17:17
TED2012

Chip Kidd: Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is.

Filmed:

Chip Kidd doesn’t judge books by their cover, he creates covers that embody the book -- and he does it with a wicked sense of humor. In one of the funniest talks from TED2012, he shows the art and deep thought of his cover designs. This talk is from The Design Studio session at TED2012, guest-curated by Chee Pearlman and David Rockwell.

- Graphic designer
Chip Kidd's book jacket designs spawned a revolution in the art of American book packaging. Full bio

Hi.
00:21
(Laughter)
00:23
I did that for two reasons.
00:25
First of all, I wanted to give you
00:28
a good visual first impression.
00:31
But the main reason I did it is that
00:34
that's what happens to me when I'm forced to wear
00:37
a Lady Gaga skanky mic.
00:40
(Laughter)
00:43
I'm used to a stationary mic.
00:46
It's the sensible shoe of public address.
00:50
(Laughter)
00:53
But you clamp this thing on my head, and something happens.
00:59
I just become skanky.
01:02
(Laughter) So I'm sorry about that.
01:05
And I'm already off-message.
01:09
(Laughter)
01:12
Ladies and gentlemen,
01:15
I have devoted the past 25 years of my life
01:18
to designing books.
01:22
("Yes, BOOKS. You know, the bound volumes with ink on paper.
01:24
You cannot turn them off with a switch.
01:26
Tell your kids.")
01:28
It all sort of started as a benign mistake,
01:30
like penicillin. (Laughter)
01:34
What I really wanted
01:37
was to be a graphic designer
01:40
at one of the big design firms in New York City.
01:42
But upon arrival there,
01:44
in the fall of 1986, and doing a lot of interviews,
01:47
I found that the only thing I was offered
01:51
was to be Assistant to the Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf,
01:54
a book publisher.
01:57
Now I was stupid,
01:59
but not so stupid that I turned it down.
02:02
I had absolutely no idea
02:05
what I was about to become part of,
02:08
and I was incredibly lucky.
02:10
Soon, it had occurred to me what my job was.
02:12
My job was to ask this question:
02:16
"What do the stories look like?"
02:19
Because that is what Knopf is.
02:20
It is the story factory, one of the very best in the world.
02:23
We bring stories to the public.
02:26
The stories can be anything,
02:29
and some of them are actually true.
02:32
But they all have one thing in common:
02:34
They all need to look like something.
02:39
They all need a face.
02:42
Why? To give you a first impression
02:45
of what you are about to get into.
02:49
A book designer gives form to content,
02:52
but also
02:56
manages a very careful balance between the two.
02:58
Now, the first day
03:01
of my graphic design training at Penn State University,
03:03
the teacher, Lanny Sommese, came into the room
03:06
and he drew a picture of an apple on the blackboard,
03:09
and wrote the word "Apple" underneath,
03:12
and he said, "OK. Lesson one. Listen up."
03:14
And he covered up the picture and he said,
03:17
"You either say this," and then he covered up the word,
03:20
"or you show this.
03:23
But you don't do this."
03:26
Because this is treating your audience like a moron.
03:29
(Laughter)
03:34
And they deserve better.
03:37
And lo and behold, soon enough,
03:40
I was able to put this theory to the test
03:42
on two books that I was working on for Knopf.
03:45
The first was Katharine Hepburn's memoirs,
03:49
and the second was a biography of Marlene Dietrich.
03:53
Now the Hepburn book
03:56
was written in a very conversational style,
03:59
it was like she was sitting across a table telling it all to you.
04:02
The Dietrich book was an observation
04:05
by her daughter; it was a biography.
04:08
So the Hepburn story is words
04:10
and the Dietrich story is pictures, and so we did this.
04:13
So there you are.
04:17
Pure content and pure form, side by side.
04:20
No fighting, ladies.
04:23
("What's a Jurassic Park?")
04:26
Now, what is the story here?
04:28
Someone
04:31
is re-engineering dinosaurs
04:34
by extracting their DNA
04:37
from prehistoric amber.
04:40
Genius!
04:43
(Laughter)
04:46
Now, luckily for me,
04:50
I live and work in New York City,
04:53
where there are plenty of dinosaurs.
04:55
(Laughter)
04:57
So,
05:00
I went to the Museum of Natural History,
05:04
and I checked out the bones, and I went to the gift shop,
05:06
and I bought a book.
05:10
And I was particularly taken with this page of the book,
05:11
and more specifically the lower right-hand corner.
05:15
Now I took this diagram,
05:19
and I put it in a Photostat machine,
05:22
(Laughter)
05:26
and I took a piece of tracing paper,
05:32
and I taped it over the Photostat
05:35
with a piece of Scotch tape -- stop me if I'm going too fast --
05:39
(Laughter) --
05:42
and then I took a Rapidograph pen --
05:49
explain it to the youngsters --
05:52
(Laughter)
05:55
and I just started to reconstitute the dinosaur.
05:58
I had no idea what I was doing,
06:02
I had no idea where I was going,
06:05
but at some point, I stopped --
06:07
when to keep going would seem like I was going too far.
06:09
And what I ended up with was a graphic representation
06:13
of us seeing this animal coming into being.
06:17
We're in the middle of the process.
06:21
And then I just threw some typography on it.
06:23
Very basic stuff,
06:26
slightly suggestive of public park signage.
06:28
(Laughter)
06:31
Everybody in house loved it,
06:37
and so off it goes to the author.
06:39
And even back then,
06:41
Michael was on the cutting edge.
06:43
("Michael Crichton responds by fax:")
06:45
("Wow! Fucking Fantastic Jacket")
06:49
(Laughter) (Applause)
06:51
That was a relief to see that pour out of the machine.
06:58
(Laughter)
07:02
I miss Michael.
07:05
And sure enough, somebody from MCA Universal
07:08
calls our legal department to see if they can
07:11
maybe look into buying the rights to the image,
07:14
just in case they might want to use it.
07:16
Well, they used it.
07:19
(Laughter) (Applause)
07:22
And I was thrilled.
07:27
We all know it was an amazing movie,
07:30
and it was so interesting to see it
07:32
go out into the culture and become this phenomenon
07:34
and to see all the different permutations of it.
07:38
But not too long ago,
07:41
I came upon this on the Web.
07:44
No, that is not me.
07:47
But whoever it is,
07:50
I can't help but thinking they woke up one day like,
07:53
"Oh my God, that wasn't there last night. Ooooohh!
07:56
I was so wasted."
07:59
(Laughter)
08:02
But if you think about it, from my head
08:05
to my hands to his leg.
08:08
(Laughter)
08:11
That's a responsibility.
08:16
And it's a responsibility that I don't take lightly.
08:19
The book designer's responsibility is threefold:
08:22
to the reader, to the publisher and, most of all, to the author.
08:25
I want you to look at the author's book
08:29
and say, "Wow! I need to read that."
08:32
David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers,
08:35
and the title essay
08:38
in this collection is about his trip to a nudist colony.
08:41
And the reason he went is because
08:44
he had a fear of his body image,
08:46
and he wanted to explore what was underlying that.
08:48
For me, it was simply an excuse to design a book
08:51
that you could literally take the pants off of.
08:54
But when you do,
08:57
you don't get what you expect.
09:00
You get something that goes much deeper than that.
09:02
And David especially loved this design
09:04
because at book signings, which he does a lot of,
09:08
he could take a magic marker and do this.
09:11
(Laughter)
09:14
Hello!
09:20
(Laughter)
09:23
Augusten Burroughs wrote a memoir
09:26
called ["Dry"], and it's about his time in rehab.
09:29
In his 20s, he was a hotshot ad executive,
09:32
and as Mad Men has told us, a raging alcoholic.
09:37
He did not think so, however,
09:40
but his coworkers did an intervention and they said,
09:43
"You are going to rehab, or you will be fired and you will die."
09:46
Now to me, this was always going to be a typographic solution,
09:50
what I would call the opposite of Type 101.
09:54
What does that mean?
09:56
Usually on the first day of Introduction to Typography,
09:58
you get the assignment of, select a word
10:00
and make it look like what it says it is. So that's Type 101, right?
10:03
Very simple stuff.
10:06
This is going to be the opposite of that.
10:08
I want this book to look like it's lying to you,
10:11
desperately and hopelessly, the way an alcoholic would.
10:14
The answer was the most low-tech thing you can imagine.
10:18
I set up the type, I printed it out on an Epson printer
10:21
with water-soluble ink, taped it to the wall
10:25
and threw a bucket of water at it. Presto!
10:28
Then when we went to press,
10:31
the printer put a spot gloss on the ink
10:33
and it really looked like it was running.
10:35
Not long after it came out, Augusten was waylaid in an airport
10:37
and he was hiding out in the bookstore
10:40
spying on who was buying his books.
10:42
And this woman came up to it,
10:44
and she squinted, and she took it to the register,
10:47
and she said to the man behind the counter, "This one's ruined."
10:49
(Laughter)
10:52
And the guy behind the counter said, "I know, lady. They all came in that way."
10:56
(Laughter)
11:01
Now, that's a good printing job.
11:06
A book cover
11:09
is a distillation.
11:12
It is a haiku,
11:15
if you will, of the story.
11:18
This particular story
11:21
by Osama Tezuka
11:24
is his epic life of the Buddha,
11:27
and it's eight volumes in all. But the best thing is
11:30
when it's on your shelf, you get a shelf life
11:33
of the Buddha, moving from one age to the next.
11:37
All of these solutions
11:44
derive their origins from the text of the book,
11:47
but once the book designer has read the text,
11:51
then he has to be an interpreter
11:54
and a translator.
11:57
This story was a real puzzle.
12:00
This is what it's about.
12:03
("Intrigue and murder among 16th century Ottoman court painters.")
12:06
(Laughter)
12:09
All right, so I got a collection of the paintings together
12:12
and I looked at them and I deconstructed them
12:16
and I put them back together.
12:18
And so, here's the design, right?
12:20
And so here's the front and the spine, and it's flat.
12:22
But the real story starts when you wrap it around a book and put it on the shelf.
12:25
Ahh! We come upon them,
12:28
the clandestine lovers. Let's draw them out.
12:32
Huhh! They've been discovered by the sultan.
12:35
He will not be pleased.
12:40
Huhh! And now the sultan is in danger.
12:43
And now, we have to open it up
12:46
to find out what's going to happen next.
12:49
Try experiencing that on a Kindle.
12:52
(Laughter)
12:55
Don't get me started.
13:02
Seriously.
13:05
Much is to be gained by eBooks:
13:08
ease, convenience, portability.
13:12
But something is definitely lost: tradition,
13:15
a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness --
13:18
a little bit of humanity.
13:23
Do you know what John Updike used to do
13:26
the first thing when he would get a copy
13:29
of one of his new books from Alfred A. Knopf?
13:31
He'd smell it.
13:33
Then he'd run his hand over the rag paper,
13:36
and the pungent ink and the deckled edges of the pages.
13:40
All those years, all those books, he never got tired of it.
13:43
Now, I am all for the iPad,
13:48
but trust me -- smelling it will get you nowhere.
13:52
(Laughter)
13:56
Now the Apple guys are texting,
13:59
"Develop odor emission plug-in."
14:02
(Laughter)
14:05
And the last story I'm going to talk about is quite a story.
14:10
A woman
14:13
named Aomame in 1984 Japan finds herself
14:16
negotiating down a spiral staircase
14:19
off an elevated highway. When she gets to the bottom,
14:22
she can't help but feel that, all of a sudden,
14:25
she's entered a new reality
14:27
that's just slightly different from the one that she left,
14:29
but very similar, but different.
14:32
And so, we're talking about parallel planes of existence,
14:34
sort of like a book jacket and the book that it covers.
14:37
So how do we show this?
14:41
We go back to Hepburn and Dietrich, but now we merge them.
14:44
So we're talking about different planes, different pieces of paper.
14:48
So this is on a semi-transparent piece of velum.
14:52
It's one part of the form and content.
14:55
When it's on top of the paper board,
14:58
which is the opposite, it forms this.
15:01
So even if you don't know anything about this book,
15:04
you are forced to consider a single person
15:08
straddling two planes of existence.
15:11
And the object itself invited exploration
15:14
interaction, consideration
15:19
and touch.
15:24
This debuted at number two
15:27
on the New York Times Best Seller list.
15:29
This is unheard of,
15:31
both for us the publisher, and the author.
15:33
We're talking a 900-page book
15:35
that is as weird as it is compelling,
15:37
and featuring a climactic scene
15:39
in which a horde of tiny people
15:41
emerge from the mouth of a sleeping girl
15:43
and cause a German Shepherd to explode.
15:45
(Laughter)
15:47
Not exactly Jackie Collins.
15:55
Fourteen weeks on the Best Seller list,
15:58
eight printings, and still going strong.
16:01
So even though we love publishing as an art,
16:04
we very much know it's a business too,
16:07
and that if we do our jobs right and get a little lucky,
16:10
that great art can be great business.
16:13
So that's my story. To be continued.
16:16
What does it look like?
16:19
Yes. It can, it does and it will,
16:22
but for this book designer,
16:27
page-turner,
16:30
dog-eared place-holder,
16:33
notes in the margins-taker,
16:36
ink-sniffer,
16:39
the story looks like this.
16:42
Thank you.
16:46
(Applause)
16:49

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About the Speaker:

Chip Kidd - Graphic designer
Chip Kidd's book jacket designs spawned a revolution in the art of American book packaging.

Why you should listen

You know a Chip Kidd book when you see it -- precisely because it's unexpected, non-formulaic, and perfectly right for the text within. As a graphic designer for Alfred A. Knopf since 1986, Kidd has designed shelves full of books, including classics you can picture in a snap: Jurassic Park, Naked by David Sedaris, All the Pretty Horses … His monograph, Chip Kidd: Book One, contains work spanning two decades. As editor and art director for Pantheon Graphic novels, Kidd has commissioned work from cartoonists including Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes and Art Spiegelman. He's a novelist as well, author of The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners.

Chip received the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award for Communication in 2007, the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Design in 1997 and the AIGA Medal in 2014.

 

More profile about the speaker
Chip Kidd | Speaker | TED.com