Beware of ‘Rock Star’ Designers

Their work can be all about them

Nov. 8, 2005: Vol. 1, Issue No. 46


The Book on a Graphics Superhero

Mr. Kidd’s home is more like a very expensive toy store. It reflects the same graphic punch seen in his book covers, which helped transform the American book jacket from a decorative bit of packaging into a striking evocation of the writing it contained. Its items are arranged like a pocket shrine, as much a carefully curated archive of Mr. Kidd’s obsessions and evolving eye as his new book, “Chip Kidd, Book One: Work: 1986-2006,” published this month by Rizzoli.

–Penelope Green, The New York Times, Nov. 3, 2005

Prior to last week’s New York Times story, I had never heard of Chip Kidd. A paragraph in an Austin Chronicle story by Cary L. Roberts of Sept. 8, 2000, says it all:

Nobody in the book trade believes that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Publishers spend a lot of money hoping that’s exactly what you will do. And some of that money is spent on Chip Kidd, who is the closest thing there is to a rock star in the rarefied world of high-end graphic design. Regarded as the world’s foremost book jacket designer, Chip Kidd’s work covers a wide array of authors: Michael Crichton, Allan Gurganus, Anne Rice and John Updike, to name only a few.

Designers–or art directors–in the business world are like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When they’re good, they’re very, very good. When they’re bad, they’re horrid.

Once in a while, Kidd justifies his rock-star reputation by creating the perfect book jacket that accomplishes precisely what’s expected of it.

But in my opinion, any publisher that pays big bucks for a Kidd design takes a chance on rendering a huge disservice to the book, to its sales and to the author.

A large percentage of Kidd’s work is horrid.

A Personal Digression

Many years ago my client, Paul Goldberg and I gathered in the office of Esquire magazine Editor and Publisher Clay Felker along with members of the circulation department to talk about forthcoming promotions.

In the middle of the meeting, Felker’s office door flew open and in marched Art Director Milton Glaser with two or three flunkies. Glaser, founder of the legendary Pushpin Studios, creator of the “I Love NY” logo and the original art director of New York magazine, (also under Felker) is an iconic figure in the New York art world–with rock-star status.

Glaser flung an Esquire cover on Felker’s desk, announced that this was the final design for the upcoming issue, spun on his heel and marched out, followed by his underlings.

The cover story of that issue of Esquire was about a German terrorist organization known as the Bader-Meinhoff Gang. The cover painting was shocking–a primitive rendering of a dead gang member, a pistol in hand, lying dead on the street with blood coming out of his head and running into the gutter.

I was appalled–at both the gross cover illustration and Glaser’s rude and petulant treatment of Felker, who is a very elegant, low-key gentleman and one of the great figures of 20th century magazine publishing.

After the meeting, Goldberg and I agreed not only that Glaser was out of line, but that the cover was a catastrophe.

We were right. It was the worst-selling cover on the newsstands in Esquire’s history.

Book Jacket Design

The book jacket has one purpose–to make the prospect notice the book and be sufficiently intrigued to buy it.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at