, generally considered Murakami’s magnum opus by critics, Chip makes exemplary use of photography and cropping. Chip has been designing all of Murakami’s original titles since he first appeared in English at Knopf.
Ph: If you could design anyone’s book cover who would it be?
Chip: For years I said Salinger and Nabokov. But Salinger, I completely lost interest in. I went back to read Catcher in the Rye last year and I could not finish it. I thought, “you are the most annoying…” I think you have to be twelve years old to get that book.
Ph: You are taking words from my mouth. I couldn't agree more. Though I have to admit I felt sort of the same about Pattern Recognition. You really have to read that a specific moment in time or it doesn’t wow you.
Chip: I think I read a William Gibson short story in Penthouse magazine.
Ph: You’re probably the only person who has read Penthouse.
Chip: (Laughter) I’m just saying I thought it was amusing and that’s that. Who else… there was Philip K. Dick…
Exhibit D: Minority Report by Philip K. Dick.
Chip: That version of Minority Report was the un-movie tie-in, because we have the rights to all Philip K. Dick in hardcover. It was really just to piggy-back on the movie, but we couldn’t put Tom Cruise on it. Thank you, God. The interesting thing we did with this was there’s a pre-cognition on every page, so the first word of the next page appears at the bottom of the last page.
Ph: Any contemporary writers you want to design?
Chip: No one I can say on the record…