A Little Chip Kidd is Always a Fun Thing

April 8, 2013 at 9:39 am Leave a comment

DSC_0267_med_Chip_KiddChip Kidd ’86 is one of our favorite Penn Staters. We’ve profiled him in the magazine a couple of times, and I try never to miss a chance to hear him speak.

To describe him merely as a designer of book jackets is pretty inadequate—something I discovered some years back when I was speaking to a group of Lion Ambassadors and telling them about some famous Penn Staters. I said, “And then there’s Chip Kidd, probably the world’s foremost book-jacket designer,” and they all looked at one another as if I had scraped pretty far down the barrel to come up with that one.

But the reality is that he’s pretty much legendary in the design world, and that in his career at Alfred A. Knopf he’s worked with some big-name authors (including Michael Crichton, John Updike, and Oliver Sacks), and that he’s a terrific speaker—not only inspirational but also funny as hell. If you’ve got 17 minutes to spare, watch his 2012 TED talk and you’ll see.

Anyway, I went out to the Penn Stater conference center last week to hear Chip speak at the Forum Luncheon, and he didn’t disappoint. I’m not going to try to give you a comprehensive overview of his talk, but here are a few nuggets:

—He referred to his more-than-25-year career at Knopf as “technically, still my first job out of school.”

—He summed up his philosophy of design in a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Try. Fail. Try Again. Fail Better.”

Oliver_Sacks_Minds_Eye—He showed the evolution of some of his book-jacket designs and talked about the many layers of people who have to approve the design. He was surprised that his design for Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye (shown here) wasn’t shot down by the reps who would be out selling the book: “All it takes is one sales rep to say, ‘It looks like O. Liver Sacks,’ and it’s dead.”

—Someone asked where he got his loud striped jacket. “Four British schoolboys gave their lives so I could have this jacket,” he answered. “Well done, lads.” (Actually, he said, he saw it hanging in the window at a Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.)

—He talked a lot about the education he got at Penn State, and one piece of advice from Lanny Sommese, head of the university’s graphic design program, stood out for me: “Lanny taught me that the better you understand a problem, the closer you are to the solution.”

—Asked if he ever met Julia Child (one of the authors Knopf published), he straightened his shoulders and said, proudly, “I once got Julia Child a Diet Coke.”

Neil Gaiman—He talked about two upcoming projects: One is a book about design for kids, the other is a book version of author Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech, a commencement speech last year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. And Kidd quotes a thought from Gaiman’s speech that really jumped out at me. It’s about freelance designers, but it applies to all of us in the working world, I think:

People keep working, in a freelance world … because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Kidd talked about the challenge of turning a graduation speech into a book, especially when you can already watch the speech on YouTube or read a transcript of it online. But, judging from the images he shared from the book (which is due out in May), I suspect it’ll do just fine.

One of Chip Kidd’s next speaking engagements is an Alumni Association “City Lights” event in New York City on May 9. Information about that is here.

Tina Hay, editor

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