Issue 5, May 2007 | Anna Maley-Fadgyas

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Chip Kidd!

Review: Good is Dead, Chip Kidd, 26.03.07. AGDA International Speaker Tour 2007

He stood before the crowd reminiscent of a classic, 50s comic-book character. Hair waxed immaculately, eyes framed with round-rimmed glasses, body clad in a grey suit and waistcoat. Chip Kidd appeared bold, strikingly different, beautifully drawn and ever so faintly exaggerated. Had a speech-bubble appeared containing the words he spoke it may not have seemed out of place.

Words are a principal enthusiasm of his. This is not to say that design is a secondary interest; this is to say that to Kidd - possibly the world’s most prolific and revolutionary contemporary book designer - words are an inextricable element of design. Design is his focus and thus words captivate him equally. He began his presentation with a crossword question: A word with 11 letters, beginning with A; meaning a number of people? (Answer to come later).

Perhaps his appreciation for the word as an equal counterpart to image was borne of his early introduction to the world of design through an all-American, boyish fascination with comics. Not every child who reads comics, however, will go on to contribute to the world of literary design in such a profuse and eye-opening way. Interestingly enough, after graduating from Design School in 1986, and working in New York for two decades, Kidd collaborated with DC Comics on a number of retrospective books and logos.

It is his considerable body of work for Knopf however, that has earned him the repute he enjoys today. For the past twenty years, with the help of a conscientious publishing company (“A good editor-in-chief makes great book jackets”) and solid working relationships with great photographers (Geoff Spear) and illustrators (Chris Ware), he has been allowed to push his thinking and his design to the limits. His method for extracting the best cover out of every manuscript, it seems, is not based on one single formula but a new, customised approach to each problem - The unique nature of each problem shaping in turn a unique solution. This process has produced a very long string of original, eloquent and unpredictable covers.

Chip Kidd’s presentation was not only about the covers that made it out of the publishing house and into the bookstore. He showed us that no matter how experienced or acclaimed a designer may be, there was no point at which the unanimous approval of all their concepts could ever be guaranteed. He dedicated a sizable section of his lecture to illustrating the fact that sometimes the designer’s perceived ‘golden’ solution will not necessarily be deemed perfect by everyone else. He recalled the times he’d been urged, ‘to give the audience a break’, and how he’d countered under his breath, ‘give the audience some credit’. And let’s face it, if the audience is capable of reading some of the titles and authors he has worked with, deciphering a beautiful, slightly cryptic cover would be the easy part.

His humour and wit (always flamboyant and at times slightly shocking), injected his lecture with a kind of momentum that rarely lost one’s attention. It was easy to see why he has been deemed “the closest thing to a rock star" in graphic design today (USA Today). In addition to being the Associate Art Director of Knopf Books, Kidd is also the editor-at-large at Pantheon Books. He has written one novel: The Cheese Monkeys and is also the author of Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz and Batman Collected. He is now half way through a second novel. Another title he has worked on recently: Chip Kidd - Book One is a full-colour, 400-page, landscape-format showcase of his work from 1986-2006. So if you missed the lecture, this comprehensive retrospective shows all of the insight and work that he presented on the night.

And the crossword answer? Anaesthetic. A final offer from Kidd in his lecture suggesting that sometimes it pays to look at the original problem/question from a different perspective before embarking on the solution.