18:54
TEDSalon NY2015

Chip Kidd: The art of first impressions -- in design and life

Filmed:

Book designer Chip Kidd knows all too well how often we judge things by first appearances. In this hilarious, fast-paced talk, he explains the two techniques designers use to communicate instantly -- clarity and mystery -- and when, why and how they work. He celebrates beautiful, useful pieces of design, skewers less successful work, and shares the thinking behind some of his own iconic book covers.

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

Blah blah blah blah blah.
00:15
Blah blah blah blah,
00:18
blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah.
00:20
Blah blah blah, blah.
00:22
So what the hell was that?
00:26
Well, you don't know
because you couldn't understand it.
00:29
It wasn't clear.
00:33
But hopefully, it was said
with enough conviction
00:36
that it was at least
alluringly mysterious.
00:39
Clarity or mystery?
00:44
I'm balancing these two things
in my daily work as a graphic designer,
00:47
as well as my daily life as a New Yorker
00:52
every day,
00:57
and there are two elements
that absolutely fascinate me.
00:58
Here's an example.
01:03
Now, how many people know what this is?
01:05
Okay. Now how many people
know what this is?
01:11
Okay. Thanks to two more deft strokes
by the genius Charles M. Schulz,
01:16
we now have seven deft strokes
that in and of themselves
01:24
create an entire emotional life,
01:27
one that has enthralled
hundreds of millions of fans
01:30
for over 50 years.
01:33
This is actually a cover of a book
01:35
that I designed about the work
of Schulz and his art,
01:38
which will be coming out this fall,
01:41
and that is the entire cover.
01:44
There is no other typographic information
or visual information on the front,
01:46
and the name of the book
is "Only What's Necessary."
01:51
So this is sort of symbolic about
the decisions I have to make every day
01:55
about the design that I'm perceiving,
02:00
and the design I'm creating.
02:04
So clarity.
02:07
Clarity gets to the point.
02:09
It's blunt. It's honest. It's sincere.
02:11
We ask ourselves this.
["When should you be clear?"]
02:15
Now, something like this,
whether we can read it or not,
02:19
needs to be really, really clear.
02:24
Is it?
02:28
This is a rather recent example
of urban clarity that I just love,
02:32
mainly because I'm always late
and I am always in a hurry.
02:39
So when these meters started showing up
a couple of years ago on street corners,
02:44
I was thrilled, because now I finally knew
02:51
how many seconds I had
to get across the street
02:54
before I got run over by a car.
02:57
Six? I can do that. (Laughter)
03:00
So let's look at the yin
to the clarity yang,
03:05
and that is mystery.
03:09
Mystery is a lot more complicated
by its very definition.
03:12
Mystery demands to be decoded,
03:18
and when it's done right,
we really, really want to.
03:21
["When should you be mysterious?"]
03:24
In World War II, the Germans
really, really wanted to decode this,
03:26
and they couldn't.
03:32
Here's an example of a design
that I've done recently
03:34
for a novel by Haruki Murakami,
03:37
who I've done design work for
for over 20 years now,
03:40
and this is a novel about a young man
who has four dear friends
03:43
who all of a sudden,
after their freshman year of college,
03:49
completely cut him off
with no explanation,
03:52
and he is devastated.
03:56
And the friends' names each have
a connotation in Japanese to a color.
03:57
So there's Mr. Red, there's Mr. Blue,
there's Ms. White, and Ms. Black.
04:03
Tsukuru Tazaki, his name
does not correspond to a color,
04:08
so his nickname is Colorless, and
as he's looking back on their friendship,
04:12
he recalls that they were like
five fingers on a hand.
04:16
So I created this sort of abstract
representation of this,
04:19
but there's a lot more going on
underneath the surface of the story,
04:24
and there's more going on underneath
the surface of the jacket.
04:28
The four fingers are now four train lines
04:33
in the Tokyo subway system,
04:37
which has significance within the story.
04:39
And then you have
the colorless subway line
04:42
intersecting with each
of the other colors,
04:45
which basically he does
later on in the story.
04:48
He catches up with each of these people
04:50
to find out why they treated him
the way they did.
04:52
And so this is the three-dimensional
finished product
04:56
sitting on my desk in my office,
05:00
and what I was hoping for here
is that you'll simply be allured
05:02
by the mystery of what this looks like,
05:07
and will want to read it
05:11
to decode and find out and make more clear
why it looks the way it does.
05:14
["The Visual Vernacular."]
05:20
This is a way to use a more
familiar kind of mystery.
05:21
What does this mean?
05:26
This is what it means.
["Make it look like something else."]
05:27
The visual vernacular is the way
we are used to seeing a certain thing
05:30
applied to something else so that
we see it in a different way.
05:35
This is an approach I wanted to take
to a book of essays by David Sedaris
05:39
that had this title at the time.
["All the Beauty You Will Ever Need"]
05:43
Now, the challenge here was that
this title actually means nothing.
05:47
It's not connected to any
of the essays in the book.
05:51
It came to the author's boyfriend
in a dream.
05:54
Thank you very much, so -- (Laughter) --
so usually, I am creating a design
05:59
that is in some way based on the text,
but this is all the text there is.
06:05
So you've got this mysterious title
that really doesn't mean anything,
06:09
so I was trying to think:
06:14
Where might I see a bit of mysterious text
that seems to mean something but doesn't?
06:16
And sure enough, not long after,
06:22
one evening after a Chinese meal,
06:25
this arrived, and I thought,
"Ah, bing, ideagasm!" (Laughter)
06:28
I've always loved the hilariously
mysterious tropes of fortune cookies
06:35
that seem to mean something extremely deep
06:40
but when you think about them -- if you
think about them -- they really don't.
06:43
This says, "Hardly anyone knows how much
is gained by ignoring the future."
06:47
Thank you. (Laughter)
06:54
But we can take this visual vernacular
and apply it to Mr. Sedaris,
06:57
and we are so familiar
with how fortune cookie fortunes look
07:03
that we don't even need
the bits of the cookie anymore.
07:08
We're just seeing this strange thing
07:11
and we know we love David Sedaris,
07:14
and so we're hoping that
we're in for a good time.
07:16
["'Fraud' Essays by David Rakoff"]
David Rakoff was a wonderful writer
07:19
and he called his first book "Fraud"
07:23
because he was getting sent
on assignments by magazines
07:26
to do things that he
was not equipped to do.
07:30
So he was this skinny little urban guy
07:32
and GQ magazine would send him
down the Colorado River
07:35
whitewater rafting to see
if he would survive.
07:38
And then he would write about it,
and he felt that he was a fraud
07:43
and that he was misrepresenting himself.
07:46
And so I wanted the cover of this book
to also misrepresent itself
07:48
and then somehow show
a reader reacting to it.
07:53
This led me to graffiti.
07:58
I'm fascinated by graffiti.
08:02
I think anybody who lives
in an urban environment
08:04
encounters graffiti all the time,
and there's all different sorts of it.
08:06
This is a picture I took
on the Lower East Side
08:10
of just a transformer box on the sidewalk
08:14
and it's been tagged like crazy.
08:17
Now whether you look at this and think,
"Oh, that's a charming urban affectation,"
08:19
or you look at it and say,
"That's illegal abuse of property,"
08:24
the one thing I think we can all agree on
08:29
is that you cannot read it.
08:31
Right? There is no clear message here.
08:34
There is another kind of graffiti
that I find far more interesting,
08:38
which I call editorial graffiti.
08:43
This is a picture I took recently
in the subway,
08:46
and sometimes you see
lots of prurient, stupid stuff,
08:50
but I thought this was interesting,
and this is a poster that is saying
08:54
rah-rah Airbnb,
08:59
and someone has taken a Magic Marker
09:01
and has editorialized about
what they think about it.
09:04
And it got my attention.
09:08
So I was thinking, how do we
apply this to this book?
09:11
So I get the book by this person,
and I start reading it, and I'm thinking,
09:14
this guy is not who he says
he is; he's a fraud.
09:20
And I get out a red Magic Marker,
09:25
and out of frustration just
scribble this across the front.
09:28
Design done. (Laughter)
09:33
And they went for it! (Laughter)
09:37
Author liked it, publisher liked it,
09:42
and that is how the book
went out into the world,
09:44
and it was really fun to see
people reading this on the subway
09:46
and walking around with it
and what have you,
09:51
and they all sort of looked
like they were crazy.
09:53
(Laughter)
09:57
["'Perfidia' a novel by James Ellroy"]
Okay, James Ellroy, amazing crime writer,
10:00
a good friend, I've worked
with him for many years.
10:04
He is probably best known as the author
10:07
of "The Black Dahlia"
and "L.A. Confidential."
10:09
His most recent novel was called this,
which is a very mysterious name
10:12
that I'm sure a lot of people know
what it means, but a lot of people don't.
10:17
And it's a story about a Japanese-American
detective in Los Angeles in 1941
10:20
investigating a murder.
10:27
And then Pearl Harbor happens,
10:29
and as if his life
wasn't difficult enough,
10:32
now the race relations
have really ratcheted up,
10:35
and then the Japanese-American
internment camps are quickly created,
10:40
and there's lots of tension
10:44
and horrible stuff as he's still
trying to solve this murder.
10:46
And so I did at first think
very literally about this in terms of
10:50
all right, we'll take Pearl Harbor
and we'll add it to Los Angeles
10:56
and we'll make this apocalyptic dawn
on the horizon of the city.
11:00
And so that's a picture from Pearl Harbor
11:08
just grafted onto Los Angeles.
11:10
My editor in chief said,
"You know, it's interesting
11:13
but I think you can do better
and I think you can make it simpler."
11:16
And so I went back
to the drawing board, as I often do.
11:22
But also, being alive to my surroundings,
11:26
I work in a high-rise in Midtown,
11:31
and every night,
before I leave the office,
11:34
I have to push this button to get out,
11:38
and the big heavy glass doors open
and I can get onto the elevator.
11:40
And one night, all of a sudden,
11:44
I looked at this and I saw it in a way
that I hadn't really noticed it before.
11:47
Big red circle, danger.
11:53
And I thought this was so obvious
11:56
that it had to have been
done a zillion times,
11:59
and so I did a Google image search,
and I couldn't find another book cover
12:01
that looked quite like this,
12:06
and so this is really
what solved the problem,
12:08
and graphically it's more interesting
12:11
and creates a bigger tension
between the idea
12:13
of a certain kind of sunrise
coming up over L.A. and America.
12:17
["'Gulp' A tour of the human
digestive system by Mary Roach."]
12:23
Mary Roach is an amazing writer
12:26
who takes potentially mundane
scientific subjects
12:28
and makes them not mundane at all;
she makes them really fun.
12:32
So in this particular case,
12:35
it's about the human digestive system.
12:37
So I'm trying to figure out what
is the cover of this book going to be.
12:40
This is a self-portrait. (Laughter)
12:46
Every morning I look at myself
in the medicine cabinet mirror
12:49
to see if my tongue is black.
12:55
And if it's not, I'm good to go.
12:58
(Laughter)
13:02
I recommend you all do this.
13:07
But I also started thinking,
here's our introduction.
13:10
Right? Into the human digestive system.
13:14
But I think what we can all agree on
13:17
is that actual photographs
of human mouths, at least based on this,
13:20
are off-putting. (Laughter)
13:24
So for the cover, then,
I had this illustration done
13:28
which is literally more palatable
13:32
and reminds us that it's best
to approach the digestive system
13:34
from this end.
13:38
(Laughter)
13:41
I don't even have to complete
the sentence. All right.
13:43
["Unuseful mystery"]
13:47
What happens when clarity
and mystery get mixed up?
13:49
And we see this all the time.
13:53
This is what I call unuseful mystery.
13:55
I go down into the subway --
I take the subway a lot --
13:57
and this piece of paper
is taped to a girder.
14:00
Right? And now I'm thinking, uh-oh,
14:06
and the train's about to come and I'm
trying to figure out what this means,
14:10
and thanks a lot.
14:14
Part of the problem here is that
they've compartmentalized the information
14:16
in a way they think is helpful,
and frankly, I don't think it is at all.
14:20
So this is mystery we do not need.
14:24
What we need is useful clarity,
so just for fun, I redesigned this.
14:27
This is using all the same elements.
14:35
(Applause)
14:38
Thank you. I am still waiting
for a call from the MTA. (Laughter)
14:41
You know, I'm actually not even
using more colors than they use.
14:46
They just didn't even bother
to make the 4 and the 5 green,
14:49
those idiots. (Laughter)
14:52
So the first thing we see
is that there is a service change,
14:56
and then, in two complete sentences
with a beginning, a middle and an end,
14:59
it tells us what the change is
and what's going to be happening.
15:03
Call me crazy! (Laughter)
15:08
["Useful mystery"]
All right.
15:13
Now, here is a piece
of mystery that I love:
15:16
packaging.
15:21
This redesign of the Diet Coke can
15:23
by Turner Duckworth
is to me truly a piece of art.
15:26
It's a work of art. It's beautiful.
15:32
But part of what makes it
so heartening to me as a designer
15:35
is that he's taken the visual
vernacular of Diet Coke --
15:38
the typefaces, the colors,
the silver background --
15:43
and he's reduced them
to their most essential parts,
15:46
so it's like going back
to the Charlie Brown face.
15:51
It's like, how can you give them just
enough information so they know what it is
15:54
but giving them the credit
for the knowledge that they already have
15:58
about this thing?
16:02
It looks great, and you would go
into a delicatessen
16:04
and all of a sudden see that on the shelf,
and it's wonderful.
16:08
Which makes the next thing --
16:12
["Unuseful clarity"] --
all the more disheartening,
16:16
at least to me.
16:18
So okay, again, going back
down into the subway,
16:20
after this came out,
16:24
these are pictures that I took.
16:26
Times Square subway station:
16:28
Coca-Cola has bought out
the entire thing for advertising. Okay?
16:30
And maybe some of you
know where this is going.
16:35
Ahem.
16:40
"You moved to New York
with the clothes on your back,
16:42
the cash in your pocket,
and your eyes on the prize.
16:45
You're on Coke." (Laughter)
16:47
"You moved to New York
with an MBA, one clean suit,
16:57
and an extremely firm handshake.
17:00
You're on Coke." (Laughter)
17:02
These are real! (Laughter)
17:05
Not even the support beams were spared,
17:10
except they switched into Yoda mode.
(Laughter)
17:13
"Coke you're on." (Laughter)
17:19
["Excuse me, I'm on WHAT??"]
17:23
This campaign was a huge misstep.
17:26
It was pulled almost instantly
due to consumer backlash
17:29
and all sorts of unflattering
parodies on the web --
17:34
(Laughter) --
17:38
and also that dot next to "You're on,"
that's not a period, that's a trademark.
17:40
So thanks a lot.
17:47
So to me, this was just so bizarre
17:48
about how they could get the packaging
so mysteriously beautiful and perfect
17:52
and the message so unbearably,
clearly wrong.
17:58
It was just incredible to me.
18:02
So I just hope that I've been able
to share with you some of my insights
18:06
on the uses of clarity
and mystery in my work,
18:11
and maybe how you might decide
to be more clear in your life,
18:15
or maybe to be a bit more mysterious
and not so over-sharing.
18:21
(Laughter)
18:27
And if there's just one thing
that I leave you with from this talk,
18:31
I hope it's this:
18:35
Blih blih blih blah. Blah blah blih blih.
["'Judge This,' Chip Kidd"]
18:37
Blih blih blah blah blah.
Blah blah blah.
18:41
Blah blah.
18:44
(Applause)
18:45

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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