Chip Kidd Interview

Chip Kidd

Q: How did you feel when your book was selected as the Oswego Reading Initiative book for Oswego State?

A: I was thrilled. Nothing like this has ever happened to me and frankly, I’d be amazed if it ever happened again. I’m used to being recognized for graphic design, but to be recognized for the novel is just amazing. You know it’s just a really thrilling thing.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue a career in graphic design and writing?

A: I think partially because I work in book publishing and I value the way you can create with prose. It’s a very pure form of creation that doesn’t really require anybody else (I mean it requires an editor). It’s just you creating this thing and it’s immensely appealing to me.

Q: What elements make up good design to you?

A: Well, to be very basic, it should be interesting. It should be useful. It should serve a purpose and serve that purpose well. Now again, I did a piece for [McSweeney] and they asked me to do a piece on, well what they gave me was so open-ended, which I hate… I thought about something in my daily life that I use that’s designed badly, yet I still have to use it. What I zeroed in on was an Amtrak train ticket… So that’s a really basic example of "here’s something that’s very badly designed." It wouldn’t be hard to design it well…there are all kinds of ways of looking at something that is well designed. Fashion is something else all together, but that’s design. There’s good and bad but there’s a different way of defining whether something is good in terms of the way it looks. If it’s pretty, if the aesthetic is refined. The Amtrak ticket doesn’t need to be aesthetically refined. It just needs to be simplified.

Q: You’ve worked with some of the premiere artists in the field of comic books such as Frank Miller and Alex Ross. Do you have any memorable experiences working with them?

A: My favorite Frank Miller story was…when he did the sequel to the Dark Knight. He wanted me to do the cover of the collected edition, which was a big deal. He said to DC Comics, "I want him to do it." And the DC people said, "Well OK, but if you want Chip to do it, you have to let him do his thing. Don’t get him to do it and then screw around. " He was like "fine." So I did like four or five different designs and met with him at a bar and they were sort of interesting but there was this one that was zoomed in on Batman’s eye, which was almost abstract. It was very angry and dramatic and there was like this giant Batman eye and all these teeny little pictures underneath it from the various characters of the book that he’s looking at. He loved it and DC hated it and they were like "it’s an eye, it could be anyone. We need to see Batman." So the tables completely turned, whereas exactly what they warned him against, they were now doing. Then it all had to be reversed where he said to DC Comics "this is the cover I want and you will go with it." And they did. To this day, that’s the cover of The Dark Knight Strikes Again. But you know, it’s abstract and it’s an eye and it says Batman underneath it. It’s not that hard to figure out. That was a real testament to him wanting to do something different.

Q: Do you think comic books can be used as educational tools as well as entertainment?

A: Oh my God yes…that’s been proven for years. I know that now Art Spiegelman is taught in junior high schools about "oh hey this was this thing called the Holocaust, here’s what happened." Absolutely.

Q: People know you for your graphic design but you also have a band called Art Break. How did that come to be and how did you meet Mars Trillion?

A: Well we were college dorm mates at Penn State and that’s how we met… we met and reconnected in New York in like 2002 and started to kind of like blend together again musically. I played the drums for 13 years and when I came to New York I kind of abandoned it just out of practicality and necessity. Then he sort of made me understand that I wanted to embrace it again and we started writing together. When it’s great, it’s great; it’s just that logistically we’re separated. He’s in Texas, I’m in New York… but it’s interesting. He fusses with it and can’t let it go, and I’ve worked with people like this. You can be a perfectionist to the point where you’re just not going to get anything done because if you fiddle and fuss then it’ll destroy you. I think it’s harder for him to understand that. But I love working with him. It’s like magic…it’s literally designing with sound. You come to understand how you can choreograph emotion through a certain note or certain chord or a certain rhythm. You can make someone feel sad or happy or angry or whatever. It’s really interesting.

Q: Would you say that’s how your graphic design influences your music or vice versa?

A: I don’t know. I just think that my approach to it is very intuitive and a lot of design is very intuitive. It’s forced me to reexamine a lot of things about how composers work and how certain note combinations will exact a certain emotional response from the listener….

Q: What was your inspiration for "The Learners" and "The Cheese Monkeys?" Why the Milgram experiment?

A: Well from a practical point of view, I basically exploited it because I wanted to capture this experiment in a novel. Nobody had done that before. It’s not like I wanted to capitalize on it but I just thought this is a great piece of theater basically. It encapsulates so much of what happened in the 20th century and certainly before that. I mean, look at the Spanish Inquisition, look at The Crusades. So much horrible stuff was done basically just in the name of people doing it because they thought they were supposed to because there was an authority figure above them that said do it. But also again, I was very captured by the design of this is an experiment about memory and learning and then you find out it’s something else entirely. It’s an effort to explain how some of the most basic human atrocities can be committed by people who aren’t people at the base of it. They’re just cheap. The design aspect of it to me was always fascinating and yet the experiments were universally condemned immediately. What Milgram was doing, as brilliant as it was, was design.

Q: You’re working on a book called "True Prep" with Lisa Birnbach. How did you get involved in that?

A: I was obsessed with the first book which was called "The Official Preppy Handbook," which came out when I was in 10th grade in 1980 and basically opened my eyes to the class system in America, which I didn’t really think existed previously. That was a big phenomenon in America and it was published in 1980, out of print by 1990, 1.5 million copies sold and that was it. In April ’09, I get a Facebook friend request from Lisa Birnbach and I wrote back "is this really you?" and she did the same. In June 2009, we had lunch and by the end of it I said "can I ask you?" and she said, "Go ahead everybody does." I said, "When on Earth will you do the next prep book?" and she said, " I’ve been asked many times, I’ve never felt the time was right." I said, "Well, I’m asking. I can bring something to this, I know the right editors, the right publisher and I want you to think about it. " Long story short, the book came out last Tuesday. I love it and my heart and soul is in it but I wouldn’t do any hard sell on it for someone who wasn’t into it.

Q: While we’re talking about sequels, what’s next for you?

A: I would like to at some point figure out the third act of Happy’s life. So far, all the notes are up here and what I’m thinking is we’ll fast forward big time to basically the present and the concept of the death of print. Beyond that, I don’t really know. I don’t have the big idea to wrap it around. In the meantime I have another for a novel that’s completely different than any of this stuff that I’ve been pursuing and I think I’m pretty committed to.