Chip Kidd is an odd duck. You know his work, I know you do, but the work you are familiar with is not his writing. Kidd is primarily a graphic designer, and he’s designed some fairly elegant and neat book jackets. Here’s just a sampling of Kidd’s work:
And that’s just three examples… it took me a while to pare it down to just three. I’m no visual artist, so if you want to see more of his work for yourself, head on over to his site: GoodisDead.com.
Chip Kidd has written two novels about life during and after art school; I have not been to art school, so I imagine that someone who has would get even more out of these books than I. He designs his own books, using font changes and text size to his advantage, and he plays with the actual physical design of the book, too. (You’ll see what I mean.)
In 1957, the unnamed narrator starts college at State U. He wants to major in art, much to the chagrin of his parents, and enrolls in Art 127, “Introduction to Graphic Design.” The instructor, Winter Sorbeck, is a sadist who throws impossible assignment after impossible assignment at his students. Friendships between the students emerge and strange things happen. It’s a very odd book, but one that I love. I first read it in my “Introduction to Book Studies”class my senior year of undergrad; that was the class that got into my brain and made me realize I wanted to be a librarian. (Thanks, Matthew P. Brown!)
In that class, we read The Cheese Monkeys in order to understand how the design of a book affects the way a person reads that book. How did the font changes (subtle as they may be) alter your perception of the narrator? Is it “fair” for the book designer/author to manipulate the visual appearance of the words in the book to change meaning? How would this book change if read aloud? The Cheese Monkeys is a visual and literary gem, in my humble opinion. Kidd is a fantastic designer and a great writer. Bonus points if you figure out what’s going on with the text on the book’s fore edge.
We meet up with our narrator again in 1961, but now we know him as Happy. Happy just graduated art school, and he got a job at a Connecticut advertising firm. Things are going pretty well for him… until he’s given an ad to design for the Psychology Department at Yale, asking for volunteers for experiments. Happy responds to the ad himself and ends up having to examine his own humanity. This is a much darker book than The Cheese Monkeys. The experiments that Yale was doing in 1961 actually happened, and they were incredibly cruel. Even if that’s not your cup of tea, The Learners is a worthwhile read. Lots of early ’60s dialog, wonderful descriptions, and Kidd’s wry wit.
If you ever get the chance to see Chip Kidd speak in person, he is outstanding. I saw him in 2008 at an event at the University of Iowa. He is funny on par with David Sedaris, dapper as can be (he wears bow ties and little round glasses), and has amazing stories about past design clients. In short, Chip Kidd is an author I love because he’s taken his main career and woven it into fiction, and doing that successfully takes talent.