Book List of the Week

Pictures Are More Direct: Chip Kidd’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter June 28, 2011
Chip Kidd

Graphic designer Chip Kidd: Alfred A. Knopf  (New York)

book list 

As a book jacket designer turned novelist, Chip Kidd is keenly attuned to the power of both the visual and the verbal. In an interview with Véronique Vienne for Designers & Books, he talks about the interplay of images, words, and ideas within the framework of his second novel, The Learners (2008), whose main character is a graphic designer working in advertising during the 1950s. In addition to his novels, Kidd, an art director at Alfred A. Knopf, has authored a number of books on comic-strip art. 

The Learners, 2008 (HarperCollins)

Véronique Vienne: Upon reading The Learners, I went online in search of examples of newspaper ads from the late 1950s and early ‘60s, and I was surprised to discover the talent of the cartoonists who labored on these humble works of art. I even found a couple of ads designed by Dr. Seuss.  Back then, ad men and designers could draw! Are you yourself a good draftsman?

Chip Kidd: Not really—that’s why I became a graphic designer. I would have liked to have been a cartoonist, but I just can’t draw well enough—at least not by my standards. I found graphic design a means to communicate visual ideas and concepts without necessarily having to draw. 

VV: Would you say that an ability to draw—or at least to appreciate the art of illustrators and cartoonists—makes one a better designer?

CK: I would say it does, but I wouldn’t limit it to drawing. I’ve found that any matter of creative “extra-curricular activity” is good for the design genes. I think by learning how to write I became a better designer because it helped me to articulate my ideas more clearly, and it definitely helped me to empathize with the authors I work with. 

VV: Is your passion for comic strips one of the reasons you are such a smart book cover designer?

CK: I don’t really see much of a relationship there. I would give credit to the approaches to conceptual problem solving that I was introduced to in college, at Penn State.

VV: I know that you are not a fan of Scott McCloud (author of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art). Can you tell me what you think he got “wrong”? 

CK: I honestly don’t know how I got this reputation. I think a lot of what he says and demonstrates in his books is very interesting. But I remember that I took issue with some of his theories, which is only natural. I would have to go through one of his books page by page in order to explain what I agree or don’t agree with, and I don’t plan to do that anytime soon. But it is inarguable that he has made a lot of people, who hadn’t done so before, think about comics and that’s a good thing.

VV: The Learners explores the dark undertow of the advertising business — the “evilness” of the manipulative approach. Today, designers keep saying that their job is to “design an experience.” In fact, the jargon of “brand building as an experience” is reminiscent of the jargon used by Stanley Milgram (you cite his book Obedience to Authority on your Designers & Books list) in his obedience to authority experiments. Would you say that more and more designers share your trepidation regarding the way advertising willfully deceives people?

CK: I couldn’t really speak for other designers on this issue (or on any issue, actually). I would like to think that in this day and age (to use a cliché) we’re pretty much on to what advertising does and how it works. I say that, and yet obesity is rampant in America and advertising has had plenty to do with that. 

VV: Is there a writer whose views of the topic seem most relevant to you?

CK: Well, the logical answer I guess is supposed to be Marshall McLuhan, but I have to be perfectly honest and say I’ve never seriously read any of his books. This of course is entirely my fault, not his. Right now I’d have to say that I think the most interesting writing about advertising in the past couple years is on the TV show Mad Men. And Augusten Burroughs goes into it very well in his novel Sellevision and his memoir Dry

VV: Have you thought of quitting your day job in order to become a full-time writer? Obviously, you can be as witty and edgy with words as you are with images.

CK: That’s very kind of you, but no, no plans for that for the forseeable future. If I had to rely on writing for a living, I would be in a homeless shelter by now. I’m just not that prolific at it, and it takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort for me that most of my design work just doesn’t. That said, I am working on a new novel that has nothing to do with the first two, as well as one that would serve as “Episode 3.” We’ll see if any of it ever sees the light of day.

VV: Do you think that comic strips can deal with ethical issues as effectively as books?

CK: By books I assume you mean works of prose. I do believe pictures are more direct, due to their immediacy, and they are more universal—as evidenced by the global embrace of pictograms. As for ethical issues, they can be dealt with effectively in all manner of media—it all depends on how you do it. By the way, I should say here that in case there’s any misunderstanding, I think what Milgram did with his “Obedience” experiments was nothing less than sheer genius. Was it manipulative? Of course it was, but that was the point, and it jump-started the national conversation on the Holocaust in the most brilliant way.

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