Friday, June 12, 2009

Designer of the Month: Chip Kidd

Part 2: graphic design

My first thought in putting together this week's post about Chip Kidd's graphic design work was about which designs, exactly, I should show. Would it be better to show the work that Kidd is especially well-known and has won awards for? What about providing an overview from his career? Kidd has, after all, designed book covers for Alfred A. Knopf for over 20 years, so there are certainly plenty to choose from. Having, at this point, looked at tons of Kidd’s work and realizing that I really can only show a small portion of it here, I’ve decided that the best thing to do would be a combination greatest hits/some of my personal favorites. But first, some background.

According to the description in “Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006: Chip Kidd,” on the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s website:

Kidd prides himself on allowing the content of each book to suggest its own design approach, an attitude he owes to his education at Pennsylvania State University, where a quirky cast of professors promulgated a concept-based approach to graphic design. (Kidd’s experience there is the basis of his comic novel The Cheese Monkeys, published in 2001.) The books themselves have also shaped his education, immersing him every day in writing of the highest order. The literary scene, more than the design profession, has provided the context and community for Kidd’s work.[1]
As I mentioned last week, Chip Kidd is an amazingly prolific designer. He represents the odd phenomena of an employee who gets more publicity than his employer, a fact that is attributed as much to his incredible design career as it is to the persona of a jack-of-all-trades that he’s developed over the years.[2] Kidd has a reputation for designs that engage the reader’s intelligence and imagination, and having designed the covers for many books that have ended up on best-seller lists, he’s attracted attention from both readers and authors alike.[3] He’s even had authors stipulate in their contacts that he be the designer assigned to their book.[4] As Kidd himself mentions in the section of his website “Chip Who?: In which we discover just who it is we’re talking about here,” his designs have been described as: “Monstrously ugly” (John Updike), “apparently obvious” (William Boyd), “Faithful flat-earth rendering” (Don DeLillo), “surprisingly elegant” (A. S. Mehta), “a distinguished parochial comic balding Episcopal priest” (Allan Gurganus), “Two colors plus a sash” (Martin Amis) and “not a piece of hype. My book was lucky.” (Robert Hughes).[5] Did I point out that he’s also a very observant and funny writer, not to mention his own publicist? But more on that in a few weeks. These are some of my favorite Kidd designs:

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Courtesy of

One of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, I think that this design, with a photograph by Geoff Spear and a varnish overlay by Chris Ware, is stunning.

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For this book, the first in Cormac McCarthy's The Border Trilogy, Kidd wanted to use a black and white image, reserving sepia and color for the upcoming titles.[6] "This cover violates one of my cardinal rules which is never to be literal...Usually, I would would never show a horse if the word horse is in the title. And yet, somehow, it was so right."[7]

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Probably one of the most recognizable book covers of all time, thanks to it's success on the best-seller list and the subsequent film, this was certainly one of the most ubiquitous images of the 1990s.

Jacket, casewrap and interiors. Courtesy of

I was totally blown away by the design of this book. Of course, if you were a graphic designer writing a book, wouldn't you want it to be this amazing as well?

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Having this book available in both a male and female version, with punning drawings for both, gives a good sense of both Kidd's humor and thoughtfulness in his designs.

Jacket and casewrap. Courtesy of

I love when the dust jacket of a book and the book itself are made to complement each other, as this does.

If you want to see more of Kidd’s work, I highly recommend the book Chip Kidd: Work: 1986-2006, Volume 1.[8] What I think makes this book so special is that, unlike most artists and designers, Kidd is also a writer, and the descriptions about the designs that are shown in this collection were written by Kidd himself. This book also features contributions from people that Kidd has worked with over the years, such as Sara Eisenman, the Art Director who hired Kidd at Knopf, along with some of the authors that Kidd has designed book covers for, such as John Updike and David Sedaris. Other places to view Kidd’s work are his website,, and in the first critical selection of Kidd’s design work, Chip Kidd, by Véronique Vienne.[9]

Next week, I'll talk about Chip Kidd's other contribution to popular culture, through comics.

[1] Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Website, “Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006: Chip Kidd,” (accessed June 3, 2009).

[2] Véronique Vienne, “The Art of the Jester,” Chip Kidd (Yale University Press, 2003), 10.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Chip Kidd, “Chip Who?: In which we discover just who it is we’re talking about here,” From the website Good Is Dead, (accessed June 11, 2009).

[6] Véronique Vienne, Chip Kidd (Yale University Press, 2003), 60.

[7] Ibid., 60..

[8] Chip Kidd, Chip Kidd: Work: 1986-2006, Volume 1, (New York: Random, 2005).

[9] Véronique Vienne, Chip Kidd (Yale University Press, 2003).

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