Chip Kidd‘s recent session at the FITC Toronto conference looked at the line between clarity and mystery, when to blur it, and how design sometimes mixes the two for (often unintentionally) humourous results.
As a book designer, content is very important to Kidd. “What does something say or what does it mean and how do we use it as problem solving?” he asked. Motioning to the exit signs around the room, Kidd noted that a simple solution like all-caps red letters was the right choice, even if it wasn’t very decorative. “Problem solving doesn’t always have to look pretty, sometimes it just simply has to get the job done in the most expedient way,” he said. “Clarity is an exit sign.”
— Lindsay Munro (@lindsaymunro) April 13, 2015
Kidd explored his own search for the right balance between clarity and mystery using case studies from his long and decorated career. Here are some of the examples he touched on during his talk on April 13, 2015.
CHIP KIDD: [David’s] book was going to be called Fraud, basically because he was getting hired by magazines to go and do something that he was not equipped to do. GQ would send him out whitewater rafting on the Colorado river to see if he survived, and he did, and he would write about that. And so he felt that he was a fraud doing all these things because he was misrepresenting himself as an authority on something that he knew nothing about.
I thought, alright, I go into a bookstore, I buy this book by this guy that I heard is good, and I start reading it and I’m thinking wait a minute, this guy’s a fucking fraud. He’s not who he says he is. And so I’m reading some more and I take out a red magic marker, and I work out my frustration and I just write that on the front. And then I keep reading and I get angrier and angrier and so I carry it onto the spine and onto the back, where it has all of the quotes about how great it is. And this sort of worked. And you know, it was fun to go into bookstores and see how it looked like some nut had gone in over night and just written on all of [the books].
CHIP KIDD: [Oliver] was coming of age into his 80s, and he went to his eye doctor and the eye chart started doing all sorts things it wasn’t supposed to be doing. And this got him thinking about doing a book about how eye sight actually works. So I started doing searches on eye charts on the web, because I wanted to use the visual iconography…
Usually eye charts are either white type on a black background, or black on a white background. And then we brought in just a little bit of weirdness [i.e. the blurred areas]. In my line of work, this can only go far. You still have to be able to read it, so you experiment with how much of the blurriness can you do and still have it read. And then I wanted to introduce a bit of colour, to give it a nice, clinical blue look. There’s a whole hierarchy of approval for these things. There’s the editor, there’s the editor-in-chief, there’s the marketing department, and sometimes there’s the book buyers and book chains and what have you. So, this goes through that whole gauntlet, and then it goes off to Oliver. And he says he likes it a lot, but he wants the colour to be even more vibrant. Can I make it yellow? And I think OK, fine, given the title and who he is, you can take it this far with the colour and it still reads as an eye chart. Which was my only worry with this. And he liked it, and this is how the book went out into the world.
These next two pictures are just bad cell phone pictures that I took at a book store in New York. And you see that Mr. Sacks is no dummy there. What do you see first? It’s pretty amazing.
CHIP KIDD: I’ve done Haruki Murakami’s book covers for over 20 years. And his work is very, I would say, mysterious. I did this cover for him [1Q84]. The thing with this book is that the title is a book designer’s wet dream. 1-Q-8-4, it’s iconic and weird and you can split it up like this and it looks graphically really interesting. It was a joy to work with.
Not that the following wasn’t a joy to work with, but this was the title of his next novel, which is about unlike 1Q84 as you can imagine. [“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.”] It’s quite a mouthful. So what does this refer to? The title character is the narrator. He is telling about his past history with four of his friends, his best friends in high school. The other four people had names that in Japanese corresponded to a colour. So there was Mr. Red, Mr. Blue, Ms. Black and Ms. White. Tazaki’s name had no colour that corresponded to it, so his nickname was Colorless.
When he comes back from college the following summer he tries to reconnect with his best friends. They contact him by phone and say that they never want to see him again. They want absolutely nothing to do with him, and there’s no explanation. So, at least for me a designer, this requires a completely different way of thinking about how to visually represent this without being literal about it. This is a design that sort of reveals its meaning as you’re reading the book.
He himself is represented by the thumb, if you will, on the hand, and that pattern behind it is the Tokyo subway system, which he is obsessed with and eventually goes on to work for. He is devastated by being excommunicated by these people, and after he sort of regains his mental composure after a couple of years he decides he’s going to go back and revisit each one of them to find out why they cut him off.
The fingers are actually windows into the binding underneath, and so symbolically the people become train lines, and he is intersecting with each one of them like four different stops. It gains a sense of 3-dimensionality to it, that there’s something going on behind the facade for him to discover and figure and out.
[Slide images via Slideshare]