Chip Kidd. The Hilarious Art of Book Design

Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is.

March, 2012

Chip Kidd doesn’t judge books by their cover, he creates covers that embody the book — and he does it with a wicked sense of humor. In one of the funniest talks from TED2012, he shows the art and deep thought of his cover designs. This talk is from The Design Studio session at TED2012, guest-curated by Chee Pearlman and David Rockwell.


0:17Hi. (Laughter)

0:21I did that for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to give you a good visual first impression. But the main reason I did it is that that’s what happens to me when I’m forced to wear a Lady Gaga skanky mic.


0:42I’m used to a stationary mic. It’s the sensible shoe of public address.


0:55But you clamp this thing on my head, and something happens. I just become skanky. (Laughter) So I’m sorry about that. And I’m already off-message.


1:11Ladies and gentlemen, I have devoted the past 25 years of my life to designing books. (“Yes, BOOKS. You know, the bound volumes with ink on paper. You cannot turn them off with a switch. Tell your kids.”)It all sort of started as a benign mistake, like penicillin. (Laughter)

1:33What I really wanted was to be a graphic designer at one of the big design firms in New York City. But upon arrival there, in the fall of 1986, and doing a lot of interviews, I found that the only thing I was offered was to be Assistant to the Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, a book publisher. Now I was stupid, but not so stupid that I turned it down.

2:01I had absolutely no idea what I was about to become part of, and I was incredibly lucky. Soon, it had occurred to me what my job was. My job was to ask this question: “What do the stories look like?”Because that is what Knopf is. It is the story factory, one of the very best in the world. We bring stories to the public.

2:25The stories can be anything, and some of them are actually true. But they all have one thing in common:They all need to look like something. They all need a face. Why? To give you a first impression of what you are about to get into. A book designer gives form to content, but also manages a very careful balance between the two.

2:57Now, the first day of my graphic design training at Penn State University, the teacher, Lanny Sommese, came into the room and he drew a picture of an apple on the blackboard, and wrote the word “Apple” underneath, and he said, “OK. Lesson one. Listen up.” And he covered up the picture and he said, “You either say this,” and then he covered up the word, “or you show this. But you don’t do this.” Because this is treating your audience like a moron. (Laughter) And they deserve better.

3:36And lo and behold, soon enough, I was able to put this theory to the test on two books that I was working on for Knopf. The first was Katharine Hepburn’s memoirs, and the second was a biography of Marlene Dietrich. Now the Hepburn book was written in a very conversational style, it was like she was sitting across a table telling it all to you. The Dietrich book was an observation by her daughter; it was a biography. So the Hepburn story is words and the Dietrich story is pictures, and so we did this. So there you are. Pure content and pure form, side by side. No fighting, ladies.

4:22(“What’s a Jurassic Park?”) Now, what is the story here? Someone is re-engineering dinosaurs by extracting their DNA from prehistoric amber. Genius! (Laughter)

4:46Now, luckily for me, I live and work in New York City, where there are plenty of dinosaurs. (Laughter) So, I went to the Museum of Natural History, and I checked out the bones, and I went to the gift shop, and I bought a book. And I was particularly taken with this page of the book, and more specifically the lower right-hand corner.

5:15Now I took this diagram, and I put it in a Photostat machine, (Laughter) and I took a piece of tracing paper, and I taped it over the Photostat with a piece of Scotch tape — stop me if I’m going too fast —(Laughter) — and then I took a Rapidograph pen — explain it to the youngsters — (Laughter) and I just started to reconstitute the dinosaur.

5:58I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea where I was going, but at some point, I stopped — when to keep going would seem like I was going too far. And what I ended up with was a graphic representationof us seeing this animal coming into being. We’re in the middle of the process. And then I just threw some typography on it. Very basic stuff, slightly suggestive of public park signage. (Laughter)

6:33Everybody in house loved it, and so off it goes to the author. And even back then, Michael was on the cutting edge. (“Michael Crichton responds by fax:”) (“Wow! Fucking Fantastic Jacket”) (Laughter) (Applause) That was a relief to see that pour out of the machine. (Laughter) I miss Michael.

7:04And sure enough, somebody from MCA Universal calls our legal department to see if they can maybe look into buying the rights to the image, just in case they might want to use it. Well, they used it.(Laughter) (Applause)

7:23And I was thrilled. We all know it was an amazing movie, and it was so interesting to see it go out into the culture and become this phenomenon and to see all the different permutations of it. But not too long ago,I came upon this on the Web. No, that is not me. But whoever it is, I can’t help but thinking they woke up one day like, “Oh my God, that wasn’t there last night. Ooooohh! I was so wasted.” (Laughter)

8:01But if you think about it, from my head to my hands to his leg. (Laughter) That’s a responsibility. And it’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. The book designer’s responsibility is threefold: to the reader, to the publisher and, most of all, to the author. I want you to look at the author’s book and say, “Wow! I need to read that.”

8:31David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, and the title essay in this collection is about his trip to a nudist colony. And the reason he went is because he had a fear of his body image, and he wanted to explore what was underlying that. For me, it was simply an excuse to design a book that you could literally take the pants off of. But when you do, you don’t get what you expect. You get something that goes much deeper than that. And David especially loved this design because at book signings, which he does a lot of, he could take a magic marker and do this. (Laughter) Hello! (Laughter)

9:22Augusten Burroughs wrote a memoir called [“Dry”], and it’s about his time in rehab. In his 20s, he was a hotshot ad executive, and as Mad Men has told us, a raging alcoholic. He did not think so, however, but his coworkers did an intervention and they said, “You are going to rehab, or you will be fired and you will die.”

9:46Now to me, this was always going to be a typographic solution, what I would call the opposite of Type 101. What does that mean? Usually on the first day of Introduction to Typography, you get the assignment of, select a word and make it look like what it says it is. So that’s Type 101, right? Very simple stuff. This is going to be the opposite of that. I want this book to look like it’s lying to you, desperately and hopelessly, the way an alcoholic would.

10:14The answer was the most low-tech thing you can imagine. I set up the type, I printed it out on an Epson printer with water-soluble ink, taped it to the wall and threw a bucket of water at it. Presto! Then when we went to press, the printer put a spot gloss on the ink and it really looked like it was running.

10:33Not long after it came out, Augusten was waylaid in an airport and he was hiding out in the bookstorespying on who was buying his books. And this woman came up to it, and she squinted, and she took it to the register, and she said to the man behind the counter, “This one’s ruined.” (Laughter) And the guy behind the counter said, “I know, lady. They all came in that way.” (Laughter) Now, that’s a good printing job.

11:05A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku, if you will, of the story. This particular story by Osama Tezuka is his epic life of the Buddha, and it’s eight volumes in all. But the best thing is when it’s on your shelf, you get a shelf life of the Buddha, moving from one age to the next. All of these solutions derive their origins from the text of the book, but once the book designer has read the text, then he has to be an interpreterand a translator.

11:56This story was a real puzzle. This is what it’s about. (“Intrigue and murder among 16th century Ottoman court painters.”)


12:08All right, so I got a collection of the paintings together and I looked at them and I deconstructed them and I put them back together. And so, here’s the design, right? And so here’s the front and the spine, and it’s flat. But the real story starts when you wrap it around a book and put it on the shelf.

12:24Ahh! We come upon them, the clandestine lovers. Let’s draw them out. Huhh! They’ve been discovered by the sultan. He will not be pleased. Huhh! And now the sultan is in danger. And now, we have to open it up to find out what’s going to happen next. Try experiencing that on a Kindle. (Laughter)

12:58Don’t get me started. Seriously. Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness — a little bit of humanity.

13:22Do you know what John Updike used to do the first thing when he would get a copy of one of his new books from Alfred A. Knopf? He’d smell it. Then he’d run his hand over the rag paper, and the pungent ink and the deckled edges of the pages. All those years, all those books, he never got tired of it. Now, I am all for the iPad, but trust me — smelling it will get you nowhere. (Laughter) Now the Apple guys are texting, “Develop odor emission plug-in.” (Laughter)

14:06And the last story I’m going to talk about is quite a story. A woman named Aomame in 1984 Japan finds herself negotiating down a spiral staircase off an elevated highway. When she gets to the bottom, she can’t help but feel that, all of a sudden, she’s entered a new reality that’s just slightly different from the one that she left, but very similar, but different. And so, we’re talking about parallel planes of existence,sort of like a book jacket and the book that it covers.

14:37So how do we show this? We go back to Hepburn and Dietrich, but now we merge them. So we’re talking about different planes, different pieces of paper. So this is on a semi-transparent piece of velum.It’s one part of the form and content. When it’s on top of the paper board, which is the opposite, it forms this. So even if you don’t know anything about this book, you are forced to consider a single personstraddling two planes of existence. And the object itself invited exploration interaction, consideration and touch.

15:23This debuted at number two on the New York Times Best Seller list. This is unheard of, both for us the publisher, and the author. We’re talking a 900-page book that is as weird as it is compelling, and featuring a climactic scene in which a horde of tiny people emerge from the mouth of a sleeping girl and cause a German Shepherd to explode. (Laughter) Not exactly Jackie Collins. Fourteen weeks on the Best Seller list, eight printings, and still going strong.

16:00So even though we love publishing as an art, we very much know it’s a business too, and that if we do our jobs right and get a little lucky, that great art can be great business.

16:12So that’s my story. To be continued. What does it look like? Yes. It can, it does and it will, but for this book designer, page-turner, dog-eared place-holder, notes in the margins-taker, ink-sniffer, the story looks like this.

16:42Thank you.