They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But why not? According to Chip Kidd, a book cover design is a distillation of the text; a book cover should entice someone to pick up the book, and hopefully buy it. Chip has designed more book covers than we have time to list, but some memorable authors he’s designed for include Cormac McCarthy, Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, James Ellroy and Haruki Murakami. Remember that infamous T-Rex image from “Jurassic Park?” That’s Chip’s design.
His recent TED Talk, “The Art of First Impressions, In Design and Life,” has—in conjunction with his 2012 TED Talk—garnered more than 1.5-million views and led to his latest book, “Judge This,” which is all about the key to making a stellar first impression. If you need a prequel to understand and appreciate his unique charisma, take a break and watch them both—you won’t be disappointed. “I hear all the time, ‘Oh, I saw your TED Talk and I loved it.’ But my joke is: it’s not like I got a network series out of it. But it wasn’t like I was looking for one either,” says Kidd, laughing. Chip is the Associate Art Director at Random House, but he’s worked for the Knopf family of publishers since 1986. In our recent interview, he offered up inspirational advice for how to prioritize your own work against that of others. His insights can be applied to almost any career, especially someone in a creative role.
Q: When did you realize that you were creative and wanted to design for a living?
Chip Kidd: That’s a really good question and it’s kind of a complicated answer. Ever since I was a kid, I was totally into comic books and drawing. I drew all through elementary school and into high school. But when it came to draftsmanship, I was OK, but I wasn’t great. In the cusp between high school and my freshman year at Penn State, I became aware of this thing called “graphic design.” I think from that moment on, I kind of decided that graphic design was what I really wanted to do.
Q: There’s this debate between art and design. “Is design art? Is art design?” Do you feel they are the same thing or are they different?
Chip Kidd: Yes. I definitely have opinions and, boy, I mean we can have an hour-long discussion about that. Art by its own definition is, or can be, just pure self-expression—and design is not that. Design is solving a problem either for a client or for yourself. But it’s a specific thing that has a purpose beyond simply, “Oh, it’s just there because I like it.” Design is problem-solving that usually employs some kind of visual content, which we usually call “artwork,” for lack of a better word. If I’m a painter and I decide that I’m in my yellow phase, you can certainly do that, but that’s not design. It’s art for its own sake as opposed to art in the service of solving a problem.
Art by its own definition is, or can be, just pure self-expression—and design is not that. Design is solving a problem either for a client or for yourself.
Q: In your 2012 TED Talk, you mention that book covers are kind of the haiku of a story. Could you expand on that?
Chip Kidd: Well, they’re a kind of distillation… I’m no expert on haiku poetry, but it is a very, very strict form of getting a lot of information and emotion across in a very minimal, crystallized way, and I think the front of a book cover also does that. What you’re aiming for is some kind of visual distillation of the text inside that will entice a potential reader to want to pick up the book and hopefully buy it.
Psst… This is Chip’s most recent TED Talk where he rationalizes many of his book covers and explains the importance of a first impression.
Q: How do you balance design aesthetics with adequately capturing the essence of a book? Do you separate your own personal aesthetic from your work and really focus on the content?
Chip Kidd: Well, each book is its own case. I think the main thing to keep in mind is that I am creating something that is in service to another creation. That is in the hierarchy of these things… the book is the greater act of creation. In other words, the text of the book is the star. I am just trying to help it along, help it get some attention, to give it a face, or an “icon,” as we say on the web. But the text is not in service to me. It’s the other way around. So, that said, I think if you have anything, like a sort of visual personality, it’s almost impossible to not apply that, in some way, to what you’re doing and there are all different kinds of nuances of this. It’s certainly a fine line to walk.
Q: So, you work for Random House. Does Random House assign you or are there authors that say, “I really want Chip to do my book cover?” How does that whole process work?
Chip Kidd: Well, it’s sort of organic. There are certain authors that want me to work on their books. There are certain projects that our editor-in-chief wants me to do. I’ve been at this for close to 30 years now, so there are certain authors that I’ve built up strong relationships with—Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy—but that said, when they delivered a manuscript, I can’t assume that they’re going to just totally love whatever I do. I have to rise to the occasion each time, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
I have to rise to the occasion each time, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Q: It seems like you’re advocating for the reader and helping them to understand the premise of the book, but you’ve also got to please the author and publisher. What advice do you have for other designers who are trying to please multiple audiences?
Chip Kidd: Good luck! [Laughter]You will probably be horrified by me saying this, but I’m just so not about “target audiences.” I hate the “T” word. I’m really trying to think more about doing the best job I can in service of the book or the client or whoever. I know a lot of people think about,”Will this appeal to teens or women or whatever?“ I really, really don’t think about that stuff. I just think about, “Will this just appeal to people?” And maybe that’s extremely naïve, but I just try to do the best job I can. I’m a pragmatist, too. It’s like, I design book covers for Cormac McCarthy in which all manner of horrific stuff is going on. The last cover I designed for him was a book called, “The Road,” which is dark as it gets, but would it be appropriate to the text to put a decaying corpse on the front? Yes. But is that a good idea for a book cover? Probably not. I mean, maybe there’s some way of doing it, but there are decisions like that where you think, “Well, a certain kind of image would be appropriate to the text, but it’s not going to help the book in any way.” I think one of the best examples of this is the “Fifty Shades of Grey” (not my design) series where you’re using fairly sophisticated metaphors to, you know, in a really elegant way, represent something that’s over-the-top. And that’s serving the text, too, but it’s doing it in a really smart way.
Q: When you’re “in the weeds” creating a book cover, what kind of research or testing do you do? Do you show images to people? Do you have to iterate often with the authors, or is it like a one-and-done kind of thing?
Chip Kidd: Well, not to become monotonous about it or repetitive, but each book is its own case. So, it’s reading the text, or reading enough of the text, so you can get a sense of what the book is, who the author is, what the story is, whether the story is true, or not true, or basically what the feeling about the story is that they’re trying to convey.
That can go in any number of ways. But I don’t do any focus testing—thank you, God! But, on the other hand, I do try to pay attention to what other publishers are doing, what other designers are doing and, at least once or twice a month, I do field research… if that’s what you want to call it. Just going into a nice big bookstore and looking around and seeing what’s going on. I do a lot of travel. It’s always interesting to see what is being promoted in the airport, bookstores, or what’s popular, what other people are reading. I do keep an eye on all of that. I don’t try to keep my head in the sand and live in an ivory tower all the time. Two terrible mixed metaphors. But if the author has ideas, I want to know them. I want to know them right away.
Q: Do you have any rules about showing one or many concepts?
Chip Kidd: I think if you can, get one good idea and comp up that idea as finished-looking as possible. I try to make a prototype that looks as real as possible, as finished as possible, as opposed to scribbling on a napkin and saying, “What do you think?” But I think, in general, I have this unwritten rule, and it’s not unique to me: I would not show more than three designs at any given time. There’s an axiom that I believe is very true, which is if you give your client too many choices, they won’t choose anything. Three is just about right.
I think if you can, get one good idea and comp up that idea as finished-looking as possible. I try to make a prototype that looks as real as possible, as finished as possible, as opposed to scribbling on a napkin and saying, “What do you think?”
Q: You’ve been designing book covers long enough to appreciate the rise of digital. How has the advent of Adobe Creative Suite and that sort of thing affected what you do as a book designer?
Chip Kidd: I get a version of this question all the time, but that’s interesting what you just said there. The main thing is it just makes it so much quicker. It’s really speed. It’s all about speed. What used to take a week to do just in terms of the logistics, spec-ing the type, leaving the type specs in an envelope so that somebody can pick them up, and then getting your type back the next day and if you spec-ed it wrong, then you would have to wax it and cut it up and move it all around, which you probably have to do anyway, blah, blah, blah. But I think some of the real pitfalls are when you see typography that has just been horribly distorted in a really bad way, or you see badly Photoshopped images all the time. Very, very annoying, but the main difference to me is the tools have gotten so much better.
Q: What advice do you have for someone aspiring to make a big impact on the world to their work?
Chip Kidd: Oh my God.
Q: No pressure 🙂
Chip Kidd: Yeah. I can only speak for myself, but I think, just do the best possible work you can do, and then, whether that’s going to change the world or not, is kind of up to the world. It’s hard for me to speak for other companies, but I can’t imagine that eBay set out to change the world, or to change the way the world buys stuff from other people—but that’s what they did. Or Facebook. I don’t think Zuckerberg set out to take over the world with that. I think he started out with a small idea in mind because he saw a need that could be filled, of people wanting to get in touch with their friends that way, and then it went insane. I mean, I see this in publishing all the time where there are books that you think were hyped to be this incredible, insane, be-all-end-all that completely flopped and then you will get something that just completely comes out of nowhere and touches something in people that becomes huge and universal. I love the fact that you can’t predict that. I love the stories of things that people just did not see coming. It gives me a certain kind of faith in the public that they can’t be force-fed something that they didn’t want, and, yet, when they do find something that they do want, something that connects with a huge audience—that can’t be controlled either. My advice for anybody in any kind of creative endeavor is to simply do the best job you can as opposed to concentrating on hyping it or promoting it—not that those things aren’t important—but they’re secondary.
“First impressions are key to how we perceive the world, and are perceived by it.” That’s on the cover of Chip’s own book, “Judge This,” which is available online. In his book, he explores design on a spectrum from clarity to mystery and he reveals the hidden secrets behind many design choices. I think you’ll love his perspective and will be more conscientious about how you judge the world around you from now.