One of the most successful book designers in the world is associate art director at Knopf publishers, Chip Kidd, who describes the cover as ‘a haiku of the story.’
Possibly his most well-known cover design was for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park: simple text sandwiching the now legendary skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This image was eventually used as the logo for the whole Jurassic Park franchise including the blockbuster films.
Kidd tells Humans Invent, “That is where I’ve been lucky all these years. It is iconic because the book is iconic. It became a phenomenon and the cover went along for the ride.”
You don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to make something iconic that is going to last forever’, you try and do what is right for the book.
Whether or not Kidd believes his design helped sell the book it took time and research to realise. Kidd says, “I was using what scientific factual basis we have about dinosaurs and using that as a starting point because that is what Crichton would always do. You don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to make something iconic that is going to last forever’, you try and do what is right for the book.”
One of his most imaginative jacket designs was for David Sedaris’ Naked, a collection of essays including one about Sedaris’ visit to a nudist colony in an attempt to confront his fears over his body image. Kidd made a jacket with a pair of pants which could be taken off. Underneath lay not a man’s crotch but an x-ray image of the area.
However, not all his book design’s have been a success, in fact with one book the cover design was directly responsible for poor sales even though Kidd views it as one of his most progressive designs. He says, “I did a cover for the New Testament, I used a photograph by Andres Serrano who was famous for doing a work called Piss Christ back in the 1980s (a photo of a plastic crucifix allegedly submerged in the artist’s own urine), which was hugely controversial. But the photo I used was not that one; it was a completely different one so it was guilt by association. I mean, the publisher loved it but none of the book buyers would take it.”
In a recent TED talk (see below) Kidd laments the rise of the ebook or at least certain aspects of it. He said, “Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness – a little bit of humanity.” According to Kidd the first thing John Updike used to do upon receiving a copy of one of his new books was to smell it. Kidd adds, “I’m all for the iPad but trust me – smelling it will get you nowhere.”
If you are going to make it move or have noise, it takes a lot of work and at this point that is still a novelty
Regardless of whether ebooks end up dominating the market, Kidd still believes there will be a place for designers in the industry. He says, “The one thing that hasn’t changed and I don’t think will, is that books needs a visual component. They still need something to identify them visually. Whether they are on a screen or on a table or what have you and I don’t think that is going to change.”
In one sense digital books allow for more visually stimulating designs over and above the static image of a traditional book but Kidd doesn’t believe this is commercially viable. He says, “I was asked to design a cover for something that was going to be digital only and I tried to take advantage of the things you do on a screen that you can’t do on a piece of paper. The publisher wasn’t really interested in that. It should be noted it cost money. If you are going to make it move or have noise, it takes a lot of work and at this point that is still a novelty. I don’t see a tonne of book covers that make noise or move around or have animation being made.”
Ultimately, the traditional book complete with a compelling cover design will always remain. It may well become a rarer commodity, as ebooks and tablets start to dominate, but like with vinyl this will only make the old-fashioned book a more coveted and valued possession.