Every three years or so, the mainstream media, whatever that is, decides graphic design exists and permits one designer to become widely known. Previous honorees included Roger Black, David Carson for some reason, and Kyle Cooper. This year’s instalment, the esteemed Chip Kidd, spoke at the Designthinkers conference today (2005.10.27). (I was supposed to do the same.) It was merely one event in a jam-packed sequence during his four-day visit. I took notes, of course.
His new novel has the working title The Learners.
“I was worried I’d outnumber you.”
“I was reading an issue of Vanity Fair in which they had a lengthy review of a Céline Dion concert in Las Vegas…. There was a particular phrase the reviewer used within the review that I thought was extremely beautifully turned, so I decided to make that the title of the lecture . I thought there was something extremely beautiful there, very heartfelt.”
Shows a picture of him at age eight, “the last recorded moment when I was attractive.” Shows himself in Robin costume; “my brother, being two years older, always got to be Batman. To hell with him.” He never really grew out of this phase. “I have this pathetic obsession with superheroes, Batman in particular…. Never Marvel. Never Spider-man or the Hulk. If you’re a superhero geek, you’ll find we’re kind of like the Republicans and Democrats.”
Wanted to “design stuff” for DC Comics. They needed new logos for the also-new All-Star Comics line. He redesigned the Sin City books, and Frank Miller “imposed” him on DC Comics.
Intended to design a logo that would somehow hearken to the original 1939 logo in some way. Shows an overbusy 1990s cover that’s “all gone to hell in a handbasket,” with “spinach all over the damn thing,” as his dad would say. “Separation of type and state” is what he believes in: “Let’s let the image live in its little quadrant and the type live in its little quadrant and they won’t fight with each other.”
Started designing the logo with VF Sans by Hoefler, whom he views as one of the most talented type designers in New York. The Ns, As, and Ss have points on them, “which I think are pretty swell.” Looks ’40s-esque and modern at the same time. Does a perspective-distort of the type in Photoshop. “I do do this… and I hate PowerPoint more than I hate myself. Which is saying something.” (But he’s using Keynote!) “The idea is the type is flying away from you.” The title is Batman & Robin: The Boy Wonder, “with emphasis on Robin, because…. Wow, I never thought of that. How Freudian.”
Then they called him up and said they had the logo all done and ready to send over! “Everyone who works there is an overgrown 15-year-old and they’re crazy and they have no taste. As you can see. And my impulse is to say, ‘Why don’t you just call them all-star sneakers?’ ” Decided to bury it in the design. “If you go into a comic-book store, which I know most of you would never do because you have too much self-respect; most of are jumped-up” with too many geegaws to get your attention.
“And of course showing them all to Frank first behind the backs of the DC Comics people.” Then they send over the new art. “ ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’ ‘What are you talking about? Isn’t it great?’ ‘It looks gay!’ ” It looks like an outtake from a movie in which Superman is waiting for the director to tell him something to do.
Then they show him the Batman art. “Aside from the fact that Robin is kicking Batman in the penis,” what in the hell are their ropes attached to? “But these are questions that go unanswered.”
Then you read in the paper that DC is about to reveal its new logo. “Of course, they didn’t tell me about it.” The logo makes them look like a videogame company from 1992. “I can deal with one crappy logo, but I can’t deal with two.” Tries to bury that logo, too.
For DC Comics, this was a quantum leap. “They are so conservative.”
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by Sedaris: The title doesn’t mean anything. “It came to David’s boyfriend in a dream. Ready? Go!” Sedaris said he didn’t want any corduroy or denim on the cover. “I said, all right, that’s something to start with.” Tries “soaking up whatever surrounds you” by looking at photos.
He looked at Teach Yourself Books: Swahili, which comes with the cover quote “We can confidently recommend the use of this book” attributed to… Central Africa. So he ripped it off. And that tanked with the publisher. Then he tried a grotesquerie from Gray’s Anatomy, a fetus at six weeks. “ ‘Why did you send us a thumb with a face on it?’ ” “But I’m always working on 10 to 15 projects at a time in various stages of completion.” So he stumbled across the naked-Barbie photo. “It makes you sort of cover it up in a way; it seems wrong. But it also works graphically. And he agreed; he really liked it.” (And the back cover is the arse of the Barbie!)
Redoing James Ellroy’s backlist: Use photographs of cut-up and re-folded pulp paperbacks. “He’s literally punching this guy out of the book.” Thomas Allen, photographer.
Augusten Burroughs: “He was young and successful and he was in advertising and was an alcoholic, which I realize is redundant.” How do you make typography look like it’s in denial? It’s saying it’s one thing when clearly it’s something else: Letters drooling ink down the cover. Publishers thought it looked too scary. But it got used for the paperback: “Usually when they kill something it stays killed,” but they reused this one. “The zombie cover.”
Geoff Speer shot the photo for Magical Thinking. “I got there at around 2:00 in the afternoon, but it was 10:00 before we got the water to flow up.” For Possible Side Effects, he already has an approved cover well before publication: A six-fingered hand. “This cover has become a kind of a litmus test. Some people in the audience are laughing and some people are not…. Ohhh!”
“These are just three things I loaded on my machine on the way to the plane”: Theft by Peter Carey has woman looking at dusty mark on a gallery wall. Reporting by David Remnick has a magnifying glass and a bullhorn (“something I don’t have high hopes for”). Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island bifurcates a sunset with a blond woman’s face.
Went to New York in 1986. Knew in school he wanted to be a designer and be successful in New York City. “Over the years I’ve come to believe the myth.”
Daniel Libeskind: Kidd had to design the cover of his memoirs (mostly about Ground Zero), Breaking Ground (“ugh… God. Why don’t they just call it [fart sound]?”). Why? did Kidd have to design it? “Doesn’t he sort of do that? No, I guess – he was too busy at press conferences.” The brief was he had to use two pictures, one of Libeskind digging in the dirt and the other an heroic photo-illustration of the Statue of Liberty and the proposed new building. The skyline would have been printed on its own half-sheet, which the publisher nixed. Apparently Libeskind liked it, “but God knows he didn’t deign to tell me.”
Bret Easton Ellis, The Good Life: Slide reads “Question: Is it wrong to use photographs of Ground Zero on a novel about 9/11?” So used photos of jackets on a store rack and a coffee cup on a dinner table, both covered with ash. Then the Times “got wind of it”: Can we do this on a work of fiction? “Well, I did.”
Vertical is a new hardcover publisher that will take books that “literally have been big in Japan and take them to the U.S. and publish them here .” They wanted him to be their art director. “Except for this stupid name: Vertical. ‘We’re a Vertical book publisher.’ Oh, really? What the fuck does that mean? Nothing.” “The reason they’re the dream client is frankly they seem too polite to reject anything. That would be too dishonourable. And so far they really haven’t rejected anything.”
Naoko: “This is a book about a woman who hangs around in bars and lures men home and does away with them. Good for her.” Ring, Spiral, and Loop have moiré acetate covers over a binding with another pattern.
“Usually at work what I have to deal with is ‘Oh, the author’s name isn’t big enough’ and that kind of shit. But here is a publisher where nobody has ever heard of the authors’ names and can’t pronounce them.” Ashes by Kenzo Kitikata is a superb cover with three paper stocks, zoomed photo, “a ripoff of Dry, I realize that,” and a photo collage underneath. (Now, honey, that is the shit.)
Sayonara Gangsters is about a teacher trying to teach linguistics and poetry to gangsters; the words come to life materially. You can only read the jacket when it’s on the book, because the holes in the dust jacket line up with a maze of letters on the book cover to spell out the words in the title.
Kidd calls “swashes” or “belly bands” ohbis.
Design Your Life: Rizzoli wanted to publish a retrospective of all his books, “and I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” He needed an assistant, Mark Melnick, a former book designer, to wade through his piles of shit in Connecticut. He said the book had to be horizontal, which threw Kidd a bit, “because all the books are vertical…. All right, ‘Vertical’ makes sense .” But dust jackets from the books he designed, when unfolded, are horizontal.
Celebrity biographies: “You listen to Katharine Hepburn but you look at Dietrich,” which explains why the former’s book was typographic and the latter’s was photographic.
Showed two slides about how Melnick constructed “narratives” by putting covers of unrelated books alongside each other (eat, brush teeth, go to bed; come home, take off hat, have a drink and a smoke).
The cover photo of the book showed Kidd’s hands, which are in a lot of Kidd’s photos. “All of these books together make this uncontainable thing that is spilling out of a regular book.” The board covers are half the width of the pages, like binding the pages with an alligator clip.
Last slide: Vaya con queso.
There will be a kind of Q&A tomorrow morning, “and I am going to be incredibly hung-over. So keep your expectations low.”
I mingled with the only other known homosexualist (Chipp and I were not the only gays in the village) and talked to the only guy in a wheelchair at the event. Another obvious person with a disability was in attendance. (Accessibility is too important for design.) On the plus side, I was in a roomful of actual registered graphic designers – a rarity even in the only province, territory, or state in North America where such a thing is possible.
I sat in a corner that was secluded and unused yet in plain sight and fact-checked Chip’s arse on the proper names in this posting. We had an almost-lengthy chat of some kind. I gave him the red card and left him to his adoring public.
There’s another session tomorrow that I might or might not go to. Frankly, I’ve had a trying day with one little setback after another.