Last evening, as part of its Art & Design lecture series, Columbia College in downtown Chicago hosted a presentation by legendary book jacket designer and author Chip Kidd. If the term “rockstar” can be applied to graphic designers, he would certainly fit the bill. Though his name may not be familiar to those outside of the graphic arts, if you’ve been near a book store in the past couple of decades, chances are you’ve seen his work.
I arrived early which was good, since apparently word had spread on Twitter, and the place was filling up fast. After a short introduction by talented cartoonist and Columbia College faculty member Ivan Brunetti, Chip Kidd took the podium, sharply dressed as usual with a wide striped jacket and his trademark round glasses. The informal lecture was accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation featuring a number of case studies.
One of the earlier ones involved the designing of the dust jacket for Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park“. At the time, the film rights for the book had already been sold to Steven Spielberg, so Kidd’s instructions were to “think JAWS”, meaning that he should come up with an iconic image that could be repurposed for the film, in the same way that the image of the shark emerging from below was used on both the “Jaws” book and film poster. The now famous Tyrannosaurus skeleton image was inspired by a drawing from an old book purchased at the New York Natural History Museum. Kidd drew it with a Rapidograph pen on tracing paper and the image was used on the book cover and later as part of the movie poster and on countless merchandising tie-ins (apparently without any further compensation.)
Despite 25 sucessful years as a graphic designer, Kidd makes it clear that rejection is still part of the job. One of the most entertaining case studies centered around a cover design for “You Better Not Cry”, a collection of twisted Chistmas stories by Augusten Burroughs. Kidd had already designed several book covers for Burroughs and the subject seemed a perfect fit for his daring and subversive wit, but the project hit some snags. The first couple of ideas were rejected for either being too tame or too “mean” (One involved a ceramic Santa figurine carrying a sack full of G.I. Joe weaponry). Finally, after weeks of stagnation, the project was completed by the publisher’s in-house staff and featured a not-so-subtle rearview image of Santa exposing himself, which apparently was more in keeping with the publisher’s sensibilities.
Besides his work as a graphic designer, Chip Kidd is also the author of two satirical novels which have attained a devoted cult following. Seated behind me at the presentation was graphic novelist extraordinaire Chris Ware, who illustrated the cover for Kidd’s first book “The Cheese Monkeys“, centering around a graphic design student’s art school misadventures. His sequel, “The Learners” follows the main character, Happy, as he lands his first job at an ad agency. Both books are breezy, fun and convey the same wit and style as his book cover designs.
Many thanks to Columbia College for opening the event to the public and to Chip Kidd who kindly chatted and signed books and posters following the presentation.
Next up: Author Sarah Vowell at Oak Park’s Unity Temple