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Book-jacket designer Chip Kidd shares his graphic design secrets

Many young people will know Chip Kidd’s work on comic books, including his brilliant design for the cover of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, while those kids’ parents likely instantly recognize his cover for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, which featured a black drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton against a white backdrop.

Chip Kidd is the world's pre-eminent book-jacket designer. He's done more than 1,000 of them, and built such a sterling reputation that several high-profile authors, including Oliver Sacks, have it in their contracts that Kidd design their book covers. The man has mastered graphic design. But that's not to say his job is without challenges. One of the more recent ones? How to think like a 10-year-old.

And not just trying to remember how a 10-year-old thinks, "but at the same time, trying to imagine thinking like a 10-year-old now, which is really hard," says Kidd over the phone from his office at Random House in New York. Kidd faced that challenge to create his new book, Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design. The book covers the fundamentals of graphic design: form, typography, content and concept.

Many young people will know Kidd's work on comic books, including his brilliant design for the cover of Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, while those kids' parents likely instantly recognize his cover for Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, which featured a black drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton against a white backdrop.

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Deciding on what level of difficulty to present to the reader was a struggle, he says. What's too basic for readers, and what might fly over their heads?

"How much will they want to know about typefaces? I will never really know the answer," Kidd says with a small laugh.

The idea for the book came from a friend and editor. At first, the suggestion seemed out of "left field" and Kidd says that he had to think about it. The more he did, the more it became clear that there is no book that introduces young people to graphic design.

"For me, that's a huge component for any of the book projects that I am the author of. I do not want to spend three years of my time working on something that has been done before," Kidd says.

"There certainly are graphic-design textbooks, but wow. A lot of the ones that I looked at are just kind of joyless. And there is tons of text and information to convey the simplest ideas," he says.

Kidd's book features many examples of great design, including some of his own covers, to illustrate points. It's as much a visual experience as an intellectual one, which is a measure of great graphic design.

The ideas in Go are simple, whether it is playing with scale or how fonts convey meaning. And they are all put forward so clearly and with such visual flair that readers will walk away feeling like junior Milton Glasers. Many, actually, maybe not so junior.

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The book is recommended for kids 10 and up, but the emphasis is on the "and up," Kidd says. "I wanted the potential reader of any age to be somebody who's been reading and writing for at least a couple of years because that's a big component of graphic design." You could easily give this to someone in high school, he says.

And considering that it's a Chip Kidd book, meaning fantastically designed, and that it covers a very popular subject, there's a good chance that some adults will grab it for themselves. The subject matter, after all, is fun to delve into, as was the project, Kidd says.

"If it's not fun, that is going to be evident on the page. And that's a problem," he says.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More


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