Guest Post: Chip Kidd Keeps Book Covers Relevant In The Digital Age

By Andrea Peterson

As an associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, Chip Kidd designs books. More specifically he designs iconic book covers for writers including Bret Easton Ellis, Haruki Murakumi, David Sedaris, John Updike, and Michael Crichton. Even if you’re not a bibliophile or design freak, if you survived the nineties you’ve undoubtedly seen at least one of his designs: the dinosaur skeleton from the Jurassic Park logo.Kidd has become “the closest thing to a rock star” because he excels at taking the core elements of a narrative and distilling them into a single graphic representation of what the core elements of the story. It’s a process he explained in a TED Talk:

As Kidd touches on during his TED Talk, the rise of electronic ooks and the digital marketplace is bringing rapid change to his industry. When he spoke with NPR’s Weekend Edition last Sunday, he noted “people don’t buy a book on the web because of its cover.” Monday Amazon announced Kindle ebook sales had overtaken print sales in the United Kingdom for the first time. Those two facts hit me hard as someone who frequently purchases a wide variety of items based solely on outward appearance (I first listened to Supertramp because the cover of Crisis? What Crisis? caught my eye) and as someone who had been captivated during one of my youthful booksale scouting missions by a small paperback adorned with the strange juxtaposition of three monkeys considering a piece of cheese.

As it turns out, Kidd, writes books in addition to designing them. It was his first novel, The Cheese Monkeys: A novel in two semesters, that I’d fixed on.  It is a satirically grim college novel with an ample dash of coming of age poured over Graphic Design 101 that I devoured over a weekend– although, admittedly without the ability to fully grasp some of the adult material–and have reread on a fairly regular rotation since.

The novel’s outsider perspective on the post-secondary experience felt uncomfortably close to the midwestern college town setting I grew up in, and I came to near adolescent heroine worship of the female lead, one Himillsy Dodd: A pintsized dot of an underclassman who flitted with a manic pixie dream fever through the protagonist’s life and the first year of his public art school career, spending equal time flouting authority and worshipping Americana. Kidd’s ability to design a terrific cover got me to read his book, and that book in turn left me with a greater appreciation of his craft.

The digital age may be convenient, but it lacks a certain romance that can only come from physical objects; finding a new gem while browsing for familiar titles, striking friendly conversations up on public transit, and as Kidd suggests, the very experience of physically cradling a book. That romance will by no means disappear, but already with the rise of ebook sales and the closing of local bookstores and large chains like Borders it is quietly declining. Libraries will no doubt help fill the gap left by the exodus of physical retailers, but they face increasing budget issues across the board–even the Library of Congress lost about 9% of its budget and 10% of its workforce in 2011–and many are in the process of making the same move as many consumers: to eBooks. There is already a second hand and collectors market for used book stores that can thrive on the decades of existing material, and a niche market with an industrial infrastructure in place to keep new releases available in print for the near future, but it’s possible we are approaching a time where a hard copy release of a book is the same as a vinyl release of an album — a collector’s edition of sorts.

Kidd even suggests as much in his interview with NPR, remarking “books are frankly luxury items, and always sort of have been.” He’s right: Books seem commonplace to me because I grew up in a specific, privileged blink in human history when the explosion of wealth, technology, literacy and leisure time following the Industrial Revolution allowed for the mass marketing and consumption of literature. Kidd’s covers provide an instantly compelling graphic rendering of more complex text that can pull a reader into a book and shape their expectations, but they are also a byproduct of that market. Covers are an added value consumers sacrifice when taking the digital leap that raises even bigger questions about what aspects of production are central to the context of consumption. What do we lose when we discard the visual packaging of our culture? A central tenet of the canon of graphic design espoused by the mentor figure in The Cheese Monkeys and its sequel is that the labeling and design of our society shapes our perspective on the world around us. That the spread of his own designs’ impact on culture will be  limited by the evolution of the same industry that gave Kidd his career seems at once a natural progression and a cruel a joke.

Despite my anxiously premature nostalgia, I am complicit in this joke: I have purchased only a handful of physical books in the past year, and the the bulk of my new release purchases have gone straight to my Kindle. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s awe inspiring that technology has advanced so far I can pull thousands of books from the air at the push of a button, an idea as contradictory and as promising as three monkeys contemplating a block of cheese.