Look and Feel

Influential graphic designer Chip Kidd on clarity, mystery, and why you shouldn’t want attendees to go away completely satisfied at the end of your event.

TED_kidd_coverSometimes it seems that all paths lead to or from TED. Chip Kidd’s new book does. The rock-star graphic designer, who ushered in a new age of bold, creative book design at Alfred A. Knopf, where he’s worked since 1986, gave a TED Talk called “The Hilarious Art of Book Design” at TED 2012. Not long after, he was asked to art-direct TED Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint that launched in September 2014.

“In the middle of that process, they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you [write] one?’” Kidd said in a recent interview with Convene. “I thought, well, okay. Then I had to figure out what it was going to be, and so it was an interesting process of really figuring out what the book was.”

The result was Judge This, which in breezy, deceptively concise fashion examines the literal art of the first impression. In 125 pop-art pages, Kidd — who in addition to designing hundreds of titles for Knopf has done work for DC Comics and written two novels — explores the design of binder clips (“simplicity and elegance”), a New York City subway sign (“not as clear as it could be”), the credits text on a movie poster (“nearly indecipherable”), a Diet Coke can (“mysterious in the best possible way”), his own prolific output in book publishing, and much more. Throughout, he explores the relationship between “the two most effective and fascinating aspects of first impressions”: clarity and mystery. Both elements, he told Convene, play a role in the visual design of meetings and conventions.

Have you always consciously thought of your approach to design as involving  this push and pull between clarity and mystery, or is this book something that helped you work that out?

The copout answer is both. Since I do book covers for all sorts of books, sometimes especially with the fiction and the poetry, you really need some mystery there, I think, to draw people into it. Then I found, or I rediscovered the idea as somebody who lives and works in New York City — there are so many different kinds of design that should be clear and just aren’t. Especially on the web. I still get confused by most websites, especially the really important ones.

What are your hard-and-fast rules? Is it fair to say you need clarity when there’s a message that you really want to communicate?

Right. Clarity is most important when the information is vital: How do I get out of this room if there’s a fire? Simple things, but really, really important: How do I use my phone? How do I use my computer? I have a problem, how do I fix it? That kind of stuff. All of that really needs to be clear.

chip kiddIt seems like it’s not quite so obvious when or how you’re supposed to use mystery.

Mystery is wanted, I think, for more of the sort of fun side of things. Movie-teaser trailers are probably one of the best examples that we see all the time, or that I’m into. J.J. Abrams has built a career on this, and a brilliant one. You know, [the Abrams-created TV show] “Lost” — what is it? With narratives, to hold onto your audience, mystery is really, really important. Giving them just enough information to make conclusions on their own, or to want to know more or stick around for more, or come back next week for more, etc. A huge, huge part of the entertainment industry is built around mystery.

You’re a frequent speaker and participant at conferences and trade shows. Do you have any thoughts about the design you see there?

Again, there’s the practical things. For example, this weekend I’m going to the Texas Book Festival. I’m a guest there. When I get there, will I know where to go? Will I know where I need to be? Is there some kind of concise map? Practical things like that.

I was just at New York Comic Con this past weekend for four days. That’s a very interesting problem for them — that you’ve got this huge space; you’ve got over a hundred thousand people there basically at one time. How do you move people in and out? I think they’re really good at some of it and they’re really not at some of it, but I think some of that is just a huge logistical issue. It’s just mundane things, like where is Room 1E, which I needed to be in two minutes ago?

Then there’s aesthetics. That’s a whole other issue. How does our booth look? Is it clear what we do? Are we giving away candy, and that makes everyone crowd around it?

Comic conventions are interesting environments, because so much of that experience is visual, with all of these pops of color and gigantic signs on the show floor. Do some of the exhibits themselves overwhelm the baseline information that the organizers are trying to communicate?

I would need to look at specific examples. I mean, [conventions can run into problems with] really simple things like, there’s a huge line here — what is this line for? Or, there’s a ton of lines and they’re crisscrossing. I was doing a signing [at a trade show] and the publisher took my book and stood out in the middle of the aisle across from where I was signing and just sort of held it up. It was like a carnival barker: “He’s signing for the next hour here.” I really, frankly, appreciated that.

Judge This is about the importance of first impressions. Is that something that meeting planners should be keeping top of mind as they’re designing their programs?

I only know how to speak in generalities, in terms of: Get people’s attention right away and then hold onto it. When you’re done with whatever you have to say, they should want more — but there will be no more, but they should want more. That sounds very simple, but I’ve seen so many presentations where by the end of it you just think, enough already, stop it. Give me a beginning, a middle, and an end, and by the end I should want to know what’s going to happen next.

One thing that I’ve noticed covering meetings and conferences is that speakers often shy away from using visuals, but instead opt for text-heavy slides. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I’m either the best or the worst person to ask, because I always have a bunch of slides, and I always have that as a kind of crutch for when I don’t know what to say, or to visually explain what I’m going to say. I like to do case studies and I like to start with: Okay, let’s define the problem. Then I tried doing this; that didn’t work. This is why it didn’t work, so I thought about it some more and decided to do this instead. This is why I decided to do this instead, and [the client] liked this and it was good; or, I never arrived at the solution and we all just kind of gave up.

One of the important things, especially when I’m speaking to students, is to not whine but emphasize that I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years, and yes, I get rejection all the time. This is how I respond to it, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. I get a really, really good response to that, because I think to get up in front of people and just go over all your triumphs, it could be interesting, but it’s more informative to see process and to see how you bounce back from stuff.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.