October 28, 2013

At AGI Open London: Chip Kidd

By Payal Khandelwal

Our second conversation in the series of interviews done during AGI Open conference, held in London on 26th and 27th September, is with the extremely talented Chip Kidd. Writer, art director, book designer, editor and Batman fanatic, Kidd gave us one of the wittiest and most entertaining sessions at the conference. He specializes in book cover designs and has been working for Alfred A. Knopf since 1986. He is also the author of well-known books including The Cheese Monkeys, The Learners, graphic novel Batman: Death by Design and the most recently released and much talked about Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, a book targeted at children.

We started the conversation with a slightly lesser known talent of Kidd, his music. We also talk to him about how his outlook towards authors whose book covers he has been designing changed after he launched himself in the same field. We asked him if he would ever get into creating movie titles or branding. Edited excerpts:


Before we get into the book cover designs, we want to talk to you about your deep interest in music and the band that you had started?

I have studied music since I was in the third grade. I used to play drums and I kept doing that till college. Then I started majoring in graphic design in college and creatively I was split into two, between music and graphic design. At that time, it wasn’t so much about writing music as about playing it. It’s a great therapy. However, I never really considered becoming a professional musician. Frankly, I thought it was a lot riskier than trying to make it as a graphic designer.

I used to play with this guy named Marco Petrilli in college. When I wrote Cheese Monkeys in 2002, I was doing readings for it and Petrilli came for one of those readings. He was living in New York at that time with his wife and a kid. We reconnected and started jamming in a rental studio in East Village. He is this amazing guy, a polymath. This started as a hobby initially but then we started writing and recording some stuff. Then his wife had another baby and they moved to Dallas with their family as they wanted more space. This cramped our style, to say the least. We had recorded an album worth of music though and we had recorded this video ‘Asymmetrical Girl’ and uploaded it on YouTube. It was a lot of fun.

Now, for my book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic DesignI wrote the theme music. Petrilli has a teaching job and he managed to talk to the school to create a department to teach kids how to play rock and roll music or anything they would want to pay. That’s the legacy of what we were doing. So he and the kids did the rough cut of the theme song for Go.

Frankly, it’s hard. I love making music but I am terrible at making it pay for itself or marketing it. However, I hope it’s not over yet.

Has your outlook on book jacket designs for other authors changed after you started doing your own books?

Yes. I have become more sympathetic with the authors now because I know what’s it like to work on a book for six years and then giving it away to a publisher. I was lucky because I designed each and every inch of those books myself. I can’t imagine giving them to someone else. I can see why authors can get a little crazy, micromanaging and worrying, which used to make me angry before. Not that it doesn’t make me angry now but I at least literally know where they are coming from. But I also think that when it comes to this (book covers),  there honestly are some writers who don’t know what’s best for them. There is a very fine line to walk on because I don’t want to be condescending to them but at the same time you want to say  ‘You need to let this go and you need to let us do our job’. But that said, we won’t go to the press with a book cover that the author doesn’t like.


Since there is a clear synergy between book covers and movie titles, would you ever be interested in creating movie titles?

It interests me a little bit. I did do some movie credits actually, but nothing interesting. That’s just how my career outside has been like. Batman project is a self generated thing and that’s a clear path to me. Also, I think am not great at pitching stuff to people.

Movie titles could be a great amount of fun and hopefully, that will happen at some point. I think motion graphics are interesting. However, I am much more of a print person, about graphic design that can’t be turned off with a switch. So we will see.

In book cover designs, how do you strike a balance between being unique and creating something that has a mass appeal?

It’s a very fine line to walk on. It’s very intuitive. It all depends on what the book is and who the author is. Right now, I am working on the tenth book that I have worked on for Haruki Murakami, who I love and who is great. This book is very unique and it is unlike anything he has published before. And this is inspirational for me. I am keeping an open mind. With each book, you become more and more popular. It works for you but it can also work against you if you are not careful. For me, I have to look at it like it’s a new Murakami book and it’s different and it goes on from there.


Do you enjoy any particular genre?
Well, I try to transcend the genre anyway. Jame Ellroy is a perfect example of that. You should look at a book and see what you are getting into. Here it’s a graphic crime novel genre but there is a way to do the cover without making it look like any other crime graphic novel you have seen in the last 20 years. So I enjoy the challenge. But yes, I haven’t done much science fiction. That’s a whole other thing. If you look at some plots in Murakami books, they are actually like science fiction but the stuff I do for him doesn’t look that way. So I think it’s important to transcend genres and transcend expectations of what people think things should look like.

book cover



Will you ever think about getting into the branding business?

I hope to always be in the book world in some way. The whole B word- branding I am not sure about. I just want to sit and make my little projects. I don’t have any desire to start some business with ten employees or being absorbed by any ad agency. First of all, I don’t think anybody would want me and second, I have the luxury to not do that. I have my own freelance business but that’s just me.

 Chip Kidd on Twitter


Kyoorius is a bi-monthly print magazine on visual communications. Subscribe here. For buying a single copy (or any of the previous issues), write to us at sales@kyoorius.com.  You can order the issue from Tadpole, get the digital copy from Magzter and also buy it from bookstores near you. For any feedback on the magazine or to submit your work, do drop in a mail to us at editor@kyoorius.com. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter


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1 Comment

  1. Mira



    Thanks for this feature. Am a big fan of his wor and a big fan of ArtBreak.

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