Friday, June 26, 2009

Designer of the Month: Chip Kidd

Part 4: Writing

For my last discussion about Chip Kidd, I want to talk about his writing, and specifically, his two novels, The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters and The Learners: The Book After The Cheese Monkeys.

Kidd got his start writing for design magazines, such as Print and Graphique and i-D, where, he says it was easy for him to get published, because they already knew his design work, with writing about design being a natural next step.[1] As he explains, "I could write about things like the death of photo-typesetting, because I knew them and understood them from a designer's point of view. I guess I cut my teeth writing for those publications, and that got me used to figuring out how something works on a page in terms of prose and sentences and that kind of thing. Like anything else, you learn by doing."[2] Kidd's book The Cheese Monkeys began as a side project for Kidd. It took him six years of working nights and weekends to write it, which is understandable, considering his day job at Knopf and his other day job at Pantheon.[3] So if you're looking for a book that successfully combines satire, a coming-of-age story and a very readable graphic design text, look no further than The Cheese Monkeys. If that hasn't convinced you, here's a synopsis about the book, from Kidd's website:
It’s 1957, long before computers have replaced the trained eye and skillful hand. Our narrator at State U is determined to major in Art, and after several risible false starts, he ends up by accident in a new class called “Introduction to Graphic Design.” Art 127 is taught by the enigmatic Winter Sorbeck, professor and guru (think Gary Cooper crossed with Darth Vader)—equal parts genius, seducer, and sadist. Sorbeck is a bitter yet fascinating man whose assignments hurl his charges through a gauntlet of humiliation and heartache, shame and triumph, ego-bashing and enlightenment. Along the way, friendships are made and undone, jealousies simmer, the sexual tango weaves and dips. [4]
Really, this is an incredibly amusing and interesting book, but other than simply serving as a good read, which it is, Kidd has chosen this book as his way of imparting what he sees as the basic tenets of graphic design through the guise of a novel. As graphic design professor Winter Sorbeck explains, "Kiddies, Graphic Design, if you wield it effectively, is Power. Power to transmit ideas that change everything. Power that can destroy an entire race or save a nation from despair. In this century, Germany chose to do the former with the swastika, and America opted for the later with Mickey Mouse and Superman." [5] And you know he believes it, too.

The Cheese Monkeys, by Chip Kidd. Cover design by Chip Kidd. Courtesy of

Chip Kidd's second book, The Learners: The Book After the Cheese Monkeys, follows our protagonist from The Cheese Monkeys, Happy, as he lands his first job out of college as a graphic designer.[6] A much darker book than Kidd’s first novel, The Learners centers around the pivotal experience of Happy designing the newspaper ad for and participating in the first of Stanley Milgram's now famous "obedience" experiments, conducted in 1961 at Yale University. Didn't see that one coming, now did you? This book does, of course, include more fantastic graphic design words of wisdom, including some absorbing digressions about typography, ad design and layout, and thoughts on content as irony, metaphor, wit, and sincerity.

The Learners, by Chip Kidd. Cover design by Chip Kidd. Courtesy of

Besides these two novels, Kidd has also written articles for design magazines, in addition to providing an insider's look into his design process with the book Chip Kidd: Book One, in which Kidd discusses and dissects 20 years worth of designs.

Chip Kidd: Book One, Work: 1986-2006, by Chip Kidd. Curated and designed by Mark Melnick. Courtesy of

So once again, we come to the end of our weekly chats about yet another designer of the month. But never fear, we'll have a brand new designer next week! Until then, I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about the work of Chip Kidd, and I'll leave you some more words of wisdom from Winter Sorbeck, who explains to his students in The Cheese Monkeys that graphic design should be “something that I’ve never seen before and will never be able to forget. Because that should always be your goal. If you can do that, you can do anything - never attempt anything less.”[7]

Do you see?

[1] Keith Phipps, "Artist Interview: Chip Kidd," Seeing & Writing 3 Website. (accessed June 3, 2009).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Birnbaum, "Chip Kidd: novelist and graphic designer extraordinaire talks with Robert Birnbaum," From the website Identity Theory, (accessed June 24, 2009).

[4] “The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters,” From the website Good Is Dead, (accessed June 24, 2009).

[5] Chip Kidd, The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters (New York: Scribner, 2001), 177.

[6] Chip Kidd, The Learners: The Book After The Cheese Monkeys (New York: Scribner, 2008).

[7] Chip Kidd, The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters (New York: Scribner, 2001), 190.

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