TED Radio Hour
9:28 am
Fri September 20, 2013

How Do Book Covers Tell Their Own Stories?

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Framing The Story.

About Chip Kidd's TEDTalk

Chip Kidd doesn't judge a book by its cover; he creates covers that embody the books — and he does it with a wicked sense of humor. Kidd showcases the art and deep thought of his cover designs.

About Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd's book jacket designs spawned a revolution in the art of American book packaging. A Chip Kidd cover is unexpected, nonformulaic and perfectly right for the text within. As a graphic designer for Alfred A. Knopf since 1986, Kidd has designed shelves full of books, including classics you can picture in a snap like Jurassic Park. As editor of comics for Pantheon, Kidd has commissioned work from graphic novelists like Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes and Ben Katchor. He's a novelist as well, author of The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and on the show today, framing the story. Well, what if you had to tell someone's story, a story that was already written and you had to tell it in an instant?

CHIP KIDD: I'm endlessly amazed after 26 years, still to this day, one of the first questions is, do you actually read the book? And I can't imagine not doing that.

RAZ: Chip Kidd...

KIDD: That would be me.

RAZ: ...designs book covers. Maybe you've read some of them.

KIDD: Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park," Haruki Murakami "1Q84," "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, David Sedaris, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," David Rakoff, "Fraud," Oliver Sacks, "The Mind's Eye," and all of his backlist. Elmore Leonard, all of his backlist.

RAZ: And Chip Kidd's, job with each book, to tell the story even before you open it up.

RAZ: In his TED Talk, Chip walks out on stage wearing a black blazer with gold trim and black eyeglasses. And he stands there, motionless like a statue. And then he does a full body wriggle.

KIDD: Hi.

RAZ: When he says hello.

KIDD: I did that for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to give you a good visual first impression. But the main reason I did it, is that that's what happens to me when I'm forced to wear a Lady Gaga skanky mic. I'm used to a stationary mic. It's the sensible shoe of public address.

RAZ: Okay, so for Chip Kidd the idea that a first impression matters, that it can tell a story, it's not a theory, it's his life's work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIDD: Now, first day of my graphic design training at Penn State University, the teacher, Lanny Sommese, came into the room, and he drew a picture of an apple on the blackboard and wrote the word apple underneath, and he said, okay - lesson one, listen up. And he covered up the picture and he said, you either say this, and then he covered up the word, or you show this.

And then he took his hand away and so then you had the picture of the apple. And you had the word apple, underneath, and he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIDD: ...but you don't do this. Because this is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.

RAZ: It seems like you did that for the cover of "Jurassic Park" which is a T-Rex skeleton and silhouette but you can tell that it's, like, coming alive. How did you come up with that idea?

KIDD: Well, we had tried many different things. The problem was, you know, how do we make this look like what it is which is a book about dinosaurs unlike any other book you've ever read about them?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIDD: Someone is reengineering dinosaurs by extracting their DNA from prehistoric amber. Genius. Now, luckily for me I live and work in New York City, where there are plenty of dinosaurs. So, I went to the Museum of Natural History, and I checked out the bones, and I went to the gift shop and I...

So were going to start with what we know, which is the dinosaur bones. The teeth and the ribs, and then evolve them, so to speak, so that now it's something more than the bones but it's not there yet. It's growing. And it's going to get there and then when it does, you know, you won't be able to control it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIDD: I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea where I was going. But at some point I stopped. When to keep going would seem like I was going too far. And what I ended up with was a graphic representation of us seeing this animal coming into being. We're in the middle of the process.

A book cover designer is making a piece of art, a piece of design, that's very much in service to another piece of art. And that other piece of art is the more important one. If all the stars align as I think they did with "Jurassic Park," you get this great fusion of, like - you can't think about the book or the movie without envisioning that image.

RAZ: What's your favorite store you've ever told in a cover?

KIDD: Probably the New Testament.

RAZ: What was the story?

KIDD: What's the story?

RAZ: I mean, we know the story. But, what was the story you told in your cover?

KIDD: This was 1996, and basically it was trying to make it real. And I used a photograph of a dead man, "His Face," by Andres Serrano. He was granted access to photograph corpses as they were coming into a morgue in New York City, and he photographed this tight close-up of this man's face, and he was laying on his side so you just see one of his eyes and three or four inches in all directions around it. And it's very bloodied, I mean, I don't know what happened to this person, but the eye is half open. And so you get this distillation of horror but there's also a serenity to it that's very odd. Because it's completely juxtaposed to what you're actually looking at. The idea that something could be dead and alive at the same time is sort of suggested.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIDD: I have devoted the past 25 years of my life to designing books. What I really wanted was to be a graphic designer at one of the big design firms in New York City. But upon arrival there, in the fall of 1986, I found that the only thing I was offered was to be assistant to the art director at Alfred A. Knopf, a book publisher. I had absolutely no idea what I was about to become part of, and I was incredibly lucky. Soon it occurred to me what my job was. My job was to ask this question.

RAZ: That question? What do stories look like?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KIDD: Because that is what Knopf is. It is the story factory, one of the very best in the world. We bring stories to the public. The stories can be anything. And some of them are actually true. But, they all have one thing in common, they all need to look like something. They all need a face. Why? To give you a first impression of what you are about to get into.

RAZ: Do you judge books by their cover?

KIDD: No, I judge covers by their covers.

RAZ: Oh, right.

KIDD: No, seriously I judge the cover by its cover and then, you know, going back to the apple-apple thing. You know, so you have an apple but then all of a sudden you write orange underneath it. Well, that's - I don't understand what that means. But it seems to mean something. Now you've got my interest.

RAZ: Chip Kidd. He's designed some of the most iconic book covers of the past 20 years. You can see them or watch his full talk at TED.NPR.org Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.