Chip Kidd had a profound effect on the modern novel long before he ever sat down to write one. In the late ’80s, Kidd joined the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf as a junior design assistant, where he soon exhibited a gift for book jacket design. If you’ve ever gazed at the cover of Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park, you’ve witnessed Kidd’s genius. The image — of a silhouetted dinosaur skeleton — was his brainchild, and it proved so iconic that it graced the posters for the subsequent film adaptation.
Kidd is now associate art director at Knopf. Working primarily, though not exclusively, for Knopf, he has produced some of the most arresting book wrappers of the last two decades — from the eerie sunset on the cover of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2003) to the vibrant vortex on Dean Koontz’s Intensity (1996) to the stream of water resisting gravity’s pull on Augusten Burroughs’s 2004 memoir Magical Thinking. More than anyone, Chip Kidd has been responsible for elevating book design from a craft to an art.
There’s little doubt of Kidd’s bona fides as a designer, but his new novel, The Learners, shows that he has also evolved into a skilled raconteur. Set in 1961, the book concerns the advertising apprenticeship of a young graphic designer named Happy. The novel is a sequel to Kidd’s exceptional 2001 debut, The Cheese Monkeys, an academic satire that followed Happy through art school, where he fell in love with graphic design and fell under the sway of a lecturer and ideologue named Winter Sorbeck. In The Learners, Happy attempts to retrace the steps of his erstwhile prof, beginning at the New Haven, Conn., ad agency where Sorbeck made his mark.
Brimming with meticulous period detail and clever asides about design, The Learners follows Happy’s wily attempts to re-brand a potato chip maker (Krinkle Kutt) and a shoe manufacturer (Buckle Shoes). But the book has a darker aspect, too. Through a combination of curiosity and circumstance, Happy becomes a participant in a sinister study of human psychology at nearby Yale University.
“I had always intended to extend the narrative of Happy,” says Kidd during a recent phone interview from the Knopf offices in New York. “The inspiration was the obedience experiments of Stanley Milgram. I had intended to write about [the experiments] all along, but I kept doing backstory, which led to The Cheese Monkeys. I kept putting off the Milgram experiments to do The Cheese Monkeys, because that was inspired by my college experience, and I wanted to bring all that into it as well.”
Stanley Milgram was a 28-year-old Harvard graduate who in 1961 initiated a controversial, though illuminating, study. In Milgram’s now-famous experiment, two individuals were separated by a one-way mirror. One person was designated the “learner,” the other the “teacher”; a third person stood by to advise the teacher. On the surface, the experiment was a word-matching exercise, and every time the learner made a mistake, the supervisor directed the teacher to administer an electrical shock. The zaps started at a mild 15 volts; however, as the wrong answers built up, so did the potency of each shock (up to a devastating 450 volts). Regardless of how loudly the learner screamed, the supervisor would instruct the teacher to continue.
No one actually got zapped — the electrodes were mere props, the learner simply a convincing actor. But the teachers didn’t know that. The experiment showed that most people would visibly harm another individual if told to do so by a seeming authority. As Happy discovers, Milgram’s study demonstrates the power of suggestion, a shadowy principle that underlies something as harmless as an ad — or as perverse as genocide.
Kidd says the book is “a metaphor for the way advertising can work and the way advertisers and agencies have a tremendous responsibility because of the — almost literally now — viral ways that their messages are disseminated to society.”
Given the amoral nature of advertising, I couldn’t resist asking Kidd — a man who knows the power of words and images — to identify an ad that really infuriated him. “An ad campaign that really, really made me angry — and it was a couple of years ago — was for the U.S. Army. It was for a branch of the U.S. armed forces, and if you weren’t really paying attention, it looked like a really exciting ad for a video game. It was just shocking. Basically, it was, ‘Sign up for the armed forces and your life will be this adventure that’s like a video game.’ I just thought, how sad that someone could believe that. I just thought that was egregiously irresponsible.”
The Learners sounds some ominous notes about human nature, but the tone of the novel is mostly tart humour. Kidd cites Vladimir Nabokov and J.D. Salinger as literary heroes, and he writes with the same timeless wit. The Learners not only evokes the early ‘60s; it could have been written in that time period.
“I’ve heard, ‘Wow, he gets the tone of that time just right’ and I’ve heard, ‘No, this is too late-twentieth-century hipster for this time period,’” Kidd says, citing some of his reviews. “I grew up in the ‘70s, and I was a TV kid, I was a TV addict. A lot of that ‘50s dialogue is inspired by [reruns of] I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver and all of those shows set in that time period. Obviously, the dialogue for those shows isn’t necessarily realistic, but setting that tone of exactly that moment where, you know, people weren’t swearing left and right and that kind of thing, that interests me. The dialect interests me, and [I] certainly [draw inspiration] from the way my parents spoke, and speak. Like, ‘Holy smoke!’ or ‘Jumpin’ cats!’ I love to collect phrases and things that speak of a certain time.”
Indeed, Kidd’s entire persona — his circular glasses, his pomaded hair, his mincing, Buster Keaton-like mien and his obsession with vintage comics — seems anachronistic. His most treasured possessions include his collection of art deco furniture and astonishing array of Batman paraphernalia. “I’ve furnished most of my home with objects from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s,” Kidd confesses. “If a certain thing is new, I’m really not interested in it.”
Despite the poise and liveliness of his prose, Kidd says that for him, writing shares some qualities with electroshock therapy. “It’s awful — it doesn’t come easily to me at all. And I’ve got so much else to do. The design does, for the most part, come easily, and I find it, frankly, to be a more enjoyable experience. The writing, especially of the second book, wasn’t fun, really; a little bit, but really not much at all. It was for me quite painful. And then I was worried that it would read that way, because I want it to have a fun, involving quality as opposed to it being just a sludge trek, which is what it felt like writing it.”
Of all of his clever book jackets, Kidd’s designs for his own two novels may be the most impressive. The hardcover versions of both The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners feature stylized cartoon renderings, clever typographical touches and intricately cut jackets. The Cheese Monkeys memorably featured the words “Good Is Dead” emblazoned on the side of the book opposite the spine; the phrase has become something of a tagline for Kidd.
“[Good Is Dead] appears on the website; it doesn’t appear on the [new] book itself, but it looms as sort of a ghost message,” Kidd says. “In The Cheese Monkeys, it means you should strive to be great; don’t settle for good enough, try to be better. In the context of The Learners, ‘Good Is Dead’ starts to mean that the basic goodness of humanity is perhaps not as good as we thought it was. That’s basically what Happy learns — and what Milgram basically proves.”
The Learners is published by Simon & Schuster and is in stores now.
Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.