Meet Chip Kidd,
Book cover designer
Which crayon in your crayon box got smallest the fastest? Red at first and as I got older, probably gray.
Favorite comic book hero? Batman. I have been very public about that.
Favorite pizza at Modern Apizza (where Kidd sets a scene in his second novel)? Well, you know. Probably pepperoni.
QSo let’s start with the basics. What’s your age and why are you called Chip?
AWell, I’m 23 … Actually, no. I’m 44 and my name is actually Charles. But even when I was a zygote, my mother had decided that I would be Chip.
QWhat were you doing when I interrupted you?
AI’m working on a cover on a book by Aravind Adiga. “The White Tiger.” He’s from India. It’s about this small, relatively small town called Kittur and it’s a quasi-period piece. It takes place between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
QSo how do you design a book cover?
AFor this, I only got a piece of the manuscript. Then it became an issue of researching this place and time. As we are on the phone, I will be sending this off to the publisher.
QHow do you know if you’ve nailed something?
AIt’s very intuitive. You just look at it on screen and if it’s working, you don’t feel as if you’ve seen it a million times.
QWhat are your favorite covers?
AI could be answering that question for the next four years. I’ve been doing this for 23 years nonstop. It’s hard to decide among the 1,200 covers or so. There are lots of great people out there, too.
QBut what was one of the best covers you have seen recently?
AA book called “Obsession.” They took a pin and they poked all these hundreds and hundreds of tiny little holes in cardboard to spell out ‘obsession.’ You know they didn’t do it on the computer. Somebody had to sit and do that.
QYou were designing right out of college. How did you get where you are now?
ALuck. There was some determination involved. I decided I wanted to be in New York. I graduated from Penn State University and then I had a place to crash in Brooklyn until I got my act together. I had a portfolio and I hit the sidewalk, so I would go on interviews and would see anybody that would see me. The places where I really wanted to work weren’t hiring anybody at the time and somebody said I should go to Random House and see if I could work there. It turned out that the art director at the time at Knopf, Sarah Eisenman, daughter of Alvin Eisenman, was director of graphic design at Yale for a long, long time. She needed an assistant. That was really the big break.
QHow have things changed for those who want to become graphic designers?
ANow, you make a Web site and that becomes your portfolio. Personally, as a designer, I’m most interested in print. Why? I design book covers. I like books because they are archival by their very nature, especially hardcover.
QHow do you design your own books?
AIt can be harder. I really try and imagine if I didn’t know anything about this book, what kind of cover would make me know more about it and still be true to the book. I actually do think about the cover when I’m writing, which I don’t recommend because it makes it seem like it’s more important than it actually is.
QDo you consciously try to innovate?
AInnovation in and of itself, especially when it comes to a book cover, is not really a goal. It can be a by-product. You really want to do the best cover you can. I did a monograph of my work, a big coffee-table thing, a book of book covers. I knew I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen before, and that gets harder and harder to do. I had some kind of weird obligation that it needed to be something different.
QIf you weren’t Chip Kidd the graphic designer, what would you be doing?
AI would have liked to go into some sort of acting. I am a big ham. When I do my lecture, I try to do versions of stand-up comedy to compensate.
QTell me about artbreak.
AThe band is a sort of reality in and of itself, which I have been working on on and off. We have a video on YouTube. We are working on self-producing our first album.
QWhere do you get your fashion sense from?
AI don’t really think about it. I’m a big hat person. I like to wear hats, whether it’s the winter or the summer or whenever. I think of myself as pretty conservative. I like the idea of Ralph Lauren-type clothing with a slight quirky touch. I grew up in the land of outlet shopping in rural Pennsylvania so that might have something to do with that.
QAnd the quirky glasses?
AA la Elton John, I have all kinds of glasses. The main ones are these heavy tortoiseshell ones I had custom-made in England. That sounds pretentious.
AI like this guy Peter Saville a lot. He mainly did record covers in the ’80s and ’90s. He was the beginning of Joy Division and New Honor and all that stuff.
AI am lucky in that both of the authors I work with are authors I also read. Cormac McCarthy, David Sedaris. You learn by reading their work, how to construct a sentence, how to make a plot, how to get a thought across. I am also a very avid reader of comics.
QWhat are some future trends in design?
AThe biggest change over the past two years that everyone has been talking about is the death of books and the death of print. Amazon has been intent on this change. I still believe the book is the single best piece of technology.
QWhat’s your connection to Yale?
AI have had some sort of connection to Yale for years. I come up at least once a year to do a critique for the graphic design department. I did a master’s tea about a year ago. My second novel, “The Learners,” came out a year ago. It’s coming out in paperback just now. It’s set in New Haven. New Haven is also midway between New York and my house in Stonington, on the coast of Connecticut. It’s for weekends, whether for work or relaxation.
QTell me about your event this Friday.
AIt’s a short unsatisfying survey about the history of the book cover in 20th-century America. It’s at the Whitney Humanities Center, where they have some sort of show on book covers.