The portfolio of book covers Chip Kidd has designed includes some instantly recognizable icons, from the toothy T. rex of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park to the snowy-white boxer shorts of Naked by David Sedaris. But he’s not just the best-known book jacket designer of his generation. He’s an author, too, with two adult novels to his credit (The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners) as well as half a dozen collections of comic art. Now he’s created Go, a graphic design handbook for kids. Filled with images and candid, companionable advice, it covers the basics (“Warm colors – reds, yellows, oranges – are about fiery emotion”) then addresses sophisticated concepts like image quality, serifs, and kerning. Kidd spoke with PW about the new guide: how he decided what to put in and what to leave out, and why the book doesn’t have a dust jacket.
You dedicated Go to Raquel Jaramillo, “without whom,” you wrote, “this book wouldn’t exist.” [Jaramillo recently stepped down as director of children’s publishing at Workman to become editor-at-large.] Can you talk about how the project unfolded? Did she approach you?
Well, she’s a designer – she used to be an art director for Holt, and she did a lot of really terrific covers, like the cover for Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. So when she contacted me, I thought she was still at Holt. “No,” she said, “I’m at Workman, and I have an idea for a book I think you should do.” So we met and she said, “No one’s ever done a book to teach graphic design to kids. I think we should do one. And I think you should write it.” It was the last thing I was expecting! It wouldn’t have occurred to me – but once she said it, it seemed like a totally natural idea.
It was appealing to me for two reasons. The first thing was that it really hadn’t been done before. And the other was, it immediately put me out of my comfort zone. Which is a wonderful challenge.
So did you come up with an outline and bring it to her?
I did a 40-page proposal. It wasn’t a proposal where I said, here’s the beginning, here’s the middle, here’s the end – I just started cranking it out. Most of the pages I put out survived to the final edition.
I’ve heard you talk about how the best feeling to have as a designer is to know instantly how you’re going to tackle something. Did you know immediately how you were going to tackle this?
Well, I did start with the cover. You’re not supposed to. But when you feel you’ve got the cover right, it gives you an anchor. I based the cover image [a red, eight-sided sign that reads ‘GO’ instead of ‘STOP’] on a tote bag I designed for the Strand bookstore. I love the way you always spend more time in the Strand than you intend to. They have all these floors, and you get interested in books you never even knew existed. So the design for the tote said, “I got Stranded in NYC.” And the word “stranded” I put in light type on a stop sign shape. That seemed like a fun idea.
So I thought, “What’s going to get kids’ attention right away? What if the stop sign says ‘Go’? What does that mean?” It’s an encapsulated way to teach the concept of irony to a 10-year-old. I thought, “I could use that as an example in the book.” The cover came together very quickly.
Then I had to do the actual book, and that’s what stymied me. I really had to give it structure, and I had to figure out how to end it. Effective endings are always difficult. I knew there should be a Go sign that says ‘Stop,’ and I meant it to say, “I'm going to leave you now, and you can take it from here!”
Raquel added a lot, and she really, really, really improved it. I did write and design the whole thing, but Raquel kept coming up with ways to expand it, like the sidebars. She said we really should include a short history of graphic design. I knew we had to, but I was avoiding it because it was a lot of work. Anything that was a lot of work, I was avoiding [laughs].... Like the page that says “ME ME ME” in all the different typefaces. Raquel said we should turn the page and read a little something about the history of all those typefaces. And my heart sank! I said, “That’s like a week’s worth of work!” “I know,” she said, “I’m sorry, but you’ll do it, and you’ll thank me.” And she was right. I learned a lot, researching it all and absorbing it all – and then I had to condense it. And after a while, it just seemed to be enough.
There were several very fine lines to walk. Honestly, if I was writing this for college students I would have been able to get into thematic stuff that I couldn’t with 10-year-olds. I would have been able to talk about politics. I would have been able to talk about sex.
And you stayed away from commercial references, too.
Well, the Coca-Cola logo is in there, in the graphic design history section. It’s an icon, and it has stayed the same since the company began. But yeah, we don’t need to see a lot of that.
Another fine line was computers. The book doesn’t ignore computers, but it’s not a Photoshop manual, either. The most computer-centric section is the four pages of information about DPI and image quality. That’s something that I feel strongly about. I hate low-res images that are used when hi-res is needed – which is what comes from pulling stuff off the web.
The book never assumes that kids have access to fancy, hi-tech tools. You seem to be saying, “You can stand at your kitchen table with a pencil and a piece of paper and make great designs.”
And you don’t talk down to them, but you don’t talk over their heads, either.
Raquel was a big help there, too, getting that balance right. Those spreads with the two words, “Clean” and “Filthy.” I originally had “pristine.” And Raquel said, “Yeah... maybe just ‘clean’ would be easier to understand.”
Were there any other places you got stuck?
Oh, god. Constantly. The form section. You could go on and on with that. In every section it was about, “How do I stop? How do I edit myself?”
How did you edit yourself?
It was an organic process. I can’t think of anything I really wanted in there that got cut. It was more like my asking Raquel permission to not do any more on a certain spread, or on a certain subject.
It took a lot of figuring out. With most projects like this, I’m the designer, but here, I was the writer. I was generating the project.
One of the things that’s distinctive about the book is the physical feel of it, the workbook cover and the feeling that it’s like a sketchbook and that you can draw on it, or even in it.
I knew right away there was no reason for it to have a jacket. It is a kind of a workbook. At the same time, I was very mindful of the fact that I wanted it to be a really fun experience, not like a textbook, where there’s so much writing in it that you don’t want to read it. I love the thick boards. I’ve always wanted to bind a book that way, with that feeling that you’re containing the book on the inside. And I got to use it on my own book.
It reads, maybe, like the book you wish you’d had yourself as a kid.
Well, it’s hard to say. It’s more like, what if I was 10 now? It had to do with imagining being 10 in this world that we live in now. That’s what becomes really tricky. It’s hard for me to imagine being 10 now. I don’t think I’d want to be.
When did you first get interested in design? Were you the kind of kid who wrote his name a dozen different ways on his math homework?
No, not really. That was something that came much later. I was more thinking about drawing when I was a kid. I was much more interested in drawing than doing hand lettering.
Are you working on any other books for children?
I’d say a good 75% of what I do is waiting to be asked to do something. If somebody would ask me to do something else for kids, I would certainly consider it! I’m working on several books of comic projects that I think are totally kid-friendly. In terms of more books that are specifically intended for this audience, we’ll just have to see.
Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd. Workman, $17.95 Oct. ISBN 978-0-7611-7219-2