Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report

20 January 2004 10 am est

Design: Chip Kidd

We conservatively estimate that Chip Kidd designed the covers for at least half the books on our shelf. Veronique Vienne’s appropriately titled Chip Kidd is a curated portfolio displaying some of the best of this prolific and influential graphic designer’s book jackets for the likes of James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Donna Tartt, etc. If you’ve visited a library or bookstore within the past ten years, you’ve seen Kidd’s work and probably responded to it.

Leafing through Kidd covers is both visually and creatively inspiring. In a classic print ad (think: Volkswagen lemon), the headline and visual play off one another to create a third meaning in the viewer’s mind. In classic film montage, the same thing happens when the director cuts between two shots: for instance, when a film cuts from a family enjoying a picnic to a sniper aiming a rifle, the audience gasps as it mentally connects the two shots.

The same thing happens in most of Kidd’s work. Kidd almost never illustrates a book’s title. Instead, his cover photos create tension and energy and provoke thought by working against the title in subtly complex ways. Kidd makes the postmodern assumption that potential book buyers have learned to decipher media meanings; his covers are a game he plays with your mind.

As if that weren’t enough, he is quite a stylist. Comic books were a formative influence, as Vienne points out in the short monograph that precedes the portfolio. (In comics, too, the energy happens between the panels.) We’ve discovered some of our favorite authors, not by reading reviews, but by picking up a book because its cover, designed by Chip Kidd, called out to us. What more could one ask from a book designer?

Kidd has his detractors, but which successful designer does not? We recommend this book for all who wish to recharge their creative batteries.

Creativity: Alfred Hitchcock

Arguably the most influential filmmaker of all time (you can see his ideas and techniques in the work of directors as different as Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson), Alfred Hitchcock was not born famous and hardly seemed destined for greatness. The son of a greengrocer, he tried his hand at advertising with indifferent success before taking his art directional talents to the emerging field of cinema. His first movie job was as a title designer for silent films. But he kind of moved on from there.

Patrick McGilligan’s fabulously researched and beautifully written Alfred Hitchcock : A Life in Darkness and Light is the richest, most complete, and most accurate Hitchcock biography we have read (and we have read them all). It corrects many false ideas popularized by Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. (Spoto claims Hitchcock’s film wizardry was a byproduct of repressed sexual deviancy. It makes great copy, but McGilligant shows that it is untrue.)

More importantly, this book takes you inside the creative process of a very creative mind.

Often when we read biographies of artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians, we learn all kinds of facts about who they loved and hated, where they slept and vacationed and what they ate for breakfast. But in most such books we never crack the nut of how the artist came up with the ideas for which he or she is remembered. This book very clearly and in great detail takes you through six decades of Hitchcock’s creative process.

Some of you may have problems convincing your clients that Design A will work better for them than Design B. Hitchcock faced the same challenge throughout his career. On almost every picture he made, not only did he have to fight with producers and studio executives, he also came up against censorship boards. Yet somehow he managed to keep making Hitchcock films. The story of how he sold his ideas to hostile “clients” time after time is itself worth the price of admission.

When Warner Bros released the first American “talking picture,” the film was content to show Al Jolson’s lips moving while the audience heard him sing. It was what you might call proof of the concept that movies could have synchronized sound.

When Hitchcock made the first British talking picture that same year, he used subjective sound in key sequences, i.e. distorted dialog as heard in the mind of a guilt-ridden character who has killed a man. Hitch was not trying to prove movies could talk; he was pushing the new sound technology to see what it could do creatively. That was 1929. Enough said.

Another surprise is that, although he never took a writing credit, Hitchcock co-wrote all his scripts and often created the stories. Even when he adapted an existing book, like Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Hitch kept the novels’s idea but threw out much of the plot and crafted or co-crafted his own. Hitchcock is widely viewed as a master technician (his storyboarding of every shot is famous and has become a standard industry practice) but is held in less regard as a storyteller. This book may change that. It also details how the writing collaborations worked.

Late in his career, when he was asked about the logic behind his films, Hitchcock said: “To put the audience through it.” That is a solid principle not only for films but also for websites.

Network: The Victorian Internet

In the late 1700s, scientists developed a communication system that could carry coded messages long distances. The first telegraph was purely visual, much like semaphore. It required a clear line of vision, a telescope, and a clear, sunny day. In the 1800s, pioneers in the U.S. and England, working separately, developed a new kind of telegraph that used electrical impulses to send coded messages across hundreds or even thousands of miles.

Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet tells the story of these first online pioneers and the way their invention changed the world. It holds a strange mirror to our own time. The telegraph had its share of spam, scams, and crime. It spawned online subcultures. Moralists deplored it; legislators tried to regulate it. Pundits claimed that it made traditional journalism obsolete — but the press merely added it to their arsenal, as MSN and The New York Times have done with the web.

We are not the first and will not be the last web folks to recommend this entertaining and insightful book.

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