Chip Kidd is a graphic designer from New York and works as the art director for Pantheon Books, which is part of Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It was in 1986 when he was taken on as a junior assistant at Knopf.
Arguably his biggest success and what he is known for, is his design for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel. In a talk recorded by TED, Kidd discusses how he thought of this design idea. Quite simply, he bought a book from the Museum of Natural History shop in New York, where a particular page within it grabbed his attention. It had a picture of a dinosaur skeleton. In his words, he put the image into a photostat machine and reconstituted the dinosaur, and then threw typography on it. This was the result:
And everyone loved it. Including Crichton. Even though it was a very basic design, it didn’t need more work for it to be published. What followed next was MCA Universal buying the rights to using the image of the dinosaur and it is now used today on everything Jurassic Park related, a brand that is literally worth billions of dollars.
But that is only one book, one design. On average, Kidd is said to design around 75 book covers a year and has freelanced for many different companies. He is known for being unconventional with his book covers and taking approaches which are completely unorthodox. Subsequently, his covers got noticed for being different and, so too, did he for designing them. An example of unique techniques was when he designed Augusten Burroughs’ book: Dry. This is a memoir about Burroughs’ struggle with alcoholism, to the point where he faced being fired from his job. So, Dry is a story of rehabilitation and sobriety. With the context of the book in his mind, Kidd printed off the design so that the ink was fresh on the page and then splashed water on it. He let it dry. And that was the basis for the final design. It was an ironic, yet hugely effective concept, and demonstrates perfectly his ability to make book covers stand out. Below is that cover.
Kidd is a huge fan of comic books, in particular Batman. He has designed book covers for DC Comics Publishing The Complete History of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, The Golden Age of DC Comics : 365 Days and Batman: Death by Design as seen below. The grayscale printing of the cover is an unusual approach to take but it works well. Batman mimics an actual bat hanging upside down and perhaps the lack of colour is reflective of bats not seeing in colour.
Another notable point to make about Kidd’s design style is that he relies upon imagery for effect rather than typography and cares little for current trends. He has his own way of designing. In an interview with Smashing Magazine, Kidd remarked: ‘Personally, in terms of my typography, I think it’s pretty conservative and not very adventurous, because I worry about something looking trendy.’ It certainly seems that, on further inspection of his book designs, his covers don’t generally rely upon typography as much as they rely upon his imagery.
But they do look trendy…
These snapshots are just some of the cover designs that appear on Kidd’s website. It does appear that his experimentation comes more from his imagery than his typographical decisions, whereby the typography is… safer. But is that just Kidd’s way? Who is to say that imagery is not enough when, in Kidd’s words, ‘an image will be more powerful than the words or the title’? Plus, his designs attract attention; it gets people picking up his books. Isn’t that the idea?
Kidd confessed, saying: ‘I’m much more inventive with the imagery than with the typography… My skills with type are extremely limited’. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate it; to him it is an observation and so he plays to his strengths. It seems like a contradiction to the posts elsewhere on this blog claiming that typography has a massive impact upon potential readers and, subsequently, sales of that book.
But perhaps it is all a matter of circumstance. Back in the 80’s, when Kidd started making a name for himself, typography was not as influential as it is now in book design. If Jurassic Park came out now, it is somewhat doubtful that he could have gotten away with just ‘chucking on typography’ using the same font. Because typography is important. Maybe he gets away with not spending much time on typography because of who he is and the uniqueness of his designs… with a significant stroke of luck on the way! That said, I wouldn’t say his typographical choices are bad either, nor do they deter away from his overall designs. He still uses fonts which complement best his imagery, which at the very heart of book designing, most if not all designers do.What Kidd can also do is be innovative with the skills he does have; splashing water onto a design, for example, made Dry stand out even without imagery! And if you can be inventive with typography as a substitute for typographical skill itself, isn’t that enough? For someone as established as Chip Kidd, it seems so.
If you can implement your style so that people know your design, surely you’re onto a winner as a designer.
And Chip Kidd is a winner. He is an award-winning designer, after all.
Chip Kidd. Judge This. http://chipkidd.com/home/ [accessed 10 May 2016].
Spyros Zevelakis. (2012). Beautiful Covers: An Interview with Chip Kidd. Smashing Magazine, 20 February 2012. https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/02/beautiful-covers-interview-chip-kidd/ [accessed 10 May 2016]
TED. (2012) Chip Kidd: Designing Books is No Laughing Matter. Ok, it is. March 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/chip_kidd_designing_books_is_no_laughing_matter_ok_it_is?language=en#t-413225. [accessed 10 May 2016].