Debbie Millman, Chip Kidd, Marc Ecko, Veronika Scott, Julie Anixter
Debbie Millman, Chip Kidd, Marc Ecko, Veronika Scott, Julie Anixter
2. Chip Kidd
So this is the fifth time that I have interviewed Chip officially for Design Matters. In thinking about all of the previous interviews I realized that I didn't really ever do a trajectory of his life. It was always about a specific project. Every time we've done an interview together it's been about either The Learners coming out or Go or Don't Judge This and so there were so many things to really talk about about your beginnings. About what we're referring to as your humble beginnings. Yes, very humble. You were born in Shillington, Pennsylvania and I read that as a kid you were fascinated and heavily inspired by American Popular Culture. Yes. You declare in the prologue to your book Chip Kidd Book One you stated, I did not grow up yearning to become a book designer. What I wanted to be was Chris Partridge on the Partridge Family. (audience laughs) Very much. Why not David Cassidy? Oh no, I thought David Cassidy was an over rated scag. Chris was clearly the backbone of t...
he Partridge Family. Nobody know's what we're talking about. Clap if you know the Partridge Family. (audience applauds) ♪ I think I love you ♪ ♪ So what am I so afraid of ♪ ♪ I'm afraid that I'm not sure of ♪ ♪ I love there is no cure for ♪ ♪ Ba ba ba baba baba ba ba ♪ We didn't even rehearse that. Clearly. (laughs) So this is Halloween 1968 in West Lawn, Pennsylvania where I grew up. It's about an hour northwest of Philadelphia. And you are Robin. I am Robin, I am on the right. That is my older brother Walt on the left who was two years older so he got to be Batman and that is my Mom in the middle, she got to be Batmom. (audience laughs) And she made those outfits for us completely from scratch. So I understand that the first book covers, so to speak, you ever remember seeing was actually a Batman's comic cover. It was a comic cover, I believe Detective Comics, I can't remember the number but Batman was being fought over by Catwoman and Poison Ivy. And they were literally tugging him like he was a wishbone to break him in half. And I thought that looks like a plan. (audience laughs) You have been fascinated by Batman for your entire life. Correct. You've written books about Batman. You've done graphic novels featuring Batman. You've done exhibits with artwork that you and colleagues have made of Batman. Correct What is it about Batman versus Spiderman versus Superman versus Poison Ivy versus Wonder Woman that compels you so deeply? I honestly don't know. I think it's like saying why did, well that's a kind of kinky-- Ooh tell us. No. But it's like saying why did you fall in love with the person you fell in love with. I mean you sort of know but you sort of don't know. The Batman TV show was in full swing by the time this was going on. The TV show with Adam West. Which is really, when you look even today finally all the legal stuff, 50 years later the legal stuff has all been cleared so that it's now out on DVD and all of this and you can see it. It really was remarkable. I'm 51 years old but back then most TV was still in black and white and here was this crazy color thing. I mean this wasn't, it was kind of like, it was a gateway drug to the character and I just kind of dug it, stuck with it, the whole time all up through the Dark Knight and all of it. I have two really specific questions for you about Batman. The first is about your past and the second is about the current Superman versus Batman movie that came out. Okay, the past question. I read that your favorite Batman character's actually The Riddler, is that true? No. (everyone laughs) Where did you read that? I read it on Batblog.com. Well maybe you did but no. I'm sorry, villain, Batman villain. Villain. Villain. No. (everyone laughs) I mean you can't beat the Joker. Can't beat the Joker it's just the best. It's the best. What I thought you were going to say is my favorite Batman character is Batman himself which is part of why I don't watch the TV show called Gotham because Batman's not in it. It's like, it's the Batman show that doesn't have Batman. No, not going to do that. I was very excited to see the Batman versus Superman movie. You were? I was. And you're a girl. I am, at least as far as I know. And? And I was really really disappointed with the idea that in this movie, and this isn't really spoiling anything but it is something you should know. That Batman kills people. Now Batman didn't use a gun. Yeah, totally wrong. It was just totally wrong. I felt as if a fundamental characteristic of Batman was just discarded. Well, and that's what the separates the DC characters from the Marvel characters. Things have gotten so crazy and fucked up but the movies are so popular and having just seen Captain America Civil War, which is awesome. (audience applauds) I mean it's amazing but this all comes to a head. It's all about collateral damage and people dying and you guys got to be responsible. But what has shocked me in all of this with the, what DC has not been playing up is the fact that the DC characters do not kill. Growing up as a kid part of what I really really loved about the comics was, and I later came to understand that this was a metaphor for America, America at it's best, which is we want to serve the world. We do not want to command it. We don't want to take it over we want to help it. And so the Justice League, that's what they do and the big rule is no killing. Big rule. And how they've kind of dropped the ball on this I don't understand at all. That's their strength. That's what they got. And that's what they got, and I love. The Batman value, it was one of his, part of his moral fiber. Yeah, and in the Dark Knight rises and this horrible with thing with the shooting in the theater the night that it opened there is a scene where Batman says to Catwoman, "No guns, no killing." And yeah, that's what makes it great. That's what makes it truly great. You have to outwit your villain. You don't, and the fact that Batman has never killed the Joker is a great virtue of the comics in that he won't do that because that makes him worse than he is. So who signs off on the fact that Batman was allowed to do this and behave in this way? Batfleck. (audience laughs) I mean look, I don't know. I don't go to the meetings. I'm not involved. I'm not invited. You also loved Star Wars when you were growing up. Correct. And I recently found out that you loved Star Wars so much you made a Star Wars scrapbook. I did. I did. What was in the scrapbook? What was in the scrapbook? Well, Darth Vader's autograph for one. In 1977 David Prowse, now David Prowse was the guy who actually wore the suit. And of course the wonderful actor did the voice. James Earl Jones. James Earl Jones did the voice but David Prowse was wearing the suit and so even back then David Prowse, he wanted to cash in, this is pre-Comic Con and all that and so he was doing a shopping mall tour of the U.S. and he went to our local department store, Boscov's and I waited for three hours to get his autograph. That was in the scrapbook and my ticket stubs and my Top's cards and articles about Mark Hamill's car crash and his facial reconstruction. One of my biggest regrets of the things that I didn't keep growing up was my orginal 1977 may the force be with you tshirt that I wore that entire summer. Good thing that I don't have it but I wish that I did. When you were making things like this scrapbook did you have a sense at that point that you wanted to be a designer? I didn't think about it that way. I felt compelled to, and this is what scrap booking is, but I felt compelled to take my experience and record it in that form. In a book that you would open and page through. So I think subconsciously yes. But it wasn't, I didn't think, "Oh, this is what I'm going to be, "this is just want I want to do now." So when did you get the sense, you graduated from Penn State University in 1986 with a degree in graphic design. When did you make the decision I want to be a designer? Probably in high school. My high school, Wilson High School, in West Lawn, I was there from 1980, '81, ' and we had a fully functional television station within the school. So I was the AV nerd and it was so cool and I thought, "All right, "this is what I want to do, "I want to be in television." And then I started making graphics for the little shows that we were putting out and then my senior year I thought, "All right, I think I want to do this." But at that point I was already accepted at Penn State and I was going to Penn State so I got there my freshman year and I, classic story, I had a fantastic guidance counselor who's name I can't remember unfortunately who said, "You know what? "There's this thing here called Graphic "Design and you should check it out." You started freelancing as soon as you got out of college. Yeah. One of your first freelance projects was to design a book cover and you recently found the comp, the actual handmade comp that you created. You've never publicly shown it. No. You're going to show it now. I am. Yes, get ready. Keep your expectations low. Here's the thing, I graduated in with a portfolio in Graphic Design, I was the last generation of people, some of you who are here in the audience who, we graduated right before Apple came out. So we did everything by hand and I knew I wanted to be a Graphic Designer and I knew I wanted to go to New York and get a job. So those were my parameters. Beyond that I was open so I went there and I hit the streets and I got lots of interviews and the feedback was great but nobody had an entry level position. And I went everywhere. I went to Pentagram, I went to Chermayeff & Geismar, I went to Milton Glaser, I went to-- How did you get those interviews back then? I had a couple of introductions from my teacher at Penn State, Lenny Simese, and then I was sadly enough to say, "Okay, can you give me some names "of people to see," and people were very nice and they said, "Yes, "you should see this person." I didn't know who Tibor Kalman was when I came to New York and somebody said, "Oh, you should go to M&Co and see Tibor Kalman." What was that like, did you go? It was amazing. We've never talked about this. No, I was such an idiot. I cold called but I said, "Somebody at "GQ Magazine said that I should see you." And they said, "Okay, fine." And so I'm sitting in the waiting room at their office in Chelsea and I'm looking around and I'm thinking, "Oh, that's cool, "they have Talking Heads posters on the wall. (everyone laughs) "They must like Talking Heads too. "I really like Talking Heads, that's so cool." And then I had the interview and I realized they created all the fucking Talking Heads. I was like, oh my God. And so I was just like, "I'm in love "and I want to be here and I'll do "anything to work here," and Tibor came out and talked to me and, it's just, everything's timing and luck. They didn't have an entry level position and that's what I was experiencing again and again which was making me insane. But then somebody said, "Oh, you should go "to Random House and get some freelance "work to try and do book covers "just to tide you over until you get "the job that you really want." And so I went, I got an interview with this wonderful lovely woman named Judith Lozer at Vintage Books and she looked at my portfolio and she's like, "What the heck. "I'll give you a cover to work on." It's so ironic that this is what the book was. (audience laughs) And I thought, "Okay I'm going to really nail this," and so I went back to my unheated illegal loft in Williamsburg, September 1986, thank you very much, I want my-- Cool card back? I want my cool card back. It was amazing. And I take out my tracing paper and my colored pencils, (Chip growls) (audience laughs) and I made this. And I thought I'm just the best ever. This is so cool and so I show up the next day with this and I give this to the art director and she sort of laughs and says, "Okay, why don't you wait here and I'll "go upstairs and show this to the editor." And so she did and (Chip laughs). She came back and she said, "You know, "this is very charming and it's "just not going to work for anyone here. "And so thank you and "you can bill us $400." And I was like, "Well, fuck." (audience laughs) I am so fucked. But as it happened there was a woman named Sara Eisenman down the hall who was the then Art Director at Knopf Publishing she either, either she called me or somebody said you should call her. So I went and I showed her my portfolio. And she looked at it and she said, "This is very interesting and I'm looking--" Interesting is never good word. Well, I'm paraphrasing. I can't remember what the hell she said but she said, "You know I'm looking for an assistant." And I was like, "Oh, really?" And she said, "Yeah but I just started the "search so I really need to look "at a bunch of different people "but I'll keep you posted." So two endless weeks ensued and then I got the call to be, I got the job if I wanted it. Now was it an administrative assistant or a design assistant? Well they weren't really specific. It was just assistant to the Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf and it paid $15,500 a year with benefits. (audience laughs) And the times being what they were my rent, my share of the rent in the unheated loft in Williamsburg was $389 a month. So I did the math and it worked and I was like, "Okay I'll give this a shot." And that was 30 years ago. I will be there 30 years in October. 30 years. (audience applauds) Since then you have created over 1,500 book cover designs, you've done work for Charles Schulz, Mark Beyer, David Sedaris, Alex Ross, Frank Miller, Michael Crichton, Cormac McCarthy, many many others, yet before we talk about Geek Love you have often downplayed the importance of cover design and you stated, "I'm very much against "the idea that the cover will sell the book. "Marketing departments and publishing houses "tend to latch onto this concept and "they can't let go but it's about "whether the book itself really connects "with the public and the cover "is only a small part of that." Yet, most of the names I just read are authors that will only work with you at Knopf. How do you reconcile that? Because I guess they drink the kool-aid or something. Look, I've been doing this a long time, you develop relationships with the authors just like you develop relationships with clients hopefully over a long time and they come to trust you and challenge you. But no, I totally maintain that. I don't think a cook cover sells the book. It gives the book a recognizable face and it has become what you are such a master at, a brand. Which that term didn't really exist back then the way it does now. Yeah, a lot of your authors now are brands in and of themselves. Exactly, exactly. I also read another really interesting assessment of your work, and this is a quote, "One of the most consisting characteristics "of Chip Kidd's revolutionary style "is the fact that his book that "his book covers don't carry one signature look." Very true. Stated, "A signature look is crippling "because the simplest and effective "solutions aren't dictated by style." Correct. So what do you attribute, what is the common denominator then in all of the work that you've done aside from the fact that's it's you? Well, I mean, I was, the whole thing about New Order is very true and when I was in college they were really in their hay day and more to the point, and I owe it for over two decades I point to Peter Saville as an inspiration of, you never knew what one cover was going to look like to the next. And they would be different, different, different, but it was the same group each time but there was a sensibility to them that was just so striking and so simple and beautiful that I've either consciously or unconsciously really tried to make that my way to go in that, I think the difference is I really take my source material from the text, from the story. So you read everything. Well, I get an understanding of everything. Fair enough. Let's talk about some of your work. You have the title Geek Love here. Geek Love is a novel that was written in 1988 by Katherine Dunn. Probably your first famous piece of work. Katherine Dunn recently died and you wrote the obituary for Time Magazine. Tell us about how you went about creating the cover for Geek Love. Well, this was a big sort of turning point, also in the history of Knopf because we just had a new editor-in-chief at Knopf, the third in the company's history since 1915. So his name is Sonny Mehta and Geek Love was the first book that he bought as editor-in-chief of Knopf. It is a fantastic, wonderful, outrageous book about a family of circus freaks who, the mother and father thereof, bio engineer their children to be freaks. So it's out there and it's crazy and what I said in the obit is that back when this came out the term geek had a very different meaning in Katherine Dunn's world than it does now and the meaning then was, if you were a geek you were the lowest of the low in a freak show and you bit the head off of a chicken and you then drank the blood out of the chicken's neck holding it up and you did this for the entertainment of others. Like Ozzy Osbourne. Yeah, although he did it with a bat and then married Sharon. Look what happened with that. Geek Love. Horrible, horrible. And now of course a geek is a cool thing. Well, anti-cool thing. Anyway, these were back in the days when I still put pen to paper and pencil to paper and I wouldn't honestly, I wouldn't know how to do this on my computer. I use a computer all the time and I love it but back then, this frankly is me trying to be Neville Brody. Really? Yeah. And so all those fabulous Brit guys were of a piece to me although I thought Peter Saville was the best but The Face came out when we were in college and we were just like, "Oh my God, this is unbelievable." So I'm trying to do some sort of Neville Brody-ish thing here. But the idea was always going to be that a type face is a family, a family of letter forms and within this one the E's would all be mutants. Which would echo what was happening in the story and the other thing that, I don't even know why but I thought, "All right, let's do full out florescent orange "for the background," and so that was considered very strange and not something that one did on a Knopf book for a first edition of a novel that was going to be in hard cover and there you go. Originally I added a goofy illustration to this which Sonny had very respectfully requested that I remove or suggested, "Don't you think the lettering is enough?" And the instant he said it I was like, "Yeah, you're totally right," and that's just been the way it's been for the last 30 years, that's why I'm still there because he's very design savvy but he's not dictatorial he just, when he has a good suggestion he'll give it. So you designed the first edition hard cover? Yeah. Then we move into paperback which you don't do. What happened to this paperback? Well the thing with paperbacks is to this day that's not part of my department, literally. So sometimes they'll adapt it and then, it's hard to explain, in this particular case the paperback was being published by a completely different publisher all together outside of the Random House world. And that's due to the author's contract. Like, okay Knopf will do the hard cover but the paperback's going to be done by somebody else like, that's not, I had nothing to do with that. And then it comes out and you see this. Chip didn't do that. No. So this was a very interesting lesson to learn early on in my career. That people can interpret the exact same story in completely different ways and I don't know what went into making this, I have absolutely no idea but the sensibility is entirely different. It's completely of another piece. One of your long time authors is someone you've had quite a lot of influence in bringing to a more mainstream audience and that is Cormac McCarthy. Cormac McCarthy had been writing for quite a long time when you first were assigned his books. He was what you referred to as a mid-list writer, he was very well regarded within Knopf but didn't sell very many books then you are assigned Cormac McCarthy. Yes, Cormac McCarthy was in mid-career and, as you said, a mid-list author which is sort of publishing industry lingo for a writer's writer. As in, doesn't sell but everybody loves. Like everybody who knows this writer loves him it's just that he hasn't connected with the public. So there was this new, oh I gave a talk in Italy earlier this month where they asked me, "Well what was the state of book covers "when you came into it?" And that's very very hard to answer and it's impossible to answer but in this particular case McCarthy had published I believe three novels in the '70's and they tended to sort of look like this and I could dissect why I don't like this kind of design but I won't. I think this sort of approach either works for you or it doesn't or it was, it's like fashion. But it's not to me when you read his writing this isn't what I feel, this isn't what I see. This isn't in any way how I would perceive this work. And so I decided I want to present it the way I see it and see what happens. Again, there was no like master plan but I think the whole, again, everything is timing. Sonny had just started. He wanted to change things up at Knopf. The woman who hired me, Sara Eisenman, actually had to leave within a year because she fell in love and met this man who was a publisher in Boston and she had to go to Boston and that's what she did and then, I was 22 years old and I couldn't understand why they wouldn't make me the Art Director of Knopf. It was the summer of 1987 and I'm like, "What? "Like, why can't I be that?" They're like, "Because you're 22, And it's Knopf and you've worked "here for five months." (everyone laughs) But the head Art Director was really really great, a guy named Bob (indistinct) and he said, "You know if you just had six months "more experience we'd try it "but we can't, we can't. "Nobody will trust you, you're 22." I'm sure I was like, "Fuck." But I was smart enough that I didn't say, "Well then I quit!" I was just like, "Okay." And then waited for six months for them to do a search. So in that time I effectively was the Art Director because I had to deal with all this stuff. Which was basically follow up stuff from the previous list but it was really interesting trial by fire. I don't know why I brought that up. It's a good thing for people to hear. To know how to respond to situations like that, we've all been in situations where we've been passed over where we feel like we deserved things. Yeah, but I mean it was ridiculous for me to think I deserved that. It was ridiculous. Well most of the time it's ridiculous for us to think that. And the best thing happened. So this woman Carol Devine Carson got hired and she has been my boss for 29 1/2 years, it's been amazing. She's brilliant and she's the Art Director and she's really really terrific. Anyway, so Cormac McCarthy comes along, or the book comes along so I read it and first of all I was blown away by it. And I had not read his work before. And what I found about it was that it was very stark, he does not use any quotation marks for when anybody is speaking, so it's really reductive but there's something about it that telegrams it into your brain in an extraordinary way. I knew that All the Pretty Horses was going to be there first of three, it was going to be the Border Trilogy. This refers to the border between America and Mexico and what the main character in all three of these books starts out in Texas and makes his way down to Mexico and once he's there gets into all sorts of trouble. So I wanted, I felt that the book jacket should have a border across the middle. So this is what I call separation of type and state. The topography lives where it lives and the image lives where it lives and your eyes cross the border as they go down as you start at the beginning and go down into what's there. Now I felt it had a very 1950's cinematic quality to it, which to me said black and white. Now this was intended to be a big deal so I present the design and the editor said, "Okay this is cool, "but did you think about color?" And I said, "Yeah I sure did." (audience laughs) Sure did. Okay, and then two more weeks go by and it's like, "Have you thought about the color yet?" I'm like, "Yeah, sure did, sure did." So somehow everybody was cool with this eventually. Which was amazing to me because we could've put all these quote special effects on it. We could've embossed it. We could've done foil. We could've blah blah blah. All this crap which I think it can work in certain situations for certain books it wasn't right for this. And so this is, that's how the book came out and it was a big big hit and it relaunched his career. Now it's not because of the cover it was because of the effort that was put behind it by the publishing house. The cover helped. It didn't do it. This book connected with the public in a way that the other books did not. We helped that to happen. That's what a good publishing house does. That's why publishing will survive because that's what publishers do. So anyway for the second book three years, four years later, then I start to introduce some color into it. But not completely because I know there's going to be a third book. And so for the third one then it's like, okay, now this is all coming to a head and the shit's hitting the fan. But this was really revolutionary when you did the very minimal graphics, the separation of type and state. We were used to seeing bells and whistles and holograms and embossed and so forth. It's been amazing to me how I've gotten away with, the author's name is very small and yet it's clearly legible, it's clearly, you know what you're getting here. So this really was like a plan I had in my head but this covers a good eight years and it wasn't like I pitched this right away because I didn't know what the other two books were because he hadn't written them yet and I hadn't read them. But I knew that he had three in mind. So it's like it was going to be a color crescendo. It's the border, it's going to be black and white, do a tone and then full color. Then for the next novel I went really full out. You know, this is a serial killer, this book is so good and the movie is so good. It's so good and, anyway. So then he had written this play which was this very obscure little thing but we were going to publish it in a little paperback edition just to have it out and what it refers to is, the plot is very simple. It's a conversation between two people and as you're reading this conversation you come to understand that the one person had tried to throw himself in front of a subway train and that the other person saved him at the last minute. And then they talk about his experience. Why were you trying to kill yourself? Why were you trying to save me? It's really good. And then this came along. This cover was unpublished. It was rejected by the author. What happens when something gets rejected? Do you fight for it? How much do you fight? I never fight for it. Never? Never. Why? Pointless. I would fight for it if Cormac McCarthy called me up on the phone and said, "Why did you do this and why should I like it?" And that never happens. Never happens. I just feel that this is his book, he's worked damn hard on it, we both know what's that's like. If this is not working for him I need to find out why and then I need to find out what to do next. It is pointless for me to say to him or to his agent, "What's your fucking problem? "Don't you see how cool that is? "It's a road and it's a car but you "can't drive it because it's so "fucked up and it's the apocalypse, "what the hell?" No, no. So one of the things that I did in preparation for today's interview was ask some of the attendees through Twitter and Instagram if they had any questions they wanted me to ask you and this I think is an appropriate time to ask you a specific question about this type of response. And I did some research about the question so I'd have some context. So the question was, how do you handle criticism? How do you handle people rejecting you? And you said in response to that in previous interviews that you develop a thick skin. That's it's imperative for designers to develop a thick skin. Absolutely. How do you get to a point where you don't take something personally? When you don't take rejection personally? You never take it personally. I take turning me down for a second dinner date personally. Because that's personal. This is work. I love my work. I'm incredibly passionate about it. But this is a business, this is a job. My interest is in finding out why, after five book covers where Mr. McCarthy had nothing to say but, "Fantastic, thank you," all of the sudden this isn't working. That surprised me. It shocked me. What did he tell you about why he didn't like this? He didn't tell me anything. His agent told me, has anyone read this book? Okay. The movie is a tragic misstep unfortunately, unlike No Country For Old Men, this book is amazing. We read this in house and we were like, "This is like a Greek tragedy." It's so incredible. But it's about this man with his young, young son traversing this post apocalyptic landscape. We don't know what happened we just know that something happened and it's really bad. I tell people it's like, it's like The Walking Dead without any of the fun. (audience laughs) And his agent told me, and I don't think this is a secret now, it's a metaphor for the fact that he McCarthy was going through a divorce and was losing custody of his young child. And so this book meant so much more to him than the other ones because it was his story about how he felt about that and if you read it in that context it's even more devastating than it already is, which is totally devastating. So he wanted nothing. He wanted it to be a black void. There's scenes where in this world when it's nightfall, that's it. You can't see anything. The moon is covered by some fucking toxic sludge and it's absolutely pitch black. He didn't want his name on it. How'd that go over? I was in the room when this was communicated to our editor-in-chief by his agent who, and then my editor-in-chief blew up. Never loses his cool, ever. Blew up. He doesn't want his name on the front? Really? So the answer to that was black on black. So in the actual thing physical book, paper, ink on paper! His name is a matte black on a gloss. That's what everybody decided was okay. And then the title itself is meant to mimic blood or bloodshed of which there is plenty. So, then this was brought up to me, "Okay, what would be you're idea to "repackage all his old books in paperback?" And I was like, "This is an interesting challenge." And this a while ago, it was like eight, nine years ago and I started to come upon all these photographs of extreme weather that I thought were absolutely amazing. And he describes scenes like this mostly in the book but I thought I would make them literally a landscape format so that they would be horizontal. So if you would see them right side up, quote unquote, this is what they would look like. But this is what they really were and I thought that you could display these in a book store such that it would not be confusing and I thought it was such an interesting way to encapsulate his sensibility which is always about a greater power looking down on mankind. Something larger than yourself. Larger than yourself that's about to destroy you. So I presented these and was really, really happy with them and the marketing department just said, "No." "No," they completely nixed it. And the book buyers said, "No." They completely nixed it like this is too risky. And then that's it, it's done. And I'm not going to make a stink about it. It's like the thing about it is if that's not selling the concept then what do I have to say. It's got to work without me in the room. And if it doesn't then I don't need to be in the room or having me in the room isn't going to make any difference. So Chip, we did a terrible job preparing for our interview. Chip and I spent the last couple of hours today going over everything, laying out the timing, and we have two minutes and 44 seconds left. We completely fucked it up. Yes we have. I'm sorry. I apologize for this, it's my fault. How? Because I have too much stuff. Well that was not really a problem when you got the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. It's just a problem for this timing of this session. All right, well here's the thing. I have a couple of other things I want to show, is that okay? (audience shouts in agreement) (audience applauds) The party isn't until nine o'clock so we could really go for another two hours, right? I mean really, seriously, I don't want to bore the shit out of you. I was going to go through the whole Jurassic Park thing, you can see this in the TED Talk, I wasn't even going to do it. This was the book on dinosaurs that I bought at the Museum of Natural History to inspire me about how to somehow encapsulate this thing which I then drew that became the cover. So you drew this? I drew that. It was pathetically easy. Really. Shut up. No, it really was. The question was where to stop. Like between that and that, I thought the ribs and the teeth look really scary and cool and the three, why does it have three eyes? Well of course it doesn't have three eyes but that's the way the cavity is in the actual animal. And so that became the book cover. We did a special edition. That's me at the archive with the original drawing. This was like two years ago. Then the movie happened and they bought, because I did this illustration as work for hire, Universal bought this lock stock and barrel. You didn't get an extra penny. I got some extra money because Sonny's a good guy and you know what? That's cool. I totally, it was fine. And then this happened this past summer. Can we believe this? We all thought this was going to be a joke. (Chip laughs) Laugh it up. (audience laughs) This actually is a joke. (audience laughs) I just pulled that off the web. I thought that was just so fucking funny. And then of course I Google searched it. Somebody stenciled this in New York. Like they're protesting. Like oh my God it so sucks that there aren't any more dinosaurs. We like killed them all. What's our fucking problem. And that's the best ever. That's actually from Sarah Palin's Instagram. (audience laughs) Wouldn't that be great? Oh man, I designed the Bible. I used a photograph by Andres Serrano who did Piss Christ, this is a big problem but the publisher loved it and so they just went with it. This is an actual murder victim photographed in a morgue in New York City and I thought this encapsulates what it looks like to be dead and alive at the same time. As a design this was a huge success. As something for the client it was a huge total disaster. Protests, religious book stores would not take it because it was the photographer, same guy who did Piss Christ. So when they went to the paperback they did this. I did not design this. I don't think there's anything wrong with this design. The point of this is that this is showing the same thing as this it's just doing it in a completely different way. It's not what you're showing it's how you're showing it. And if you're going to be showing somebody who's being murdered on a tree this is more palatable to the market. The end, interesting lesson. I love Haruki Murakami. I've been working for him for over 20 years. He's so great, I love his work. When we started publishing him he was a mid-list author. We just published a few thousand copies of each of his books at a time. But we were dedicated to him as a publishing house that we were going to try and build his readership and that is what we've done. These are really conceptual, really beautiful covers. Do you present five ideas? Do you present one idea? Do you present 20 ideas? How does it work? I have to say with him, and I'm a great, I'm very superstitious. I'm a big believer in jinxing things but I'm about to jinx it. With all of these I come up with the idea that I think is right and I present it and it's flown every time. It's amazing. Congratulations. Amazing. This is the latest novel that's come out. Slight tweaks. I showed this to Sonny, our editor-in-chief and I said, "The background is actually "not going to be gray, it's going to be silver." And this, it's so hard to explain. But this was my original comp, the title type was in white and I do everything by hand and show a physical thing. That's what I want to do and that's what they want to see. That's what he wants to see. But when I showed this I said, this was the original thing, I said, "The background's going to "be silver, it's not going to be gray." And he said, this is 30 years after, no, 25 years after Geek Love, he said, "Don't you think black type will read better?" And I said, "Yes sir, you are correct." And that's the final prototype. Now at this point in his career, we have this incredible production team headed by a guy named Andy Hughes, who figures out how to do this and print 200,000 copies because that's going to be the first print run. That for us is a lot. And we have to also figure out how to do it so that they don't have to be hand jacketed because that can happen. If you're doing poetry and you have 2,000 copies you can do something fancy and hand jacket it. 200,000 copies, no you can't do that. There he is, so adorable. How did his most recent book do? Did it sell the 200,000? It debuted at number one. Because that doesn't look like a best seller (indistinct) Steven King book. Right, we were talking about this earlier. I get all the time. There's this perception of what a best selling book is supposed to look like and I enjoy time and again completely fucking destroying that perception. This is a number one New York Times best seller. It look weird, it looks odd. I think it looks interesting. There's definitely a harkening back to Alvin Lustig and Paul Rant. Would anybody know that looking at it? I don't know, doesn't matter. That's what it means to me. There's a specific meaning about why that looks the way it does. Due to the plot. Are you going to show us something brand new? All right, so here's the new thing. That's what I love about Murakami, he's so prolific and everything is new and different. The new book that's coming out this fall is a conversation that he's been having over the last two years with the great conductor Seiji Ozawa. And so again it's like a clean slate. Let's start over, that's what it is, it's these two people talking about music. Murakami's a writer. Ozawa is a conductor. Ozawa does not use a baton typically, he uses his hands and so this is using a wonderful illustrator named Eric Hanson from Minneapolis and I gave him the manuscript and he transcribed the first two measures of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto. You can see at the top the notes are comprised of the hands and so it's a back and forth of their conversation. This will come out in November. Now we have two more topics that we want to talk about, we'll try to do it a little bit quickly but I just want to let everybody know, give everybody a sense of how much we have left. We have two stories, one about DC Comics. Yes. And more Batman and then a small conversation about The Peanuts, Charles Schulz. Then we have a wonderful parting anecdote to share. So let's start with our DC Comics but I do want to say that you've written extensively about graphic design and popular culture. Your first book as author and designer was Batman Collected, your second was Batman Animated, it garnered two of the comic book industries highest awards, the Eisner Award. You also designed the trilogy Superman the Complete History, Batman the Complete History, Wonder Woman the Complete History for Chronicle, I could go on and on. Let's talk about some of the work and you're going to show some of the latest. Well this was a project that came out a year ago that I'm extremely proud of but I feel like if you weren't a comics fan or a comic geek it wouldn't even be like sneeze and you missed it. You would just miss it. Are there any comics fans in the audience? (audience cheer in agreement) Does anybody know what this is? (audience applauds) Okay, all right. A year ago, no summer of, summer of 2014 I get a call. "We have a big cover project for you "at DC, are you interested?" I'm like, "Definitely." So I go to their offices which were across the street and down one block from Random House in New York, that's worth noting for a reason. And they basically said, we're doing this huge what they call their events which is this major plot story line that goes across all 40 of their monthly titles, comic book titles over two months. And it's going to be called Convergence. So this would be designing 82 comic book covers that would span two months. April into May, so at first I was like, and I fainted and then they woke me back up and they were like, "All right, this is doable and this is how." But this is what it is. So across the entire DC Comics universe and, sounds typically insane. So the super villain Brainiac is going to take all the different, the DC Comics multi-verse exists in different worlds, Earth One, Earth Two, Earth X, Earth S, et cetera, and what's going to happen during this massive epic storyline is that Brainiac is going to slowly merge them. He's got some machine that he created and invented that's going to consolidate them, to the detrimental effect of all the characters until they're finally in one and then it's all going to explode. And so all the different characters over all the 75 years of the history of the company are going to have to deal with each other. And figure out how to stop this from happening. So Batman from 1945 is going to have to meet Batman from 1982 and reconcile the fact that they're both the same person from multi. Amazing. The physicist Brian Greene has made a career out of this concept, I'm like, "DC was way ahead of you on the whole multi-universe thing." So, what they said was you're going to use pre-existing art from all the different comics so you're going to have to go through everything. And again, the lead time on this was huge. It was, I'd say like eight months. So that's what helped and the staff was awesome. So here for example is, this is a drawing by a guy named Steve Bissette of an extremely obscure character called the Demon from like 1982. So the idea was, I started doing the math just in the meeting, in the pitch meeting where they're pitching me about what it is. It's like, two months, four weeks and a month, there's part one in the first four weeks and there's part two in the second four weeks. Got it. What makes their business? What makes comics printing? C-M-Y-K. So the first month will be cyan and so the character, whoever it is we take, excavating and curating the art is what took the longest time, months and months and months. So in week one the Demon will be phasing into a void of cyan. And the logos there, the title is there and the fucking barcode is there. (audience laughs) So when you're in a comic book shop. Then in the second week the characters have to figure out a way out of this predicament. As so that's what happens the second week. Cyan and then it becomes magenta. Then Kamandi comes out of magenta. This is Kamandi by Jack Kirby. Wonder Woman. Beautiful. And the second month then she gets second month she comes out of it. The Flash, this is recent. This art is from the last five years. So, okay, so that was yellow and now we're into the black month. But what I had in mind the whole time which in terms of comics or books or whatever seems to be, people are disregarding the physical marketplace or they think that it's going away and it's not. It's changing but it's not going away and comics fans, every Wednesday, every Wednesday when the new titles come out they want to go to the comic book shop and they want to see what's new this week. So I kept thinking about, "How's this going "to look in the comic book store?" And that was the real thrill. When it finally, after months and months and months of work and preparation, of all 81 of these things going into, and all of these pictures I took myself. There's Harley Quinn by the way. Harley Quinn is on the left and she's going to be the star of the suicide squad which is coming out in August and that will break huge and it's going to be good. And Harley Quinn will be the new anti-heroine of the DC Comics Universe. Anyway that's her on the left. And again, I have no say in placement of these things but you can see the presence they had in the store next to everything else and part of my problem in terms of graphic design in comic books has been I think they're all trying to do too much. They're trying to make an extremely complicated logo and put it on a piece of extremely complicated artwork and you get complicated on complicated. I mean look at that. As opposed to the title on the left. This is in Saint Marks Comics which also has this wooden bar across the middle of everything which totally ruins it. That's at my local comic book store in New London, Connecticut. But it was just really rewarding. It's like this riot of, what it ultimately really was about and what the story was about was the fact that DC Comics after 75 years was going to be pulling up the stakes and moving from New York to California because it's all about the movies now and so they all want everything in the same place on the Warner Lot. And this was about saying goodbye. It's about saying goodbye to New York. It's really a shame. Very bitter sweet. This Superman by Wally Wood, that won't mean anything to anybody but it meant a lot to me. Why? Because Wally Wood was a very tragic figure who took his own life in the middle of his career but he was such a genius. Such a genius. And the idea that he even drew Superman. And that's some green chick from Justice League, Flash. Okay, so then I was asked to basically do the definitive catalog, well it's not a catalog, but it's a, Charles Schulz museum has been in existence now for 15 years after his death and it was basically make a book out of our archive. That's a pretty nice job. Yeah, yeah, I was not going to say no. And I have the concept for the, I came up with the title Only What's Necessary because I thought that that encapsulated his reductive, beautiful quality. Taking basic human emotions and making them into seven squiggles that really-- Convey everything. Convey everything. I wanted to use Charlie Brown's face but of course the author is long deceased so it's like which image of Charlie Brown do you use and this was Schulz's personal stationary. This letter is from 1965 and is particular sweet and heartbreaking, I think you can read it but basically in the comic strip every Valentine's Day Charlie Brown waits by the mailbox for the Valentine's to arrive and none arrive and he's heartbroken. Well, the fans, every year would inundate Schulz's office with Valentine's for Charlie Brown because they felt bad for him. That makes me feel good about humanity. Oh my God, and the other thing with Schulz was he would answer his fan mail. He would really make an effort to have the fan mail read and screened by his secretary then the secretary would say I think you need to pay attention to this, this, this, and this. And so this was a typical letter that somebody would just get back in the mail saying, "Thank you so much for your Valentine "and it really means a lot to Charlie Brown." Point being, I figured that this art was pre-approved by him. If Schulz chose this for his stationary then that's my approval from the grave to use it. And so with photographer Jeff Spirew this became an interesting design problem of how much is just enough? And I really, this to me from the beginning was what the solution was going to be but it's a strange see if you go a step further obviously that's not enough. It's not enough. But beautiful. It's beautiful and if you're a fan you know what it is. There's no type on it. There's not type on the front, it's all on the spine. Which took some convincing. Anything like this which is an official Peanuts thing there are about four different entities that have to approve it. First of all there's his widow Jeanie who I just adore and is great. There is his creative staff. There is the museum and then there's what United Feature Syndicate has turned into, United Media. They all have to be in agreement on this that this is okay to do. And they did mainly because Jeanie was in favor of it. Oops, okay, so the book comes out. This is the book and what I loved was that somebody on Twitter said a couple months later, "Oh I get it, "you turned Charlie Brown into a blockhead." (audience laughs) And I was like, "Yeah, yeah." And I just didn't even think about that. And yet there it is. You blockhead, you blockhead. Okay so we have to wrap up so there's one, you might remember at the very beginning of our interview three days ago. (Chip laughs) We talked very briefly about this scrapbook that Chip had made for Star Wars in 1977. Well you might remember that this past December another Star Wars movie came out. Chip do you want to take it from here? Well, again this is a long convoluted story but I had done a project for J.J. Abrams. A movie, he asked me to do a movie identity for something called Morning Glory. Which was a sweet movie with really interesting people in it that didn't really do much business but Harrison Ford was in it and Diane Keaton and Rachael McAdams. But the design part of that that he brought me on to went really well and we became friends. I don't know what possessed me but two summers ago I texted him in August. I was bored and I said, "You know I'm coming to London "next month and I'm going to have "a couple days free, could I come by "the set and watch you film the Star Wars movie?" And in like 15 minutes he wrote back and said, "Sure that's a great idea." Oh my God. Why don't you get a hold, here's my assistant and she'll get you all set up. (Chip laughs) I was like, "Oh my God," of course I was not going to London I had no plans to go to London. (everyone laughs) I had just read in the paper that they were on hiatus because the door of the Millennium Falcon had fallen on to. Harrison Ford's. Harrison Ford's leg and I thought well J.J.'s probably reading his texts or whatever so anyway I went and then I became obsessed with the idea of, I need to return, not return, but to pass on the scrapbook. And so I gave J.J. the scrapbook onset. And there is is. Thank you so much. Sorry. For being so patient with us. (audience applauds)
Ratings and Reviews
Debbie Millman is a fantastic speaker and I found her to be inspiring in a fresh way!