Beware of 'Rock Star' Designers
Their work can be all about them
Nov. 8, 2005: Vol. 1, Issue No. 46
IN THE NEWS
The Book on a Graphics Superhero
Mr. Kidd's home is more like a very expensive toy store. It reflects the same graphic punch seen in his book covers, which helped transform the American book jacket from a decorative bit of packaging into a striking evocation of the writing it contained. Its items are arranged like a pocket shrine, as much a carefully curated archive of Mr. Kidd's obsessions and evolving eye as his new book, "Chip Kidd, Book One: Work: 1986-2006," published this month by Rizzoli.
--Penelope Green, The New York Times, Nov. 3, 2005
Prior to last week's New York Times story, I had never heard of Chip Kidd. A paragraph in an Austin Chronicle story by Cary L. Roberts of Sept. 8, 2000, says it all:
Nobody in the book trade believes that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Publishers spend a lot of money hoping that's exactly what you will do. And some of that money is spent on Chip Kidd, who is the closest thing there is to a rock star in the rarefied world of high-end graphic design. Regarded as the world's foremost book jacket designer, Chip Kidd's work covers a wide array of authors: Michael Crichton, Allan Gurganus, Anne Rice and John Updike, to name only a few.
Designers--or art directors--in the business world are like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When they're good, they're very, very good. When they're bad, they're horrid.
Once in a while, Kidd justifies his rock-star reputation by creating the perfect book jacket that accomplishes precisely what's expected of it.
But in my opinion, any publisher that pays big bucks for a Kidd design takes a chance on rendering a huge disservice to the book, to its sales and to the author.
A large percentage of Kidd's work is horrid.
A Personal Digression
Many years ago my client, Paul Goldberg and I gathered in the office of Esquire magazine Editor and Publisher Clay Felker along with members of the circulation department to talk about forthcoming promotions.
In the middle of the meeting, Felker's office door flew open and in marched Art Director Milton Glaser with two or three flunkies. Glaser, founder of the legendary Pushpin Studios, creator of the "I Love NY" logo and the original art director of New York magazine, (also under Felker) is an iconic figure in the New York art world--with rock-star status.
Glaser flung an Esquire cover on Felker's desk, announced that this was the final design for the upcoming issue, spun on his heel and marched out, followed by his underlings.
The cover story of that issue of Esquire was about a German terrorist organization known as the Bader-Meinhoff Gang. The cover painting was shocking--a primitive rendering of a dead gang member, a pistol in hand, lying dead on the street with blood coming out of his head and running into the gutter.
I was appalled--at both the gross cover illustration and Glaser's rude and petulant treatment of Felker, who is a very elegant, low-key gentleman and one of the great figures of 20th century magazine publishing.
After the meeting, Goldberg and I agreed not only that Glaser was out of line, but that the cover was a catastrophe.
We were right. It was the worst-selling cover on the newsstands in Esquire's history.
Book Jacket Design
The book jacket has one purpose--to make the prospect notice the book and be sufficiently intrigued to buy it.
With 195,000 new book titles published every year, it is imperative that the jacket not get lost in the multitude.
With the exception of coffee table volumes, the typical book size is in the 6-inch-by-9-inch range. Hardcover titles are slightly larger; mass-market paperbacks are smaller--4 1/4-inches-by-7-inches.
The only format more difficult for a designer is the 5 1/2-inch-by-5-inch CD.
When face out on a display shelf, a book cover should be instantly beguiling and immediately distinguishable from the titles surrounding it on either side, above and below it.
It is probably a good idea to give a famous author (Dan Brown, Norman Mailer, Ann Rice, Maureen Dowd, Danielle Steele) "star treatment"--that is, put the name above the title or at least give it the most prominence.
If the subject is more famous than the author (Marilyn Monroe, Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Rodham Clinton or American diplomacy in the Middle East), the illustration and title should probably take precedence.
But the title and the author's name should be readable.
As publishing guru Dan Poynter suggests, "Bookstores are lousy places to sell books." For one thing, 70 percent of U.S. adults have not set foot in a bookstore in the last five years.
However, books are also sold on the Internet and, to a lesser extent, via book clubs. In both cases, the sizes of the book covers are greatly reduced. Go to Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com on a small laptop, and book covers can be 5/8-inches-by-1-inch--a six-times reduction. The same is true for a book-club advertisement in newspapers and magazines, where the book covers of the introductory choices are smaller--about postage-stamp size.
In short, a book cover must be immediately understandable when it is big, small or anywhere in between, in color or black-and-white. If the reader has to squint to see what is going on, the design fails.
How Chip Kidd Works
Cary L. Roberts wrote:
Kidd's own design process is more art than science. First, he reads the book. Then he employs what he calls "the magpie method," which is: "picking, choosing, borrowing things that have been done before." The process, Kidd claims, is "driven by nothing." With success, or at least notoriety, Kidd has earned the right to take some risks, even if the results were once described by [John] Updike as "monstrously ugly."
Painters and sculptors have "earned the right to take some risks." Their work is center stage, viewed on its own and is expected to be pure personal expression.
Commercial designers are hired to maximize the client's message, not to make statements of their own.
Design is enhancement. Nothing more. Nothing less.
What am I talking about?
What follows are hyperlinks to several Kidd book covers at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. You can experience them in the setting for which they were intended--an online bookstore where they are in direct competition with other covers, all of which are crying for attention and saying to the browser, "Buy ME! Buy ME!"
Kidd hits the bulls-eye with Joe Eszterhas's outrageous saga of the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship, "American Rhapsody": http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=gT4kXpBCs6&isbn=0375725547&itm=1.
Not since "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" have lips been that red, that dominant and that voluptuous.
Kidd hit one out of the park with his design for Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" that instantly conveys the title, the author's name and a frightening design that went on to become the logo of the film: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=gT4kXpBCs6&isbn=0394588169&itm=2.
Both of these covers are powerful sales tools--instantly recognizable full size in a bookstore or miniaturized on a computer screen.
Serving Himself and Not the Author
Here are some Chip Kidd covers to squint at:
The author's name pops, but the title is virtually invisible. Further, the teeny red title against a black background would be completely invisible in a black-and-white ad or illustration in a book review. Make a black-and-white photocopy of red type against a black background and you get mush.
"Let Nothing You Dismay"
Neither title nor author is easily readable.
Imagine this dreary duotone cover in between "American Rhapsody" and "Jurassic Park." It would be as lost as the author's identity.
"Who's Irish?" (original hardcover edition)
My grandmother was a Daly, so I might be interested in "Who's Irish?" But this bizarre cover suggests that the book is really for pedophiles. Combined with Amazon.com's invitation to "Look Inside," it takes on a surreal quality. Not surprisingly, this cover is not found on the Barnes & Noble Web site and was not used for the Vintage trade paperback edition:
In short, if you were the author of one of these titles, would you be happy about Kidd's work?
I would not. I would feel that the designer is talking to himself--and showing off to his chums--rather than trying to interest prospective readers.
The Direct Mail Analogy
I have spent the last 40 years earning a living in direct mail--writing, designing, critiquing and consulting. Freelancer Malcolm Decker once wrote:
Finally, it's important to remember that in direct mail, the word is king. Copy is the architect of the sale. Design and art are strongly supportive interior designers that often set up the sale. Because lookers are shoppers while readers are buyers, if you can firmly engage your prospect--and keep him engaged through reading, you're on your way to a sale.
The word is also king in space advertising, magazine and newspaper articles, annual reports, resumes, business letters and business cards--just about any business or literary communication.
A Designer Runs Amok
The word is especially king in books.
Last July, my wife, Peggy, and I attended a private conference in Aspen where one of the featured speakers was business guru Tom Peters--a dynamo on the stump.
I was so enthralled, I ordered "In Search of Excellence," his first book that brought him international fame and launched his extraordinary career.
I also ordered his newest book, "Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age."
I have seldom felt so ripped off by a book purchase. "Re-Imagine!" was totally ruined by a show-off, smartypants designer--Jason Godfrey at Godfrey Designs--who rendered Peters' words unreadable.
To see how Godfrey Designs butchered Tom Peters's "Re-Imagine!," go to: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/078949647X/qid=1131385337/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-4312640-7324136?v=glance&s=books&n=507846
Move the cursor to the photo of the book and when it says, "Inside This Book" and "Browse Sample Pages," type in "Monster Mash," and click "GO." Then type in "The Real Chick Lit," and click "GO."
You will have an idea how truly unpleasant it is to try to read this book.
Imagine! A designer was allowed to do to an entire book what Kidd does to covers!
Takeaway Points to Consider
- Before hiring a designer for a project, first determine the purpose of the design--whether it be a logo, billboard, magazine illustration, sales brochure, annual report, newspaper ad or book cover.
- Communicate to the designer precisely what you want the design to accomplish.
- I have found that designers can be very patronizing to executives, saying in effect, "You don't know anything about creative; leave that to me." If you feel uncomfortable with the design, then the design is wrong. Period.
- Be prepared to sit on the designer and have the job done over and over again until it satisfies you--not the designer--and the original intent.
- If the designer whines that you're stifling creativity, get another designer immediately.
- In the immortal words of Ed McCabe of the old RCA Record Club, "Every time we get creative we lose money."
- Finally, make a black-and-white photocopy of the ad or page. If it's difficult to read the type, send it back to the designer for surgery.
Chip Kidd Book Covers
"Let Nothing You Dismay"
"Who's Irish?" (original hardcover edition)
Non-Chip Kidd Cover for "Who's Irish?"
Chip Kidd Talks with Milton Glaser
Pages from Tom Peters' "Re-Imagine!"
Updates From Prior Issues
"Why Politicians Don't Get No Respect" (Vol. 1, No. 18)
When the Pennsylvania state legislators voted themselves a raise, it raised a storm of protest. Last week the legislators--even with hides as thick as rhinos'--felt the heat and rescinded their pay increase.
"Dress Codes: Do They Matter?" (Vol. 1, No. 26)
This was the story of Philadelphia restaurant owner Susanna Goihman who allegedly killed a teenage girl, Kayla Peter, in a hit-and-run accident and then showed up for her arraignment wearing a Mickey Mouse sweat shirt. I suggested it was not only poor taste (Mickey was the school mascot of the victim's high school), but stupidity on the part of her lawyers.
On Nov. 2, a Philadelphia grand jury issued a report that concluded Goihman had been drinking from 8:00 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. and left the scene of the accident, drove home and went to bed. If convicted, Goihman faces four-and-a-half to 17-and-a-half years in prison.
"Hung Out to Dry by Underlings" (Vol. 1, No. 42)
This column was about the inane e-mail exchanges between FEMA director Michael Brown and his associates during the height of the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina when people were starving and dying. Since then, more online exchanges have been released revealing what a fatuous, sycophantic corporate culture Brown fostered at FEMA. A sampling:
CINDY TAYLOR, FEMA deputy director of public affairs
To Michael Brown, commenting on the shirt he wore on NBC's "Today"
Aug. 29, 2005, 7:19 a.m.
My eyes must certainly be deceiving me. You look fabulous--and I'm not talking the makeup.
Aug. 29, 2005, 7:52 a.m.
I got it at Nordstroms. Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?
Letters to the Editor
Readers respond to "The Madness of Anheuser-Busch," which was published Oct. 27, 2005.
I agree with your disappointment with the Anheuser Busch crowd ... I have similar feelings regarding the "MR Goodwrench" ads in which the guy interviewing the people in the back of the Auto Dealerships sneers at them & makes snide comments to them ... What is GM thinking ...
A further correction on the Busch story: It wasn't "Augie" Busch; it was his father, known as "Gussie." Gussie's son was known as Augie. I think it is the fourth Augustus Busch who's appearing in the current commercials.
Readers respond to "A Brief Memoir of a Fiasco," which was published Nov. 3, 2005.
One more for the folks at Sony: "A problem is an opportunity in drag." -- Paul Hawken (founder Smith & Hawken, author "Natural Capitalism," etc.). Still mad for Business Common Sense.
Sony has had problems with more than their camcorder. I was in the market for a digital camera and Googled reviews of new Sony digital cameras. I found several users complaints about the shutter button failing on brand new cameras. Sony's policy is "send the camera back, at your expense, and we will fix it." Sony absolutely refuses to give customers a new camera. After reading those comments and your experience, I will never consider any Sony product.
- Allan Gurganus
- Ann Rice
- Anne Rice
- Augustus Busch
- Cary L. Roberts
- Clay Felker
- Condoleeza Rice
- Dan Brown
- Dan Poynter
- Danielle Steele
- Hillary Rodham Clinton
- Joe Eszterhas
- John Updike
- Kidd Book Covers
- Marilyn Monroe
- Maureen Dowd
- Michael Brown
- Michael Crichton
- Mickey Mouse
- Milton Glaser
- Norman Mailer
- Paul Goldberg
- Penelope Green
- Susanna Goihman
- The News
- Tom Peters