The Greatest Book Jackets in the World

It's not often that a person invents a new realm of celebrity, but Chip Kidd gained renown for something that people once didn't become famous for: designing book jackets.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

It's not often that a person invents a new realm of celebrity, but Chip Kidd became recognized for something that people normally don't become famous for doing, designing book jackets. As one of our producers said, if a book on your shelf has a great looking cover, chances are pretty good that Chip Kidd designed it. David Sedaris, John Updike, Michael Crichton, Cormac McCarthy, they've all had books designed by Kidd. And some authors have even written into their contracts their covers must be designed by him.

So what happens when Kidd turns his talents to the written word, not just the memorable image? A novel with several twists. His second fiction book, "The Learners," has a striking cover of its own and some graphic gymnastics inside, within the text. And it uses the world of advertising and graphic design as a jumping-off point for a dark story. Chip Kidd visited BPP studios yesterday to talk about filling the space between the covers.

STEWART: Why did you decide to tackle the written word when you've had so much success?

Mr. CHIP KIDD (Graphic Designer; Author, "The Learners"): I think it was a sort of natural impulse. After reading manuscript after manuscript, I just sort of thought, well, I think I could maybe give this a try, and - but I think that the real impulse was having a story to tell. As a graphic designer, as somebody who's studied graphic design and been practicing it for quite some time, nobody had written a novel about graphic design and how it works and that was the real impulse, to try, with the - previous book to this, called "The Cheese Monkeys."

STEWART: Well, what made you think graphic design was ripe for a novel?

Mr. KIDD: It's one of the great, sort of, invisible arts of our culture. Graphic designers, by and large, myself, perhaps, excepted, don't really get credit for what they do, and that, to me, made me want to explore this process. What it is, how it gets done, the thought behind it.

STEWART: Well, your novel, "The Learners," takes place in a 1960s ad agency. Tell people who Sketch is before I have you read this.

Mr. KIDD: Sketch is, for me, a very romantic figure, although sort of tragic, too. He is this incredibly talented illustrator-cartoonist, basically. And I tried to imagine what if the most talented cartoonist in the mid-20th century America actually didn't have the courage, basically, to become a cartoonist and instead worked for this ad agency, churning out ads because that was more, quote, "practical."

Sketch didn't so much draw newspaper ads as he created magic worlds to step into that just happened to be populated with potato chips and pretzels. I came to understand that he took as his inspiration the Sunday comics pages he'd read as a child, back when they truly were an art form. Gasoline Alley, the Kinder Kids, Polly and Her Pals, Skippy, and of course, Little Nemo. All of them were made with a virtuosic care and skill that wouldn't survive to the 1940s.

And they were regarded by most of the public as fish wrap. Yes, some of them survived and were reprinted, but many were not. And what Sketch was doing, at least for himself as much for Crinkle Cut, was keeping their spirit alive. I should also comment here that Crinkle Cut is their potato chip account as the ad agency.

STEWART: Echoes of "Mad Men," but while an early 1960s ad agency does take center stage for much of the book "The Learners," Kidd plunges his main character, a young art assistant named Happy, into darker territory. The book is set in New Haven, Connecticut, at the same time that Stanley Milgram is conducting his famous psychological experiment at Yale. Milgram's experiment was designed to test obedience to authority.

In it, he solicited volunteers who were asked to administer a shock to another person and when that person answered a word matching question incorrectly, the volunteers were told the experiment was designed to test memory and learning. What they didn't say was the man who was receiving the shock was actually an actor and not in any pain at all.

Mr. KIDD: I found out about Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments the way most people probably did of my generation. In college, Psych 101, at Penn State, and it completely changed - I wasn't the same after I saw them. I thought they were so ingeniously constructed, and I was - at the time I was deciding that I was going to be a designer. And it was the design of the experiments, ultimately that really opened my eyes to the way design can work. And that is, frankly, though deception.

What happened with these experiments is there was an advertisement that ran in the New Haven Register in 1961 and it said, we will pay you four dollars for an hour of your time to test your memory. And it was all an act. Of course, what they were really studying was you. They were studying to see how far would you go, given the idea that this guy in a lab coat with a clipboard at Yale would tell you, it's our responsibility, don't worry about it. The shock line, I think, was the shocks are painful, but not fatal. Painful, but not fatal.

STEWART: That's a wide range between painful and not fatal.

Mr. KIDD: I know, and I mean, of course, if you knew anything about electricity, you know, a 300-volt shock will pretty much kill you. And it went up to 450.

STEWART: We have, actually, a little bit of audio from the original experiment. Let's take a listen to that.

(Soundbite of experiment)

Unidentified Man #1: Red.

Unidentified Man #2: That is incorrect.

Unidentified Man #1: This will be at 330.

(Soundbite of electric shock)

(Soundbite of man screaming in pain.)

Unidentified Man #1: The correct phrase is "rich boy."

Unidentified Man #2: Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My head's bothering me. Let me out, I tell you. Let me out.

STEWART: So, the experiments, for you, can you make the leap from an ad agency to those experiments?

Mr. KIDD: That's what reviewers have been doing. I guess - this is going to make me sound like an idiot. I guess that's what I'm saying. There is this weird parallel between selling potato chips and eradicating a section of the human race. Believe it or not, at least to me, Milgram's parents fled Poland in the '30s to survive. And that haunted him his whole life, that had they stayed, he said, I would have been, at ten years old, I would have been in a camp somewhere, and I would have died. And I think in his mind, he wanted to make sense of this, and of course, you can't really.

But he came pretty damn close. I mean, he recreated the tenor of Nazi Germany in New Haven in 1961. And of course, a further twist to this story is that even though the experiments became instantly world famous, but they were almost universally condemned because the experiments themselves were deemed immediately to be unethical because he was putting his subjects in this position of killing another person, and you know, that he was putting, quote, "undue stress" on these people. So, in a weird way, he kind of fell victim to his own genius.

STEWART: The ethics of the experiment makes me wonder if you struggled ever with the ethics of presenting an image which maybe the book doesn't live up to, or the product doesn't live up to.

Mr. KIDD: Well, I'm in a very sort of lucky position that way. I'm doing a cover for "No Country for Old Men" to try and get more people to read it. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, I think it's a great book. So I'm very lucky. There are a lot of people - I mean, one of the deviations between Happy and me is even though I interned at an ad agency at his age, a very podunk little mom-and-pop shop, as things go, I've never had to basically sell an idea or sell a product that I don't believe in.

STEWART: You mentioned that - you obviously have studied graphic design. Can you look at anything out there - when you're walking on the street and you see street signs and advertisements and awnings of bodegas, can you look at these things and not think about design? Are you able to turn that off?

Mr. KIDD: Of course not. I can't figure out why that NPR logo - ah, there we go. I was going to say, why doesn't it line up with the panel board? I thought it was affixed to the thing. And I think it's an interesting logo. I instantly think about who designed that and how they arrived at what they arrived. A lot of what you don't know when you look at a piece of design is perhaps it's not what the designer intended, but it was a compromise that a lot of people arrived at. And what would it look like if the designer had their own way, and did exactly what they wanted.

STEWART: That would be a great book of original designs like that.

Mr. KIDD: Yeah.

STEWART: Chip Kidd, the name of the book is "The Learners." Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. KIDD: Well, thank you.

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