After a stellar dual career designing book jackets and editing graphic novels, Chip Kidd has little to prove – so he’s written two novels. Simon Creasey asks him about storytelling, and art directing his own covers
With his smart pastel-coloured shirt tucked into neatly pressed trousers, Chip Kidd doesn’t look like ‘the closest thing to a rock star in graphic design’ (a moniker given to him by USA Today). His signature glasses, a replica of those worn by Walter Gropius, are pretty striking, but it’s not Kidd’s dress sense that sets him apart, nor is it his ability to create striking book jackets, something he’s been doing for a decade as associate art director at New York’s Alfred A Knopf.
Ten years ago, Kidd was already tipped as star material. His book jacket for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park prompted a stampede from authors and publishers desperate to work with the man who many credit with spearheading a revolution in book jacket design.
Kidd has since consolidated his position editing graphic novels, as well as taking the risky route of not only designing books, but writing them as well. His 2001 debut novel, The Cheese Monkeys, was a national bestseller in the US and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It prompted Bret Easton Ellis to declare, ‘Not only has Chip Kidd altered the face of book publishing with his revolutionary book jackets, he has also written a really good debut novel (the bastard).’
Kidd recently released a sequel, The Learners, and that has been described by author Augusten Burroughs as ‘a must-read for the ambitious, creative or chemically unbalanced’. The Learners tells the story of Happy, a fresh-out-of-college graphic designer at a small advertising agency. When Happy is assigned the task of designing a newspaper ad recruiting participants for an experiment in the Yale Psychology Department, he can’t resist responding to the ad himself, with devastating effects.
While Kidd insists that the book is not autobiographical – his only experience of working in an ad agency was a summer internship – he admits that most of the eccentric characters are based on composites of friends and acquaintances.
What sets both novels apart is that they are punctuated by mini-master classes in graphic design, with musings on typography and tips on how to draw a straight line. ‘I wanted to include lessons about form, big and small, top to bottom, left to right,’ says Kidd. ‘At the end of The Cheese Monkeys the unknown narrator of the lessons says “we’ve only had time to talk about form – next time we’ll talk about content”. That sets it up for The Learners. It was a bit harder to come up with what those lessons were going to be because form in that sense is much simpler than content is supposed to be.’
As you would expect, the jackets, which Kidd designs himself under the pseudonym Bulbous Medulla‚ are very striking. For The Learners he employed graphic novel designers Charles Burn and Chris Ware. The jacket features a sweaty and bespectacled scientist peering out over a snappy wraparound red paper that covers about three-quarters of the book’s exterior. Designing his own book jackets is a different ball game than producing concepts for other authors. ‘There’s less fighting,’ he jokes. ‘I read the book and then I try – if I can – to have a direct discussion with the author. Ultimately, it’s their book – it’s not my jacket – so if it’s not working out and they don’t like it there’s no point in kicking up a fuss.’
Kidd is currently juggling a raft of new personal projects, including a book about the Batman comic series in Japan titled Bat-Manga!. But for the time being at least, he has no plans to write any more fiction.’I don’t really have what I feel is a really good idea for a novel that hasn’t been done by somebody else at the moment.’ You can’t help feeling that this won’t be the case for long.
Chip Kidd’s second novel The Learners, published by Simon & Schuster, is out now in hardback, priced $26 (£16.99)