Chip Kidd: The art of first impressions — in design and life

Chip Kidd: The art of first impressions — in design and life


Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah, blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah, blah. So what the hell was that? Well, you don’t know
because you couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t clear. But hopefully, it was said
with enough conviction that it was at least
alluringly mysterious. Clarity or mystery? I’m balancing these two things
in my daily work as a graphic designer, as well as my daily life as a New Yorker every day, and there are two elements
that absolutely fascinate me. Here’s an example. Now, how many people know what this is? Okay. Now how many people
know what this is? Okay. Thanks to two more deft strokes
by the genius Charles M. Schulz, we now have seven deft strokes
that in and of themselves create an entire emotional life, one that has enthralled
hundreds of millions of fans for over 50 years. This is actually a cover of a book that I designed about the work
of Schulz and his art, which will be coming out this fall, and that is the entire cover. There is no other typographic information
or visual information on the front, and the name of the book
is “Only What’s Necessary.” So this is sort of symbolic about
the decisions I have to make every day about the design that I’m perceiving, and the design I’m creating. So clarity. Clarity gets to the point. It’s blunt. It’s honest. It’s sincere. We ask ourselves this.
[“When should you be clear?”] Now, something like this,
whether we can read it or not, needs to be really, really clear. Is it? This is a rather recent example
of urban clarity that I just love, mainly because I’m always late
and I am always in a hurry. So when these meters started showing up
a couple of years ago on street corners, I was thrilled, because now I finally knew how many seconds I had
to get across the street before I got run over by a car. Six? I can do that. (Laughter) So let’s look at the yin
to the clarity yang, and that is mystery. Mystery is a lot more complicated
by its very definition. Mystery demands to be decoded, and when it’s done right,
we really, really want to. [“When should you be mysterious?”] In World War II, the Germans
really, really wanted to decode this, and they couldn’t. Here’s an example of a design
that I’ve done recently for a novel by Haruki Murakami, who I’ve done design work for
for over 20 years now, and this is a novel about a young man
who has four dear friends who all of a sudden,
after their freshman year of college, completely cut him off
with no explanation, and he is devastated. And the friends’ names each have
a connotation in Japanese to a color. So there’s Mr. Red, there’s Mr. Blue,
there’s Ms. White, and Ms. Black. Tsukuru Tazaki, his name
does not correspond to a color, so his nickname is Colorless, and
as he’s looking back on their friendship, he recalls that they were like
five fingers on a hand. So I created this sort of abstract
representation of this, but there’s a lot more going on
underneath the surface of the story, and there’s more going on underneath
the surface of the jacket. The four fingers are now four train lines in the Tokyo subway system, which has significance within the story. And then you have
the colorless subway line intersecting with each
of the other colors, which basically he does
later on in the story. He catches up with each of these people to find out why they treated him
the way they did. And so this is the three-dimensional
finished product sitting on my desk in my office, and what I was hoping for here
is that you’ll simply be allured by the mystery of what this looks like, and will want to read it to decode and find out and make more clear
why it looks the way it does. [“The Visual Vernacular.”] This is a way to use a more
familiar kind of mystery. What does this mean? This is what it means.
[“Make it look like something else.”] The visual vernacular is the way
we are used to seeing a certain thing applied to something else so that
we see it in a different way. This is an approach I wanted to take
to a book of essays by David Sedaris that had this title at the time.
[“All the Beauty You Will Ever Need”] Now, the challenge here was that
this title actually means nothing. It’s not connected to any
of the essays in the book. It came to the author’s boyfriend
in a dream. Thank you very much, so — (Laughter) —
so usually, I am creating a design that is in some way based on the text,
but this is all the text there is. So you’ve got this mysterious title
that really doesn’t mean anything, so I was trying to think: Where might I see a bit of mysterious text
that seems to mean something but doesn’t? And sure enough, not long after, one evening after a Chinese meal, this arrived, and I thought,
“Ah, bing, ideagasm!” (Laughter) I’ve always loved the hilariously
mysterious tropes of fortune cookies that seem to mean something extremely deep but when you think about them — if you
think about them — they really don’t. This says, “Hardly anyone knows how much
is gained by ignoring the future.” Thank you. (Laughter) But we can take this visual vernacular
and apply it to Mr. Sedaris, and we are so familiar
with how fortune cookie fortunes look that we don’t even need
the bits of the cookie anymore. We’re just seeing this strange thing and we know we love David Sedaris, and so we’re hoping that
we’re in for a good time. [“‘Fraud’ Essays by David Rakoff”]
David Rakoff was a wonderful writer and he called his first book “Fraud” because he was getting sent
on assignments by magazines to do things that he
was not equipped to do. So he was this skinny little urban guy and GQ magazine would send him
down the Colorado River whitewater rafting to see
if he would survive. And then he would write about it,
and he felt that he was a fraud and that he was misrepresenting himself. And so I wanted the cover of this book
to also misrepresent itself and then somehow show
a reader reacting to it. This led me to graffiti. I’m fascinated by graffiti. I think anybody who lives
in an urban environment encounters graffiti all the time,
and there’s all different sorts of it. This is a picture I took
on the Lower East Side of just a transformer box on the sidewalk and it’s been tagged like crazy. Now whether you look at this and think,
“Oh, that’s a charming urban affectation,” or you look at it and say,
“That’s illegal abuse of property,” the one thing I think we can all agree on is that you cannot read it. Right? There is no clear message here. There is another kind of graffiti
that I find far more interesting, which I call editorial graffiti. This is a picture I took recently
in the subway, and sometimes you see
lots of prurient, stupid stuff, but I thought this was interesting,
and this is a poster that is saying rah-rah Airbnb, and someone has taken a Magic Marker and has editorialized about
what they think about it. And it got my attention. So I was thinking, how do we
apply this to this book? So I get the book by this person,
and I start reading it, and I’m thinking, this guy is not who he says
he is; he’s a fraud. And I get out a red Magic Marker, and out of frustration just
scribble this across the front. Design done. (Laughter) And they went for it! (Laughter) Author liked it, publisher liked it, and that is how the book
went out into the world, and it was really fun to see
people reading this on the subway and walking around with it
and what have you, and they all sort of looked
like they were crazy. (Laughter) [“‘Perfidia’ a novel by James Ellroy”]
Okay, James Ellroy, amazing crime writer, a good friend, I’ve worked
with him for many years. He is probably best known as the author of “The Black Dahlia”
and “L.A. Confidential.” His most recent novel was called this,
which is a very mysterious name that I’m sure a lot of people know
what it means, but a lot of people don’t. And it’s a story about a Japanese-American
detective in Los Angeles in 1941 investigating a murder. And then Pearl Harbor happens, and as if his life
wasn’t difficult enough, now the race relations
have really ratcheted up, and then the Japanese-American
internment camps are quickly created, and there’s lots of tension and horrible stuff as he’s still
trying to solve this murder. And so I did at first think
very literally about this in terms of all right, we’ll take Pearl Harbor
and we’ll add it to Los Angeles and we’ll make this apocalyptic dawn
on the horizon of the city. And so that’s a picture from Pearl Harbor just grafted onto Los Angeles. My editor in chief said,
“You know, it’s interesting but I think you can do better
and I think you can make it simpler.” And so I went back
to the drawing board, as I often do. But also, being alive to my surroundings, I work in a high-rise in Midtown, and every night,
before I leave the office, I have to push this button to get out, and the big heavy glass doors open
and I can get onto the elevator. And one night, all of a sudden, I looked at this and I saw it in a way
that I hadn’t really noticed it before. Big red circle, danger. And I thought this was so obvious that it had to have been
done a zillion times, and so I did a Google image search,
and I couldn’t find another book cover that looked quite like this, and so this is really
what solved the problem, and graphically it’s more interesting and creates a bigger tension
between the idea of a certain kind of sunrise
coming up over L.A. and America. [“‘Gulp’ A tour of the human
digestive system by Mary Roach.”] Mary Roach is an amazing writer who takes potentially mundane
scientific subjects and makes them not mundane at all;
she makes them really fun. So in this particular case, it’s about the human digestive system. So I’m trying to figure out what
is the cover of this book going to be. This is a self-portrait. (Laughter) Every morning I look at myself
in the medicine cabinet mirror to see if my tongue is black. And if it’s not, I’m good to go. (Laughter) I recommend you all do this. But I also started thinking,
here’s our introduction. Right? Into the human digestive system. But I think what we can all agree on is that actual photographs
of human mouths, at least based on this, are off-putting. (Laughter) So for the cover, then,
I had this illustration done which is literally more palatable and reminds us that it’s best
to approach the digestive system from this end. (Laughter) I don’t even have to complete
the sentence. All right. [“Unuseful mystery”] What happens when clarity
and mystery get mixed up? And we see this all the time. This is what I call unuseful mystery. I go down into the subway —
I take the subway a lot — and this piece of paper
is taped to a girder. Right? And now I’m thinking, uh-oh, and the train’s about to come and I’m
trying to figure out what this means, and thanks a lot. Part of the problem here is that
they’ve compartmentalized the information in a way they think is helpful,
and frankly, I don’t think it is at all. So this is mystery we do not need. What we need is useful clarity,
so just for fun, I redesigned this. This is using all the same elements. (Applause) Thank you. I am still waiting
for a call from the MTA. (Laughter) You know, I’m actually not even
using more colors than they use. They just didn’t even bother
to make the 4 and the 5 green, those idiots. (Laughter) So the first thing we see
is that there is a service change, and then, in two complete sentences
with a beginning, a middle and an end, it tells us what the change is
and what’s going to be happening. Call me crazy! (Laughter) [“Useful mystery”]
All right. Now, here is a piece
of mystery that I love: packaging. This redesign of the Diet Coke can by Turner Duckworth
is to me truly a piece of art. It’s a work of art. It’s beautiful. But part of what makes it
so heartening to me as a designer is that he’s taken the visual
vernacular of Diet Coke — the typefaces, the colors,
the silver background — and he’s reduced them
to their most essential parts, so it’s like going back
to the Charlie Brown face. It’s like, how can you give them just
enough information so they know what it is but giving them the credit
for the knowledge that they already have about this thing? It looks great, and you would go
into a delicatessen and all of a sudden see that on the shelf,
and it’s wonderful. Which makes the next thing — [“Unuseful clarity”] —
all the more disheartening, at least to me. So okay, again, going back
down into the subway, after this came out, these are pictures that I took. Times Square subway station: Coca-Cola has bought out
the entire thing for advertising. Okay? And maybe some of you
know where this is going. Ahem. “You moved to New York
with the clothes on your back, the cash in your pocket,
and your eyes on the prize. You’re on Coke.” (Laughter) “You moved to New York
with an MBA, one clean suit, and an extremely firm handshake. You’re on Coke.” (Laughter) These are real! (Laughter) Not even the support beams were spared, except they switched into Yoda mode.
(Laughter) “Coke you’re on.” (Laughter) [“Excuse me, I’m on WHAT??”] This campaign was a huge misstep. It was pulled almost instantly
due to consumer backlash and all sorts of unflattering
parodies on the web — (Laughter) — and also that dot next to “You’re on,”
that’s not a period, that’s a trademark. So thanks a lot. So to me, this was just so bizarre about how they could get the packaging
so mysteriously beautiful and perfect and the message so unbearably,
clearly wrong. It was just incredible to me. So I just hope that I’ve been able
to share with you some of my insights on the uses of clarity
and mystery in my work, and maybe how you might decide
to be more clear in your life, or maybe to be a bit more mysterious
and not so over-sharing. (Laughter) And if there’s just one thing
that I leave you with from this talk, I hope it’s this: Blih blih blih blah. Blah blah blih blih.
[“‘Judge This,’ Chip Kidd”] Blih blih blah blah blah.
Blah blah blah. Blah blah. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Chip Kidd: The art of first impressions — in design and life

  1. I'd be surprised if you didn't put a rear end of the digestive system on the back cover. You know, front to back, top to bottom, 
    cover to cover.

  2. Watched this twice! Best TED Talk I have seen. Maybe the other end on the back cover would have been ok.
    Hope to see more.

  3. Ah, TED Garage Talks.   Clever. Great talk and insight into the mind of perhaps our best contemporary book designer.

  4. I didnt even come here to watch what was being talked about but the presentation was so calming and enjoyable that I watched it and loved it. Even tho, this type of thing usually never interests me.

  5. Imagine a 5 year old that notices something… That "I'm the only one who knows this" might last a minute…. I just watched 18 minutes of little Jack Horner… "What a good boy am I!".

  6. The creative process and inspirations behind his art is so refreshing and colorful! The most entertaining TED talk I've yet to watch. I will definitely be checking out "Judge This" when it comes out.

  7. Most of these videos are really just self-promotion.  This was CLEARLY just self-promotion, but at least it was interesting self-promotion.  He starts out with a strong concept about clarity and mystery, then proceeds to offer us his portfolio.  Rather deft.

  8. His way of understanding of "Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki" by Haruki Murakami is very interesting: Logic. Very different from mine: Chaos. Is this because he read the book in English and I in Japanese?

  9. Chris I loved this video. Keep up the great work. It shows that we should let our minds go free and create. Thanks

  10. So he was the one who designed murukami's book! Great work! When i first saw it i wanted to buy it immediately because the cover design was so enigmatic and meaningful yet minimal.

  11. First impressions are everything, that's why I love this graphic designer's ability to create works that are clear and mysterious.

  12. The minimalist Diet Coke can is a FANTASTIC illustration of how to tell a story. Just enough to let the reader's imagination get a good workout. Movie adaptations are seldom as good as the book because nothing is left to the imagination. The experience is not as personal.

  13. Hilarious 🤣🤣🤣🤣 I am rolling on the floor tears in my eyes of laughter this guy is a genius👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏 fantastic

  14. Huh, when I first got the “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” book, I really disliked its design. But now I know, that I just disliked the way it was butchered while being translated into Russian. They kind did the whole hand thing but removed the text inside and replaced it with lines (I think it supposed to be train tracks) and placed everything inside this tasteless gray square on the black cover (without any jacket). And the whole thing, including the way they placed name of the author and book title, just makes it look like the design was done entirely in Ms Word.
    Seriously I would had never gotten this book if I didn’t receive it as a present.

  15. I just started highschool and havent been sure what path to take as a career but i know i love to read and i love art, then i saw this and realised that going into graphic design and being able to make interpretive peices like yours for book covers is what i want to do, Thank you.

  16. Alex Lifeson at Rush's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Best speech ever. Blah Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. True fans knew what he meant

  17. Had methamphetamine been What they put into "coke" when they originally made "coke" it probably would have been called "meth".
    You're on meth LOL.

  18. Chip Kidd is a legend, but I’m noticing as I watch his talks that he will never say the title of a book. I wonder why that is

  19. Chip Kidd really lifts my spirits. So does Christoph Niemann. Wonderful humour, so informative & ultra inspiring. 😍

  20. Mystery is never meant to be revealed. It is a box that keeps on opening. If the mystery can be resolved then it has failed in itself and ceases to have been one. It is the eternal chase that never ends, mystery is there to draw you in and never provide an answer that is absolute.

  21. I am looking forward to applying this to how I present my company and our services during a bid appointment!

  22. The idea behind the cover of Fraud is identical to that behind Randy Newman's box set, released three years prior: Take a dignified cover and scrawl over it, indicating the negativity of the title – "Guilty" rather than "Fraud" in Newman's case: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guilty:_30_Years_of_Randy_Newman .  It would be interesting to know whether this was great minds thinking alike, accidental plagiarism, or intentional.

  23. Instantly recognised the initial five strokes as "Charley Brown".

    Very interesting and well-presented talk.

  24. The Washington, DC area public transit system has the same issue. They apparently fail to realize that not everyone thinks like they do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *