Articles, Blog

The hilarious art of book design | Chip Kidd

November 5, 2019

Hi. (Laughter) I did that for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to give you a good visual first impression. But the main reason I did it is that that’s what happens to me when I’m forced to wear a Lady Gaga skanky mic. (Laughter) I’m used to a stationary mic. It’s the sensible shoe of public address. (Laughter) But you clamp this thing on my head, and something happens. I just become skanky. (Laughter) So I’m sorry about that. And I’m already off-message. (Laughter) Ladies and gentlemen, I have devoted the past 25 years of my life to designing books. (“Yes, BOOKS. You know, the bound volumes with ink on paper. You cannot turn them off with a switch. Tell your kids.”) It all sort of started as a benign mistake, like penicillin. (Laughter) What I really wanted was to be a graphic designer at one of the big design firms in New York City. But upon arrival there, in the fall of 1986, and doing a lot of interviews, I found that the only thing I was offered was to be Assistant to the Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, a book publisher. Now I was stupid, but not so stupid that I turned it down. I had absolutely no idea what I was about to become part of, and I was incredibly lucky. Soon, it had occurred to me what my job was. My job was to ask this question: “What do the stories look like?” Because that is what Knopf is. It is the story factory, one of the very best in the world. We bring stories to the public. The stories can be anything, and some of them are actually true. But they all have one thing in common: They all need to look like something. They all need a face. Why? To give you a first impression of what you are about to get into. A book designer gives form to content, but also manages a very careful balance between the two. Now, the first day of my graphic design training at Penn State University, the teacher, Lanny Sommese, came into the room and he drew a picture of an apple on the blackboard, and wrote the word “Apple” underneath, and he said, “OK. Lesson one. Listen up.” And he covered up the picture and he said, “You either say this,” and then he covered up the word, “or you show this. But you don’t do this.” Because this is treating your audience like a moron. (Laughter) And they deserve better. And lo and behold, soon enough, I was able to put this theory to the test on two books that I was working on for Knopf. The first was Katharine Hepburn’s memoirs, and the second was a biography of Marlene Dietrich. Now the Hepburn book was written in a very conversational style, it was like she was sitting across a table telling it all to you. The Dietrich book was an observation by her daughter; it was a biography. So the Hepburn story is words and the Dietrich story is pictures, and so we did this. So there you are. Pure content and pure form, side by side. No fighting, ladies. (“What’s a Jurassic Park?”) Now, what is the story here? Someone is re-engineering dinosaurs by extracting their DNA from prehistoric amber. Genius! (Laughter) Now, luckily for me, I live and work in New York City, where there are plenty of dinosaurs. (Laughter) So, I went to the Museum of Natural History, and I checked out the bones, and I went to the gift shop, and I bought a book. And I was particularly taken with this page of the book, and more specifically the lower right-hand corner. Now I took this diagram, and I put it in a Photostat machine, (Laughter) and I took a piece of tracing paper, and I taped it over the Photostat with a piece of Scotch tape — stop me if I’m going too fast — (Laughter) — and then I took a Rapidograph pen — explain it to the youngsters — (Laughter) and I just started to reconstitute the dinosaur. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea where I was going, but at some point, I stopped — when to keep going would seem like I was going too far. And what I ended up with was a graphic representation of us seeing this animal coming into being. We’re in the middle of the process. And then I just threw some typography on it. Very basic stuff, slightly suggestive of public park signage. (Laughter) Everybody in house loved it, and so off it goes to the author. And even back then, Michael was on the cutting edge. (“Michael Crichton responds by fax:”) (“Wow! Fucking Fantastic Jacket”) (Laughter) (Applause) That was a relief to see that pour out of the machine. (Laughter) I miss Michael. And sure enough, somebody from MCA Universal calls our legal department to see if they can maybe look into buying the rights to the image, just in case they might want to use it. Well, they used it. (Laughter) (Applause) And I was thrilled. We all know it was an amazing movie, and it was so interesting to see it go out into the culture and become this phenomenon and to see all the different permutations of it. But not too long ago, I came upon this on the Web. No, that is not me. But whoever it is, I can’t help but thinking they woke up one day like, “Oh my God, that wasn’t there last night. Ooooohh! I was so wasted.” (Laughter) But if you think about it, from my head to my hands to his leg. (Laughter) That’s a responsibility. And it’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. The book designer’s responsibility is threefold: to the reader, to the publisher and, most of all, to the author. I want you to look at the author’s book and say, “Wow! I need to read that.” David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, and the title essay in this collection is about his trip to a nudist colony. And the reason he went is because he had a fear of his body image, and he wanted to explore what was underlying that. For me, it was simply an excuse to design a book that you could literally take the pants off of. But when you do, you don’t get what you expect. You get something that goes much deeper than that. And David especially loved this design because at book signings, which he does a lot of, he could take a magic marker and do this. (Laughter) Hello! (Laughter) Augusten Burroughs wrote a memoir called [“Dry”], and it’s about his time in rehab. In his 20s, he was a hotshot ad executive, and as Mad Men has told us, a raging alcoholic. He did not think so, however, but his coworkers did an intervention and they said, “You are going to rehab, or you will be fired and you will die.” Now to me, this was always going to be a typographic solution, what I would call the opposite of Type 101. What does that mean? Usually on the first day of Introduction to Typography, you get the assignment of, select a word and make it look like what it says it is. So that’s Type 101, right? Very simple stuff. This is going to be the opposite of that. I want this book to look like it’s lying to you, desperately and hopelessly, the way an alcoholic would. The answer was the most low-tech thing you can imagine. I set up the type, I printed it out on an Epson printer with water-soluble ink, taped it to the wall and threw a bucket of water at it. Presto! Then when we went to press, the printer put a spot gloss on the ink and it really looked like it was running. Not long after it came out, Augusten was waylaid in an airport and he was hiding out in the bookstore spying on who was buying his books. And this woman came up to it, and she squinted, and she took it to the register, and she said to the man behind the counter, “This one’s ruined.” (Laughter) And the guy behind the counter said, “I know, lady. They all came in that way.” (Laughter) Now, that’s a good printing job. A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku, if you will, of the story. This particular story by Osama Tezuka is his epic life of the Buddha, and it’s eight volumes in all. But the best thing is when it’s on your shelf, you get a shelf life of the Buddha, moving from one age to the next. All of these solutions derive their origins from the text of the book, but once the book designer has read the text, then he has to be an interpreter and a translator. This story was a real puzzle. This is what it’s about. (“Intrigue and murder among 16th century Ottoman court painters.”) (Laughter) All right, so I got a collection of the paintings together and I looked at them and I deconstructed them and I put them back together. And so, here’s the design, right? And so here’s the front and the spine, and it’s flat. But the real story starts when you wrap it around a book and put it on the shelf. Ahh! We come upon them, the clandestine lovers. Let’s draw them out. Huhh! They’ve been discovered by the sultan. He will not be pleased. Huhh! And now the sultan is in danger. And now, we have to open it up to find out what’s going to happen next. Try experiencing that on a Kindle. (Laughter) Don’t get me started. Seriously. Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness — a little bit of humanity. Do you know what John Updike used to do the first thing when he would get a copy of one of his new books from Alfred A. Knopf? He’d smell it. Then he’d run his hand over the rag paper, and the pungent ink and the deckled edges of the pages. All those years, all those books, he never got tired of it. Now, I am all for the iPad, but trust me — smelling it will get you nowhere. (Laughter) Now the Apple guys are texting, “Develop odor emission plug-in.” (Laughter) And the last story I’m going to talk about is quite a story. A woman named Aomame in 1984 Japan finds herself negotiating down a spiral staircase off an elevated highway. When she gets to the bottom, she can’t help but feel that, all of a sudden, she’s entered a new reality that’s just slightly different from the one that she left, but very similar, but different. And so, we’re talking about parallel planes of existence, sort of like a book jacket and the book that it covers. So how do we show this? We go back to Hepburn and Dietrich, but now we merge them. So we’re talking about different planes, different pieces of paper. So this is on a semi-transparent piece of velum. It’s one part of the form and content. When it’s on top of the paper board, which is the opposite, it forms this. So even if you don’t know anything about this book, you are forced to consider a single person straddling two planes of existence. And the object itself invited exploration interaction, consideration and touch. This debuted at number two on the New York Times Best Seller list. This is unheard of, both for us the publisher, and the author. We’re talking a 900-page book that is as weird as it is compelling, and featuring a climactic scene in which a horde of tiny people emerge from the mouth of a sleeping girl and cause a German Shepherd to explode. (Laughter) Not exactly Jackie Collins. Fourteen weeks on the Best Seller list, eight printings, and still going strong. So even though we love publishing as an art, we very much know it’s a business too, and that if we do our jobs right and get a little lucky, that great art can be great business. So that’s my story. To be continued. What does it look like? Yes. It can, it does and it will, but for this book designer, page-turner, dog-eared place-holder, notes in the margins-taker, ink-sniffer, the story looks like this. Thank you. (Applause)


  • Reply Wheat Germ June 3, 2019 at 12:13 am

    I hope that all the self-publishing authors out there take note: your self-made cover design really *sucks*. This is not a job for amateurs. Step away from the script and seek professional help.

  • Reply Steven Corley June 3, 2019 at 4:58 pm


  • Reply Scumbigula June 3, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    the worst part is that the trex skeleton was incredibly outdated

  • Reply Melaa Ramirez June 4, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    This ted talk is equal to an advertisement sold as "new and profound philosophy". But it is just a dude asking for people to continuing buying books because of his job and reasons. But he is adorable

  • Reply jl smith June 5, 2019 at 3:12 am

    I love the smell of books. The older the book the better.

  • Reply Aric Wood June 5, 2019 at 3:44 am

    Love it when Wes Anderson directs a TedTalk

  • Reply Lucieniibi June 5, 2019 at 3:45 am

    Ended up only watching a little, because even at 2x speed he still wasn't able to get to the point.

  • Reply SleepWoke June 5, 2019 at 4:29 am


  • Reply magicbuskey June 5, 2019 at 5:10 am

    What a cool character!

  • Reply TheTillinger123 June 5, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    So exhausting to watch. His designs are´nt bad but the way he presents himself is very taxing.

  • Reply James Shelnutt June 5, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    his glasses are crooked

  • Reply Muarif Sumahar June 5, 2019 at 8:07 pm

    that one weird uncle

  • Reply NoBigDeal 18 June 6, 2019 at 12:34 am

    U gay.

  • Reply Sevish June 6, 2019 at 8:03 am

    Excellent book covers, I would have liked to see more examples of them in this talk.

  • Reply lennier1 June 6, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    Mad as a hatter and proud of it, gotta love that guy!

  • Reply Käse Vernichter June 6, 2019 at 3:41 pm

    He really is not funny but interesting

  • Reply Rebecca E. Webber June 6, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    Best personality on TED!

    P.S. One of my students got a tattoo of my first company's logo on their wrist to remind her to always love herself first. Maybe not as cool as a dinosaur on your leg, but still pretty cool!

  • Reply 52memor June 7, 2019 at 9:24 am

    This guy is hilarious and informative

  • Reply typograf62 June 7, 2019 at 6:47 pm

    Two years ago I found a book on sewing techniques at the recycling dumpster (impossible to translate but reuse is allowed and encouraged). It was old, 2. WW, shirtings cover. I got it home and smelled it. I know that book! And sure enough, I already had a copy. So I returned it so that somebody else might get a chance.

    Penguin had a book for sale. It's title was not shown on the cover, it was covered with a block of black ink. I instantly knew the title – only one book fits such a cover. So I bought it.

  • Reply delirium 341 June 8, 2019 at 9:03 am

    He's soooo not funny -_- still, interesting talk

  • Reply lusia permita sari June 8, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    Creative presentation for a creative mind.. gotta love this guy!

  • Reply John Blyth - Composer, writer June 8, 2019 at 6:58 pm

    Brilliant man. Captivating performance.

  • Reply Faustin Gashakamba June 8, 2019 at 8:05 pm

    I am simple man. I download templates on google and Bam, I have my book cover ready for printing. I have no time for all this nonsense!

  • Reply Overworked CNA June 10, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    What a funny, unique, thoughtful guy. This was so enjoyable!

  • Reply Serai3 June 10, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    Thank you, Chip, for being a standard bearer for REAL BOOKS.

  • Reply Marie Loiseau June 11, 2019 at 10:11 am

    His suit looks like he's trying real hard to be an anime.

  • Reply Duke Makedo June 11, 2019 at 6:11 pm

    He makes a bad first impression. Dumb shoes for an outfit that includes a jacket. Dumb jacket. Crooked, broken eyeglasses. Jarring haircut.

  • Reply glebeboi June 11, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    make me wear a skanky Lady Gaga mic. Funny cos they used to be referred to as Madonna mics. The comparison battles continue on. lol

  • Reply aquasun3 June 12, 2019 at 1:22 am

    Tough Crowd

  • Reply Stephanie McKinney June 12, 2019 at 9:31 pm

    absolutely fantastic!!!

  • Reply Phil Courteney June 13, 2019 at 8:27 am

    One thing with TED talks from the more comic speakers…that ONE PERSON who's unique laugh is just that liiiiiiittle bit too loud and quick on the jokes. Now I've said it, listen out for it, you'll know who I'm talking about 😉

  • Reply Kathryn McGehee June 14, 2019 at 1:19 am

    He's one of my art heroes. I was lucky enough to listen to him speak with a handful of graphic design students when I was in college. Most fun lecture I've voluntarily attended.

  • Reply Fantastic Situation June 14, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    i more so clicked on this cause hes called chip kidd

  • Reply Funny Geeks June 14, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    Dude talks a little slow, watch at 1.5+ speed.

  • Reply CrisMelo DotCom June 15, 2019 at 5:18 am

    why is the volume so low?

  • Reply Joe Lee June 15, 2019 at 5:37 pm

    I'm glad to hear anyone speak well of books and, or their covers.

  • Reply magnusm4 June 16, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    I know that sensation. Smell of new cut grass, a burning kindling fire, a new tool of metal, new fresh rubber on a tool, a new book, paint and the pavement when it's still being placed

  • Reply A Frica June 17, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    To be fair, that dinosaur design didn't come from his head but from someone else's scientific sketch.

  • Reply Karl Vincent Garcia Castro June 18, 2019 at 3:28 am

    Anyone noticed how J.M.W. Turner is enjoying the scene from the characters of My Name is Red

  • Reply Lim Xin Hui June 18, 2019 at 9:13 am

    i don't understand why the covers of hepburn and dietrich are that way? can someone help me?

  • Reply Kristoffer Nagel June 18, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    that flamboyant cover designer giving me some Robin Williams vibes here 12:43

  • Reply Amanda F June 18, 2019 at 7:15 pm

    Liked the video as soon as he did his "skanky dance" lol

  • Reply louiecastle June 18, 2019 at 7:34 pm

    I think you probably had to have been there …

  • Reply Dubstep Coast June 18, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    This one was the best I've experienced

  • Reply Nadya Goncharuk June 19, 2019 at 5:51 am


  • Reply vealck June 19, 2019 at 3:43 pm

    So much overinterpretation of very basic designs.

  • Reply DustinJJ98 June 20, 2019 at 4:16 am

    his glasses on lean

  • Reply Wolf Lahti June 20, 2019 at 7:15 am

    This guy thinks he is more clever than he is.

  • Reply D. Aardentvarkitage June 21, 2019 at 11:20 am

    He gets his jackets tailored at same shop as Capt.Kangaroo.

  • Reply The Proxy June 22, 2019 at 8:30 am

    I would love him to talk about really bad book covers. Like all those teen novels with the same looking girls on the cover.

  • Reply Anthony Griffin June 22, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    My father always said "Never judge a book by its cover" – which is why he lost his job as Chair of The National Book Cover Awards. (joke copyright Stewart Lee, not me)

  • Reply gekkeredon June 22, 2019 at 5:11 pm

    great talk but not a fan of his book covers. Pinguin has the best designers!

  • Reply William Zwicky June 22, 2019 at 7:42 pm

    12:53 "Try experiencing that on a Kindle." Sorry buddy, I just did. 🙁

  • Reply Ryan Harper & The Lunas June 23, 2019 at 4:14 am

    Dry and 1Q84 are two of my favorite books, and the art is what convinced me to pick them up!

  • Reply ThePlasticJones June 23, 2019 at 6:46 am

    Superb presentation!

  • Reply xl June 23, 2019 at 11:22 am

    One of the fakest job I know

  • Reply 57thorns June 23, 2019 at 10:34 pm

    The part about the Dry cover is really a good example of knowing enough about the rules and why they are there to break the rules in a way that works.

  • Reply Rex Benny June 24, 2019 at 12:24 pm


  • Reply Dariya Tukhmetova June 25, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    wow, such a great speech. I have never thought about people behind book cover. He made very simple and clear appreciation for book cover designers. thank you very much TED inviting mr Chip Kidd

  • Reply DKT1970 June 25, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    He's good

  • Reply Sanjana N June 25, 2019 at 10:18 pm

    he's like an animated character

  • Reply Angela Em July 6, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    What an excellent speaker with such peculiar humour! And the theme of the talk is very appealing to me, book design in a funny mode speaker mood, yey! 📘💖🤣👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

  • Reply Ground Hog July 9, 2019 at 11:58 am

    Great talk…his glasses were hypnotic…were we all just hyp…¥π®bg.*…never mind.

  • Reply Luke Teichert July 9, 2019 at 7:53 pm

    So many questions:
    Why are people laughing?
    What's up with his glasses?
    Why are people laughing?
    Why is a headset skanky?

  • Reply LRGonzales August 2, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    I wish he'd intonate some of these sentences differently

  • Reply angle fromsky August 11, 2019 at 9:47 am

    One guy in the audience was paid to laugh out loud, and he did it very well

  • Reply Momento Mori September 28, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    Lesson?: make a joke, doesn't matter bad or good, stop talking, stare hard at the audience, wait for them to laugh (and if they didn't, u stare harder), and then proceed, with a nother joke, doesn't matter good or bad.

  • Reply Randy Dunbar October 10, 2019 at 9:02 pm

    Insightful and motivating.:-]

  • Reply Beyin Bedava October 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm

    Anyone interested in book designing should check it out

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