Chip Kidd

Step Magazine by Sean Adams

Chip Kidd

A few months ago, I was in New York and invited by Debbie Millman to see Chip Kidd’s new band. We headed downtown and found our way into a dark club. Chip wasn’t performing yet, but it was clear he was the headliner. There was standing room only, an audience populated by the young and hip and, judging by hair and eyeglasses, design-minded. Chip’s fans, all. Entering the club was similar to the scene in any western when the stranger walks into the local saloon. The doors opened, we walked in, all heads turned toward the door. I was immediately aware that, in that context, i looked like a wayward father looking for his runaway teenage daughter. But in his typically gracious way, Chip saw us and pulled us into his booth. This is the problem with Chip. He is a great designer, writes books, has remarkable personal style, is in a cool band, and is, unfortunately, gracious and charming. It is unfair for one person to be all this. I was determined to find the flaws. But, in the end, I have yet to find one.

SA: Chip, we first met at a dinner during the AIGA conference in Las Vegas. You wore a beautiful coral-colored shirt. I remember thinking anyone who wears coral deserves high marks. Which leads me to a shallow question: You have such a unique personal style. Most designers opt for the standard black uniform, but you don’t. Where does this come from?

CK: First of all, before we get started, I just want to remind you that at that conference in Vegas, you left your socks in my hotel room, and I never got a chance to return them. If you want them back, let me know … except now there are holes in them. Sorry.

Anyway, I’ve just never been inclined to wear black, except for formal occasions where it would be rude not to do so. I’m not sure where this comes from, but one possible explanation is that someone gave me The Official Preppy Handbook when I was in the 10th grade, and it totally changed my life. Seriously. It woke me up to class difference in America and how it works. And looks. This was just as Ralph Lauren was “coming into power,” and to this day I wear more of his clothes than any other designer. This is hardly unheard of, except my rule is I won’t wear anything with a visible Polo logo. That still leaves a lot of great stuff, believe it or not.

That disdaining black frees me from the cliché of “looking like a designer” is just a by-product, not a goal. The clothes that inter­est me, for myself, are what I would call Classic But Interesting, which means there has to be some sort of color involved. But I also buy very much for the long term, so whatever it is, it has to be wearable five years from now, 10 years, 20, etc. It should be noted that I try to apply this rule to my book jackets as well.

SA: OK, first, the polka-dot socks were originally Dana Arnett’s. I stole them. Second, talking about your clothing choices may seem stupid, but it points to an aspect of your work. You seem incapable of simply following trends or imitating others. The work you pro­duce has a strong understanding of image as language, and it has a unique vision. Where does this originate?

CK: Most likely from a childhood fortified by a steady diet of after-school television, a tidal wave of comic books, album covers, movies, commercials, etc. “Image as language” was instilled in me, however subconsciously, since I was post-fetal. As it has been now to anyone born in the Western World since, what? 1960?

SA: Good point. I know that Sarah T.—Portrait of a Teenage Alco­holic drives most of my work. There are many camps in the design world: designers who are interested primarily in form, design­ers who eschew formal issues and focus only on the conceptual, designers who follow only one narrow vision or set of rules. Your solutions use a wide range of formal choices, always are based on an idea and typically employ a degree of wit. Is that variety a necessity in the context of book covers?

CK: The necessity has as much to do with me not getting bored as it does with any kind of needs—specific or otherwise. But really, of course they all have to be different: The books are all different.

I honestly don’t understand why any designer, of anything, would want to impose the kinds of restrictions on themselves that you mention, unless it’s some shtick that pays well—but even then, how soul-deadening.

SA: What do you enjoy about book covers over other assignments?

CK: I’m just an old-fashioned print guy, frankly, so that’s a start. But I’m also inclined to never throw anything away, so by extension I don’t want anything I design to be thrown away, either. I sort of walked backwards into a book design career, but it turns out it’s perfect for me, because it’s all automatically archival. Or is supposed to be, at least.

SA: In addition to the many nonfiction books you’ve contributed to, you now have two fiction books under your belt as an author: The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners: The Book After “The Cheese Monkeys.” How did you come to the decision to write books yourself? And what led you to the narratives in your books?

This cover for the Time 100 issue in 2008 was selected as an alternate and printed in the magazine. “I did the ‘real’ one, too,” says Kidd, “but it’s not very interesting at all.”

CK: I was very lucky, because I happened upon two stories I wanted to tell that actually hadn’t been told before in a novel. Which was rare and key, and also why, for now, I’m pretty much stymied on writing a third.

In The Cheese Monkeys, I wanted to recreate for the reader the experience I had at Penn State—taking the graphic design classes I took and, more important, sitting through the critiques. I thought that if I could do it right, it would be just as compelling—and harrowing—as a good legal thriller. Because, really, during a critique you are very much on trial.

With The Learners the goal was to take this idea a step further via the Stanley Milgram Obedience experiments, which put the subject—the reader—on trial to prove his/her very humanity.

And in both books I played it all for laughs.

SA: Obsessions are always difficult to explain. Everyone has their own, and they are rarely logical. I have a disturbing obsession with “It’s a Small World.” Trying to explain it leaves people staring at me and slowly backing up. Given that, can you talk about Batman?

CK: OK, let’s hold that thought a sec. So, just what does an obsession with “It’s a Small World” entail? The lyrics tattooed onto your thighs? Sneaking after-hours into the ride at Disneyland? Little Dutch Boy outfits? Spill, dude.

Anyway, as for explaining my Batman jones, anyone can get plenty of that by Googling, so I won’t repeat myself here. The main thing to stress about this—along with the other things we’ve talked about—is that my design work for Batman- and comics-related projects grows directly out of a deep love and respect for the material. In short: Passion makes great design. This is borne out again and again in graphic design history. David Carson loves to surf and creates Beach Culture; Dana Arnett rides a Harley Davidson and ends up completely redefining—and saving—the company; Abbott Miller’s enthusiasm for dance results in 2WICE [an award-winning semiannual periodical and foundation that supports art, film, dance and performance]. This is one of the best messages we can impart to design students—that by combining a passion for something with skill, we can preserve and sustain it.

SA: See what I mean about the Small World thing? You’re not going to return my calls now, and since I mentioned it, nobody will return my calls.

I was speaking with someone who saw you at the AIGA GAIN conference and is convinced you should be a stand-up comic. Every day I sit next to Noreen [Morioka], whom I’m also told should go into stand-up comedy. When the two of you sat next to each other at this year’s AIGA Gala, I was concerned it might be too much for one room. Designers are supposed to be serious, wear black and dismiss humor. Is humor important to you? Why?

CK: Yes, Noreen had been urging me to get up on stage with her at the gala, and I was afraid if I did, we’d spontaneously combust. I get the “You should do stand-up!” thing all the time. But let me tell you: Having friends who actually are in that area of show business, I really don’t think I’m cut out for it.

Says Kidd, “The Fur poster is one of my rare forays into the movie biz, and the film has the dubious distinction of being the single least successful movie of both Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. Do I have the magic touch or what?” Photo by Geoff Spear
You see, here’s the difference between cracking people up at a design lecture and trying to do it for a living at 2 in the morning in front of three dozen drunken NYU students at Caroline’s Comedy Club: The former carries no expectations of levity whatsoever, and the latter is weighted with far too many of them. No one goes to a design lecture to heckle … yet, anyway.

As for humor being important, yes, of course. I’d rank it right up there with food, oxygen and duct tape.

SA: I often get requests from around the country for opinions on potential speakers. Usually a “rock star” is needed, and you’re typically at the top of the list. So, what’s it like being a rock star? Do people throw money at you and offer romantic liaisons?

CK: Oh, no “Hampton Inn sword fights” for me. First, I’m in a relationship going on 14 years now. Second, for better or worse—OK, better—my romantic ideal (older, grayer) is not the kind of person who routinely shows up at my lectures (younger, largely body-hairless). This works out best for everyone, especially my boyfriend, who is older and grayer and very, very patient.

SA: Damn your good morals. I was hoping for licentiousness. When you’re out there speaking or judging competitions, or just seeing design in general, what do you think about the current state of the industry?

CK: I’m terrible at this kind of question. I never feel like I have my “finger on the pulse” of what’s going on, especially since I haven’t really taught for 10-plus years now. I’m perpetually clueless, really.

Although: Living in New York City helps a bit, because you’re exposed to so much interesting visual information, whether it’s the new Roundabout Theatre campaign or a stencil of a wrongly-imprisoned Zimbabwean someone has spray-painted onto every street corner in Soho. The problem with most of it is it’s almost never clear whom or what is responsible for the work.

But since you bring up judging, I have to say that the depressing thing about it, especially regionally, is that those with the most money to enter things tend to be those with the least amount of taste and skill. I think all design competitions should have a pro bono work category that doesn’t cost anything to enter. That would very likely bring in more interesting stuff that deserves recognition.

SA: I’ve been doing this column for quite a while now, and there are consistent threads that link all of the designers I talk to. Typically they all have a remarkable amount of energy and are not satisfied doing one thing only. Obviously you have this trait. You have a job, write, make music, maintain a relationship. And god knows what else you’re up to. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me you were working with the Peace Corps on the weekends. How do you do this? And, why? You know you could just lie around and eat ice-cream sandwiches.

CK: If I ever tell you I’m working with the Peace Corps on the weekends you will also know hell has frozen over, because that would mean I’ve finally become a responsible, compassionate adult—and babies, that’s just not in the cards.

I’m a selfish, narcissistic pig, stuck in a hedonistic limbo of perpetual post-adolescence. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not in denial about it either. As for getting all this stuff done, the shocking thing is that if you hung out with me for an entire day, you’d be even more amazed—no one can piss away time like I can, no one. I appall even myself.

But there are several logistical factors that enable me to actually produce. Chief among them is I don’t have a family to take care of, not even pets. So, basically that means I can work any time, and I do—evenings, weekends, etc. And for all intents and purposes, I’m married to a workaholic who’s even busier than I am, so the dynamic is inspiring and functions well.

SA: The “Who are your heroes?” question seems wrong for you. Maybe a better way is to ask who has affected you in life, outlook and in work?

CK: I hate to name-drop, but this reminds me of something Madonna once told me. She said, “If you don’t stop trying to follow me, my bodyguards will make you sorry you were ever born. I mean it, dick-stain.” Actually it was one of her assistants who told me that—shrieked it, really—but it was just the most amazing piece of advice I ever got, and it’s always meant so much to me. So I’d say in terms of influences it’s pretty much her … and Paul Rand, who told me the same thing.

SA: There is a need for the public to pigeonhole individuals with notoriety. We tend to assign one-dimensional archetypes easily: Britney Spears is shallow, George Clooney is smooth and suave, Jennifer Aniston is nice. This happens in the design world also, and it’s easy to be assigned a character. But all of us are three-dimensional, complex individuals. Are you always in good humor? Do you have a dark side that you’d like to reveal?

CK: Oh, my god, how much time do you have? Actually, I only show my dark side to my proctologist. Rim shot! Sorry.

Not that this has much of anything to do with your question, but the fact I’m still referred to in articles as a “wunderkind,” however flattering, is frankly kind of odd. I’m 44.

SA: But you are a remarkably well-maintained 44. I’m 44, and people congratulate me on turning 50. So, tell me about a typical day for you.

CK: Frankly, I really didn’t think STEP was that kind of magazine—dwelling on cheap, tawdry sleaze. Shame on you.

SA: It’s not STEP, it’s me and my sad need to live vicariously through others. Do you have fun when you’re working, or are there lots of screaming and weeping?

CK: Tell me, who exactly said you can’t have fun while screaming? Didn’t you ever hear the expression, “That was a total scream”?

Yes, I love working, especially when one achieves those brain­gasms. Which leads to the weeping.

SA: Yesterday an interviewer asked me why I became a designer. My first impulse was to joke and say I’d probably be working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, or maybe I could be a senator if I weren’t a designer. But I actually think—and yes, this is corny—design chose me. I didn’t have a choice. If you weren’t designing, what would you do?

CK: It’s funny that you brought up Kentucky Fried Chicken—I have a great story about that. Less than a year ago this friend of mine was in line at a KFC on East 14th Street, and at the front was this skinny little guy who ordered three 20-piece buckets of Original Recipe. So the woman at the counter rings him up, and says, straight-faced, “Is that for here or to go?” Now, this man was obviously there alone and would be taking all of it to some sort of party or whatever, and he said: “Are you fucking kidding me? How would I eat all of this here, now, by myself?” To which, the woman replied, sharply, “BITCH, I DON’T KNOW YOUR LIFE!”

This has since become my new mantra, replacing, “This is a nightmare. A total, endless, nightmare.”

I love that story. Bitches, I do not know your lives.

SA: That is fantastic. And you are so good at answering a different question than the one asked. What was your favorite project? Why?

CK: I never know how to answer this one either, because I’ve been so tremendously lucky regarding the things I’ve been able to work on and generate. By now I’ve had so many favorite projects, I should be put against the wall and shot for excessive ecstasy.

The novels, the books on Batman and Peanuts, designing everything for Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy, Michael Crichton and Haruki Murakami—I often worry it’s all downhill from here.

SA: It’s been said that adult life is exactly like high school but with more money. We all just become a more exaggerated version of ourselves when we were 16. I have a twisted habit of imagining all of my friends as they were in high school. Noreen was the funny girl who played basketball and everyone liked. I was a jerk and will forever be making up for the horrible things I did in high school. How about you? What were you like?

CK: Exactly what you’d expect: I was the skinny band-fag who made people laugh in order to be accepted and not get beaten up. Which of course in no way guaranteed that I was either accepted or not beaten up.

SA: Unless you’re getting smacked around backstage at conferences, you’ve gotten past that. Finally, you’re not shy about pushing people’s limits. I truly admire your fearless approach. Have you ever gone too far, crossed a line you regret?

CK: I do regret that I threatened to kick Ann Coulter in the vagina when we both appeared on the Today show. That just wasn’t fair to Matt Lauer. After all, it’s his show, not mine, and he should’ve had the first chance. Other than that, I really can’t think of anything.