The book cover: It’s the first thing you see when you pick the book up and the last thing you see when you close it. Whether or not you judge its contents by its outer appearance, the cover plays a part in your journey with the text, from spying it on a shelf to reaching the final page. Few know this journey as well as Chip Kidd, the celebrated book cover designer who will speak about his iconic covers and creative process at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, May 9, in a UCSB Arts & Lectures event.
From Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kidd has designed the covers and sleeves for thousands of books, taking on the role of visual author of the readers’ experience. At his talk, Kidd hopes to guide the audience through his creative process step by step, in all of its second drafts and rejections. With “most cases of the books I was assigned … it got rejected, and I’ll share what I did to what to hopefully solve it. And, frankly, sometimes I solve it, and sometimes I don’t,” he said.
Currently the associate art director at Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Kidd generates an average of 75 covers a year, both at Knopf and as a freelancer for Amazon, Doubleday, Grove Press, HarperCollins, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Scribner, Columbia University Press, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. When asked if he had a favorite design he’s done, he said, “Oh god, I’ve been doing this for 34 years for over 1,500 books. I can’t remember.” Designing the covers for his own books, he said, was the hardest.
The process usually starts with a manuscript, but each book is different. He thinks of it as a problem to solve, a bit like a crossword puzzle (the New York Times edition being one of his preferred pastimes). Some covers are quite figurative, others rather literal. “I often, in works of fiction, try to avoid directly depicting what a character looks like, because I do want the reader to decide in their minds. But if you’re doing a memoir about Scott Kelly in space, and you don’t show him, that’s probably not a very smart approach,” he said.
Some are, in industry terms, “heavily embargoed,” meaning that with “certain books, for certain reasons, the publishers want to keep a lid on things for a while,” either because the contents are sensitive or to reveal them would weaken sales. In these cases, he has to work from a blank page, so to speak, and design without reading.
Others still, like Murakami’s 1Q84, take a familiar image — the human face — and reconfigure it using the author’s literary themes and tropes. “Eyes and faces are hard to avoid, but if you look at the 1Q84 design, which is very much intended to be perceived as a three-dimensional object, the face breaks apart as the jacket comes off the cover,” he said. “A big theme in 1Q84 is multiple planes of existence that one is experiencing at the same time.”
Not all designs are accepted, and some publishers have sought out the talents of another designer when they felt Kidd’s fell short. Naturally, he’s had to learn to bounce back from rejection — a lot — and says if something isn’t working out, try doing something else for a while.
“The nice thing about book publishing is that one of the luxuries we still have, even in this age of instant everything, is time. So if there’s a problem, you’ve got this safety cushion of time to kind of think about it, let it stew a little bit, and, frankly, let it live in your subconscious for a while,” he says.
He compares the process to his beloved NYT crosswords. With the challenging Saturday puzzle, “you just get stymied and you put it aside and go do something else. As sort of self-delusional as this sounds, when you get back to it a couple hours later, you start to see and understand things that you didn’t initially. I approach rejection and problem-solving in the same way.”
4·1·1 Chip Kidd talks at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.