8 Tips for Designers from Chip Kidd

For 30 years, Chip Kidd has come to define good book design. The New York-based designer is widely recognized for his compelling book jackets, is a book cover designer at Ransom House and a winner of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award. They also call him the rock star of the dust jacket. He designs more than 70 book covers a year.

He’s also the author of several books himself, including a philosophical design how-to called Go: A Kid’s Guide to Graphic Design. He has designed book covers for famed writers like Bret Easton Ellis, author of “American Psycho,” Michael Crichton, who wrote “Jurassic Park,” and Cormac McCarthy, known for “All the Pretty Horses,” as well as titles for David Sedaris, Samuel Beckett and Haruki Murakami.

An icon in his own right—and former cover star for PRINT magazine—Kidd is always dishing advice to young designers and artists on what he wish he knew when starting out. Here are his best tips on designing books, his theory and why design is like poetry.

  1. Trust Your Intuition. Kidd says his responsibility as a designer is to combine a look with the meaning a book tries to convey—it’s a complex, somewhat intangible idea that drives his ideas. And it ties into starting off by judging a book by its cover, as cliché as that sounds. “If I don’t know anything about this particular book, and I saw this cover, how would I perceive it?” he asks. “What would make me want to pick up that book and read it?”
  2. Don’t Be Too Obvious. Before Kidd designs a book cover, he reads a manuscript, then interprets the story and translates it visually. “You get a manuscript and you cut through what you’re not going to focus on,” he says. “When I’m working on a cover for a book called ‘City on Fire,’ I’m not going to show a city on fire. It’s like going back to drawing an apple and writing the word ‘apple,’ underneath, you don’t need both.”

  3. Narrow Things Down. “Limits are possibilities because they help you focus your thoughts and your talents,” Kidd says, who sometimes problem solves book covers by limiting the design process to one typeface and one color. “That frees you up because … then you don’t have to worry about what typeface or color you should use. I can think more about how I can use those things.”
  4. Design a Metaphorical Face to the World. Most publishers will tell you that book cover design is the most important marketing tool for it to sell. “Finished books need a face, the book cover provides a first impression on what the reader is about to get into,” said Kidd. “A book designer gives form to content.”
  5. Be Candid and Clear. “There are two ways to illustrate a concept, with clarity and mystery,” says Kidd. “Clarity means revealing the message all at once. Mystery is making the viewer search for the meaning.” In his book covers, he combines both.
  6. Stay on Point. “I think the main thing to keep in mind is that I am creating something that is in service to another creation,” says Kidd. He recognizes that the words inside of the book are the true content, but the design helps it along. “I help it get some attention, but the text is not in service to me. It’s the other way around.”
  7. Solve the Problem. “Solve the problem by first defining the problem,” says Kidd. “And find the solution in that. I know that sounds elliptical but I do believe it’s true—what you want to look for is a job where they want you for their ideas. Despite computer programs, technology can’t think up ideas. You need to come up with conceptual ideas for problem solving.”
  8. Keep it Simple. Where many designers go wrong today is overcomplicating things when they don’t need to be. “A book cover is a distillation,” says Kidd. “It’s a ‘haiku’ of the story. Ask yourself this question, ‘What do the stories look like?’” Kidd claims he isn’t an expert on haiku, but says it’s a strict form of getting a message across in a minimal way. “I think the front of a book cover also does that,” he says. “What you’re aiming for is some kind of visual distillation of the text inside that will entice a potential reader to want to pick up the book and hopefully buy it.”

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