When Chip Kidd is the designer, you can judge a book by its cover
Chip Kidd takes the adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” seriously. On the other hand, part of his job is to get you to look at the book in the first place.
In the world of publishing, there is probably no more respected dust-jacket designer than Kidd. After more than 25 years at Alfred A. Knopf, Kidd’s reputation is almost as solid as the authors for who he has designed covers: Michael Crichton, David Sedaris, Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy and Michael Ondaatje, to name a few; some writers even have it in their contracts that no one but Kidd may design their book jackets.
You might think such acclaim would give Kidd an ego bigger than some of the novelists and essayists whose words adorn his art. But nothing could be further from the truth.
“Yes, a cover can be a sales tool, but it can just get your attention,” he says. “The question I get asked with astonishing regularity, and have for decades now, is ‘Do you read the books before you design them?’ Oh my god yes! Yes yes yes yes yes!”
Everything he does is in service to the text. Which means he has to flex his creative muscle while still respecting the source.
“It’s tricky — each book is its own particular case,” Kidd says from his office in New York City. “ I could give you a whole case study on [McCarthy’s] The Road and how we ended up with what we did. But different authors want different things. I have been doing this 25 years and counting, and that’s working non-stop. There is every conceivable story [of how a design came about].”
Those stories, in fact, make up a presentation of his work that he’ll bring to the Dallas Museum of Art this week.
There are carefully planned successes, and unexpected failures, “such as the horrible [cover] you have to do again and again until everyone gives up,” he says.
“But the opposite of that is also true: The one where everything comes together.”
Kidd is thinking about his design for Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, an experience “that was almost too good to be true. The [final design ] is exactly what I presented to our editor-in-chief. I usually do about three different things, but this one I thought was absolutely the best thing to do and everybody agreed. I would say that’s my most favorite or my recent covers.”
Without even reading the book, its cover suggests something ethereal, dreamlike, unnerving — all words that Kidd says capture Murakami’s writing to a tee.
The story begins with a woman in Tokyo navigating down a spiral staircase from a highway, but when she reaches the bottom, she feels she has entered a parallel universe. Kidd originally considered a Tokyo cityscape, “but faces work remarkably well on an emotional level and on an aesthetic level. I just started researching faces of Japanese women.” Suddenly, an instant classic.
It’s not always that easy.
“We publish every conceivable kind of book — cookbooks, crime fiction, literature,” Kidd says. And he has to bring that creative bent to all of them.
“Genre stuff is hardest because you want to transcend the genre,” he says. ” Technically, 1Q84 is science fiction — there is supernatural stuff going on, though it is very subtle. So a design ethos of mine is, if you can predict what I’m going to do, I’ve failed.”
There is a shorthand that develops when he works with the same authors over and over, but even that’s almost incidental, because “I try to wipe the slate clean every time.” Still, no one can deny his covers for Michael Crichton’s books, such are Jurassic Park, became part of the iconography of the novels. (I tell Kidd Disclosure is still one of the best dust jackets I’ve ever seen. “Yes, that’s about as good as it gets,” he agrees.)
“There are so many different factors at play” in designing a paperback, he says. “Sometimes it’s about whether the hardcover was perceived to have under-performed. Then you have the opposite and everything in between: Let’s keep this and that element and change the rest. One of the things we follow here at Knopf is, at the end of the day you want the author to be pleased. You sometimes talk them into it or you compromise. There is a sort of buttered-side-down aspect to this business.”
What does it take to make a lasting, memorable cover? Even Kidd’s not sure. Certainly, though, he’s agree that the original jacket for The Great Gatsby is iconic. Not so much.
“From a graphic designer’s point of view, coming into it cold, it’s not great — it’s kind of silly! Eyes floating over a purple sky…? But the book is iconic so the cover became iconic. The most important thing is the text. … though from a book collector’s point of view, to find a first edition with a jacket is worth tons and tons of money.”
Spoken like someone who understands art and business.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 24, 2012.