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Judging books by Chip Kidd's covers

In the fourth part of a monthly series on the books industry, the famed graphic designer shares how he came up with the iconic Jurassic Park dinosaur silhouette for the best-selling Michael Crichton book

Graphic designer Chip Kidd knows people literally judge a book by its cover. For nearly 30 years, he has created designs that lodge in popular memory.

Naked, the 1997 collection of revealing personal essays by American humour writer David Sedaris, got a jacket that could be removed to strip the book down to the bone. Jurassic Park, the 1990 novel by Michael Crichton, was represented by a dinosaur silhouette now symbolic of the four-movie franchise.

How does Kidd do it? First, he reads the book to find out what the story looks like.

The entire book?

"It all depends on which book it is," Kidd says on the telephone from New York, where he lives. "With Haruki Murakami, if there is a full manuscript, I'll definitely read it."

Kidd, who turns 52 this year, started out as an assistant to the art director at Knopf in 1986 and has since become one of the world's best-known book designers.

He freelances for various major publishing houses such as HarperCollins, but is mostly known for his work with Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon Graphic Novels and other imprints of the Penguin Random House group.

He has designed covers for Oliver Sacks, James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, among others. He would love to create book covers for Nobel laureate and Knopf author Alice Munro, but she has a long-standing relationship with another designer.

Oliver Sacks would sometimes have an idea of what he wants and sometimes he wouldn't. Murakami doesn't get involved until there's a final design and he's always approved.

GRAPHIC DESIGNER CHIP KIDD, on working with some of the authors

He turned Neil Gaiman's inspirational 2012 speech Make Good Art into a book where every single page literally illustrates the key concept. Kidd used quirky fonts and page design for the two novels he wrote in the Noughties, The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners, based on his experiences in college and the pre-computer age of graphic design.

He created a Batman graphic novel for DC Comics in 2012 and has edited comics for Pantheon for over a dozen years. He acquired and published the American edition of Singaporean artist Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a creative retelling of Singapore history through the perspective of a comics artist.

"I do believe it's a masterpiece," says Kidd of the book, which was just published in the US - with the author's original cover.

This is high praise from someone who has published Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi. Both these artists won major awards for their respective visual histories of the World War II Nazi pogrom against the Jews and the Iranian Revolution.

For more than 20 years, Kidd's covers for Murakami's novels have been what readers first fall in love with when the English translations reach stores around the world.

The designer is a huge fan as well, enjoying the writer's insight into contemporary Japanese culture and magical realist style.

For the 2011 translation of the 900-page 1Q84, a tale of a woman who moves between parallel planes of existence, Kidd designed a semi-transparent jacket overlaying a human face. When peeled away, the title appears as negative space on the image.

New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin panned the story, but loved the cover. Her review read: "(I)n the case of 1Q84, there is a startlingly clever Chip Kidd cover to create an air of the irresistible. The actual text? Not so much."

Kidd's other designs for Murakami novels are similar: simple and memorable at first glance, with deepening complexity the closer one looks. Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage, published in 2014, had a cover with a "palm" made of differently coloured pillars or fingers. The colours evoke the names of the titular character's four friends and the design also includes a Tokyo subway map, hinting at Tsukuru's involvement with trains.

Two or three weeks of thought can go into each design but Kidd hits the bull's eye first time, more often than not.

"With Murakami, I've been very lucky. Since the first five books, the first design has been chosen," he says.

For more details on his design process, he refers this reporter to his TED Talks freely available online.

In two 18-minute videos posted in 2012 and last year, he speaks about how to leave a good first visual impression and how he came up with some of his best-known visuals. Each video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

Kidd describes his work as a balancing act between clarity and mystery. He follows advice received during his graphic design studies in Pennsylvania State University in the 1980s: Do not underestimate the audience. Withhold enough information to add mystery. Give them credit for what they already know.

He expands on this in Judge This, a primer on good design he wrote and published with TED last year.

Asked for other advice for aspiring designers, he says: "Frankly, I don't know what advice to give them. You have to have some talent, you have to work very hard and you have to get lucky and get somebody to give you a break."

He works on an Apple and enjoys having access to "thousands of fonts", but some of his best work comes from low-tech solutions.

For the washed-away font on the cover of Dry, Augustus Burrough's 2003 memoir of battling alcoholism, Kidd printed out the title and threw water on the paper so the ink ran.

For Jurassic Park's semi-fleshed out dinosaur skeleton, he went to the Museum of Natural History in New York, bought a book on dinosaurs from the gift shop and looked through it for ideas. A diagram of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton caught his attention so he made a photocopy, traced over it and began filling in the outlines until he was satisfied. The end result: movie icon history.

"I still do things by hand if I'm going to cut up a piece of paper or lettering by hand, but I don't miss that something that would take me three days to do, I can do in 15 minutes. I don't miss that at all."

He likes it when an author has definite ideas about the cover and shares these upfront.

"Oliver Sacks would sometimes have an idea of what he wants and sometimes he wouldn't. Murakami doesn't get involved until there's a final design and he's always approved.

"I would rather talk directly with the author at the beginning. It's his book and his book is more important than my design."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Judging books by Chip Kidd's covers'. Subscribe