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The Art of Firt Impressions–In Design and Life
You know a Chip Kidd book when you see it — precisely because it’s unexpected, non-formulaic, 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: Jurassic Park, Naked by David Sedaris, All the Pretty Horses …
His monograph, Chip Kidd: Book One, contains work spanning two decades. He’s a novelist as well, author of The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters and The Learners: A Novel.
Book designer Chip Kidd knows all too well how often we judge things by first appearances. In this hilarious, fast-paced talk, he explains the two techniques designers use to communicate instantly — clarity and mystery — and when, why and how they work. He celebrates beautiful, useful pieces of design, skewers less successful work, and shares the thinking behind some of his own iconic book covers.
Two techniques: Clarity and Mystery
I’m balancing these two things in my daily work as a graphic designer, as well as my daily life as a New Yorker every day, and there are two elements that absolutely fascinate me.
So clarity. Clarity gets to the point. It’s blunt. It’s honest. It’s sincere. We ask ourselves this. [“When should you be clear?”]
Mystery is a lot more complicated by its very definition. Mystery demands to be decoded, and when it’s done right, we really, really want to.
This is a way to use a more familiar kind of mystery. What does this mean? This is what it means. [“Make it look like something else.”] The visual vernacular is the way we are used to seeing a certain thingapplied to something else so that we see it in a different way.
This is a novel about a young man who has four dear friendswho all of a sudden, after their freshman year of college, completely cut him off with no explanation, and he is devastated. And the friends’ names each have a connotation in Japanese to a color. So there’s Mr. Red, there’s Mr. Blue, there’s Ms. White, and Ms. Black. Tsukuru Tazaki, his name does not correspond to a color, so his nickname is Colorless, and as he’s looking back on their friendship, he recalls that they were like five fingers on a hand. So I created this sort of abstract representation of this, but there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface of the story, and there’s more going on underneath the surface of the jacket. The four fingers are now four train lines in the Tokyo subway system, which has significance within the story. And then you have the colorless subway line intersecting with each of the other colors,which basically he does later on in the story. He catches up with each of these people to find out why they treated him the way they did.
And so this is the three-dimensional finished product sitting on my desk in my office, and what I was hoping for here is that you’ll simply be allured by the mystery of what this looks like, and will want to read it to decode and find out and make more clear why it looks the way it does.
Dealing with the mysterious
This is an approach I wanted to take to a book of essays by David Sedaris that had this title at the time. [“All the Beauty You Will Ever Need”] Now, the challenge here was that this title actually means nothing. It’s not connected to any of the essays in the book. It came to the author’s boyfriend in a dream. Thank you very much, so usually, I am creating a design that is in some way based on the text, but this is all the text there is. So you’ve got this mysterious title that really doesn’t mean anything,so I was trying to think: Where might I see a bit of mysterious text that seems to mean something but doesn’t? And sure enough, not long after, one evening after a Chinese meal, this arrived, and I thought, “Ah, bing, ideagasm!” I’ve always loved the hilariously mysterious tropes of fortune cookiesthat seem to mean something extremely deep but when you think about them — if you think about them — they really don’t. This says, “Hardly anyone knows how much is gained by ignoring the future.” Thank you. But we can take this visual vernacular and apply it to Mr. Sedaris, and we are so familiar with how fortune cookie fortunes look that we don’t even need the bits of the cookie anymore. We’re just seeing this strange thing and we know we love David Sedaris, and so we’re hoping that we’re in for a good time.
What happens when clarity and mystery get mixed up?
And we see this all the time.This is what I call unuseful mystery. I go down into the subway — I take the subway a lot — and this piece of paper is taped to a girder. Right? And now I’m thinking, uh-oh, and the train’s about to come and I’m trying to figure out what this means, and thanks a lot. Part of the problem here is that they’ve compartmentalized the information in a way they think is helpful, and frankly, I don’t think it is at all. So this is mystery we do not need. What we need is useful clarity, so just for fun, I redesigned this. This is using all the same elements. Thank you. I am still waiting for a call from the MTA. You know, I’m actually not even using more colors than they use. They just didn’t even bother to make the 4 and the 5 green, those idiots. So the first thing we see is that there is a service change,and then, in two complete sentences with a beginning, a middle and an end, it tells us what the change is and what’s going to be happening. Call me crazy!