Everyone is a Designer: An Interview with YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist Chip Kidd

GoChip Kidd is a graphic designer (he created the iconic book cover for Jurassic Park) and a novelist (The Cheese Monkeys), a comic book creator (Batman: Death by Design), and a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist (for his book GO! A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design). Mr. Kidd took some time out of his busy schedule to chat on the phone about his book, about how design is intrinsic to everyone’s life, and about which soap opera star he thinks he’s most like.

The Hub: Well first of all congratulations on being a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction finalist.
Chip Kidd: Thank you, I appreciate that.

TH: Why should teens care about design, unless they’re going to be designers?
CK: Well because they already care about it, even if they’re not designers. And PS, I also have the theory that pretty much everyone is a designer whether they realize it or not. There are all sorts of things about your life that you design either consciously or unconsciously. Whether it’s putting together whatever look you’re going to have for that day, or the way you have things arranged on your desk, or in your room, or in your house. I think there are so many design aspects to young people’s lives and I think it helps for them to just consider them and think about them and to, at the very least, understand some of the thinking that goes into pieces of design that they see or interact with every day.

TH: In an interview you gave to the New York Times, you spoke about how the idea of writing for teens made you uncomfortable and that discomfort was actually appealing to you.
CK: (laughter) It’s called masochism! It’s the cliche of being in or out of your comfort zone. I mean, I certainly don’t like being out of my comfort zone all the time but I think that it helps to spur creativity. And most creative people I know want to be challenged. If everything was easy all the time, it just gets boring. I think it’s an interesting, valuable trait for creative people to have.

photo by John MadereTH: That’s a fantastic way of looking at it. I will seek out discomfort. I was also wondering, as you walk around looking at the world, do you want to redesign everything you see?
CK: No… there’s a wonderful saying: It’s a small world but I’d hate to have to clean it. It’s a small world but I’d hate to have to redesign it all. I think there are certain specific, isolated moments, especially since I live and work in Manhattan and, just from walking out my door and commuting to my office, I see all the latest ad campaigns in the subway, I see billboards and storefronts and all this kind of thing, and there are certain aspects of things where I look and think, ‘Well that could be done better or differently or to greater effect,’ but no, I don’t want to redesign everything!

TH: Judging books by their covers – we’re told we’re not supposed to do that, but that’s kind of your job, right? To get a reader to judge a book positively by its cover.
CK: Well, I think the key word in there is “judge,” which I would not use. I would use the word “notice.” I want them to notice it and I want their curiosity to be piqued. Which is something that I very much tried to do on my own book cover with the stop sign that says “Go.” It makes you wonder why things are reversed, and why are the form and content seemingly at cross purposes.

TH: How much of your work these days is digital and how much is traditional media? Paint or paper or such?
CK: Well, it’s kind of a complicated question because I certainly work on a computer, and pretty much all the graphic design I do is going to be touched by the computer at some point, even if it’s just in terms of production – to get the files ready so that the printer can print it. But I’d have to go on a case-by-case basis in terms of what’s literally created on the computer and what’s by hand. As we’re speaking, I’m working on a book cover for a historical novel about a native tribe in Canada in the 1600s, and so I sort of took part of the logic in that everything back then would be made by hand. So I did a drawing, and did all the lettering by hand and that sort of thing. And that is touched on in GO! too. I did these theoretical identities. I’m very careful not to use the B word (brand) in the book at all. There are two kids, a boy and a girl and they want to create visual identities for themselves based on some aspect of their personality. The boy likes to DJ parties for his friends and his name is Bertram, so he takes a “B” and on a computer he spins the B, which you can do very easily in Photoshop, and you can’t even tell it’s a B anymore, and then he takes that, and then recreates it by hand to give a more expressive feel to it.

TH: What are you working on next? Can we expect another Kidd’s Guide, or a new novel?
CK: I’m working on a new novel. In terms of a new Kidd’s Guide – not that I know of. I did try to leave the door open there… While working on the book, I did feel that in each of the sections I was just barely scratching the surface of whatever subject matter it was, whether it was typography or color or concepts or what have you. So I think more could be done; it all depends on whether the publisher would want that, and then figuring out what that would be. In terms of comic book projects, I’m working on a book about Superman in Japan in the 1950s; it’s almost a companion volume to the Batman in Japan book that I did. I’m always working on a bunch of book covers, which I love, and there’s going to be some really great ones coming out in the fall for Haruki Murakami and James Ellroy and a lot of these authors that I traditionally love to work with.

TH: Thank you very much for taking the time today, and best of luck on January 27!
CK: Well thank you, thank you, I appreciate it.

TH: The media awards are like the Oscars or the Emmys for librarians.
CK: I’m just poised to be the Susan Lucci, which will be just fine.

-Geri Diorio, currently reading The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb