Art of first impressions? In design and life
Blah blah blah blah blah?
0:25 So what the hell was that? Well, you don’t know because you couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t clear. But hopefully, it was said with enough conviction that it was at least alluringly mysterious.
Clarity or mystery? I’m balancing these two things in my daily work as a graphic designer, as well as my daily life as a New Yorker every day, and there are two elements that absolutely fascinate me.
Here’s an example. how many people know what this is? Okay. how many people know what this is? Okay. Thanks to two more deft strokes by the genius Charles M. Schulz, we now have 7 deft strokes that in and of themselves create an entire emotional life, one that has enthralled hundreds of millions of fans for over 50 years.
This is actually a cover of a book that I designed about the work of Schulz and his art, which will be coming out this fall, and that is the entire cover. There is no other typographic information or visual information on the front, and the name of the book is “Only What’s Necessary.”
So this is sort of symbolic about the decisions I have to make every day about the design that I’m perceiving, and the design I’m creating.
Clarity gets to the point. It’s blunt. It’s honest. It’s sincere. We ask ourselves this. [“When should you be clear?”]
Something like this, whether we can read it or not, needs to be really clear. Is it?
This is a rather recent example of urban clarity that I just love, mainly because I’m always late and I am always in a hurry. So when these meters started showing up a couple of years ago on street corners, I was thrilled, because now I finally knew how many seconds I had to get across the street before I got run over by a car. Six? I can do that. (Laughter)
let’s look at the yin to the clarity yang, and that is mystery. Mystery is a lot more complicated by its very definition. Mystery demands to be decoded, and when it’s done right, we really want to. [“When should you be mysterious?”]
In World War II, the Germans really wanted to decode this, and they couldn’t.
Here’s an example of a design that I’ve done recently for a novel by Haruki Murakami, who I’ve done design work for over 20 years now, and this is a novel about a young man who has 4 dear friends who all of a sudden, after their freshman year of college, completely cut him off with no explanation, and he is devastated.
And the friends’ names each have a connotation in Japanese to a color. So there’s Mr. Red, there’s Mr. Blue, there’s Ms. White, and Ms. Black. Tsukuru Tazaki, his name does not correspond to a color, so his nickname is Colorless, and as he’s looking back on their friendship, he recalls that they were like five fingers on a hand.
So I created this sort of abstract representation of this, but there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface of the story, and there’s more going on underneath the surface of the jacket. The four fingers are now four train lines in the Tokyo subway system, which has significance within the story. And then you have the colorless subway line intersecting with each of the other colors, which basically he does later on in the story. He catches up with each of these people to find out why they treated him the way they did.
this is the three-dimensional finished product sitting on my desk in my office, and what I was hoping for here is that you’ll simply be allured by the mystery of what this looks like, and will want to read it to decode and find out and make more clear why it looks the way it does.
5:19 [“The Visual Vernacular.”]
This is a way to use a more familiar kind of mystery. What does this mean? This is what it means. [“Make it look like something else.”] The visual vernacular is the way we are used to seeing a certain thing applied to something else so that we see it in a different way.
This is an approach I wanted to take to a book of essays by David Sedaris that had this title at the time. [“All the Beauty You Will Ever Need”]
the challenge here was that this title actually means nothing. It’s not connected to any of the essays in the book. It came to the author’s boyfriend in a dream. Thank you very much, so — (Laughter) — so usually, I am creating a design that is in some way based on the text, but this is all the text there is.
So you’ve got this mysterious title that really doesn’t mean anything, so I was trying to think: Where might I see a bit of mysterious text that seems to mean something but doesn’t?
And sure enough, not long after, one evening after a Chinese meal, this arrived, and I thought, “Ah, bing, ideagasm!” (Laughter) I’ve always loved the hilariously mysterious tropes of fortune cookies that seem to mean something extremely deep but when you think about them — if you think about them — they really don’t.
This says, “Hardly anyone knows how much is gained by ignoring the future.” Thank you. (Laughter) But we can take this visual vernacular and apply it to Mr. Sedaris, and we are so familiar with how fortune cookie fortunes look that we don’t even need the bits of the cookie anymore. We’re just seeing this strange thing and we know we love David Sedaris, and so we’re hoping that we’re in for a good time.
[“‘Fraud’ Essays by David Rakoff”] David Rakoff was a wonderful writer and he called his first book “Fraud” because he was getting sent on assignments by magazines to do things that he was not equipped to do. So he was this skinny little urban guy and GQ magazine would send him down the Colorado River whitewater rafting to see if he would survive.
And then he would write about it, and he felt that he was a fraud and that he was misrepresenting himself. And so I wanted the cover of this book to also misrepresent itself and then somehow show a reader reacting to it.
This led me to graffiti. I’m fascinated by graffiti. I think anybody who lives in an urban environment encounters graffiti all the time, and there’s all different sorts of it. This is a picture I took on the Lower East Side of just a transformer box on the sidewalk and it’s been tagged like crazy. Now whether you look at this and think, “Oh, that’s a charming urban affectation,” or you look at it and say, “That’s illegal abuse of property,” the one thing I think we can all agree on is that you cannot read it. Right? There is no clear message here.
There is another kind of graffiti that I find far more interesting, which I call editorial graffiti. This is a picture I took recently in the subway, and sometimes you see lots of prurient, stupid stuff, but I thought this was interesting, and this is a poster that is saying rah-rah Airbnb, and someone has taken a Magic Marker and has editorialized about what they think about it. And it got my attention.
I was thinking, how do we apply this to this book? So I get the book by this person, and I start reading it, and I’m thinking, this guy is not who he says he is; he’s a fraud. And I get out a red Magic Marker, and out of frustration just scribble this across the front. Design done. (Laughter) And they went for it! (Laughter)
Author liked it, publisher liked it, and that is how the book went out into the world, and it was really fun to see people reading this on the subway and walking around with it and what have you, and they all sort of looked like they were crazy. (Laughter)
[“‘Perfidia’ a novel by James Ellroy”] James Ellroy, amazing crime writer, a good friend, I’ve worked with him for many years. He is probably best known as the author of “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A. Confidential.” His most recent novel was called this, which is a very mysterious name that I’m sure a lot of people know what it means, but a lot of people don’t. And it’s a story about a Japanese-American detective in Los Angeles in 1941 investigating a murder.
And then Pearl Harbor happens, and as if his life wasn’t difficult enough, now the race relations have really ratcheted up, and then the Japanese-American internment camps are quickly created, and there’s lots of tension and horrible stuff as he’s still trying to solve this murder. And so I did at first think very literally about this in terms of all right, we’ll take Pearl Harbor and we’ll add it to Los Angeles and we’ll make this apocalyptic dawn on the horizon of the city. And so that’s a picture from Pearl Harbor just grafted onto Los Angeles.
My editor in chief said, “You know, it’s interesting but I think you can do better and I think you can make it simpler.” And so I went back to the drawing board, as I often do. But also, being alive to my surroundings, I work in a high-rise in Midtown, and every night, before I leave the office, I have to push this button to get out, and the big heavy glass doors open and I can get onto the elevator. And one night, all of a sudden, I looked at this and I saw it in a way that I hadn’t really noticed it before.
Big red circle, danger. And I thought this was so obvious that it had to have been done a zillion times, and so I did a Google image search, and I couldn’t find another book cover that looked quite like this, and so this is really what solved the problem, and graphically it’s more interesting and creates a bigger tension between the idea of a certain kind of sunrise coming up over L.A. and America.
12:22 [“‘Gulp’ A tour of the human digestive system by Mary Roach.”]
Mary Roach is an amazing writer who takes potentially mundane scientific subjects and makes them not mundane at all; she makes them really fun. So in this particular case, it’s about the human digestive system. So I’m trying to figure out what is the cover of this book going to be. This is a self-portrait. (Laughter) Every morning I look at myself in the medicine cabinet mirror to see if my tongue is black. And if it’s not, I’m good to go. (Laughter) I recommend you all do this.
But I also started thinking, here’s our introduction. Right? Into the human digestive system. But I think what we can all agree on is that actual photographs of human mouths, at least based on this, are off-putting. (Laughter) So for the cover, then, I had this illustration done which is literally more palatable and reminds us that it’s best to approach the digestive system from this end. (Laughter) I don’t even have to complete the sentence. All right.
[“Unuseful mystery“] What happens when clarity and mystery get mixed up? And we see this all the time. This is what I call unuseful mystery. I go down into the subway — I take the subway a lot — and this piece of paper is taped to a girder. Right? And now I’m thinking, uh-oh, and the train’s about to come and I’m trying to figure out what this means, and thanks a lot. Part of the problem here is that they’ve compartmentalized the information in a way they think is helpful, and frankly, I don’t think it is at all. So this is mystery we do not need.
What we need is useful clarity, so just for fun, I redesigned this. This is using all the same elements. (Applause) Thank you. I am still waiting for a call from the MTA. (Laughter)
You know, I’m actually not even using more colors than they use. They just didn’t even bother to make the 4 and the 5 green, those idiots. (Laughter) So the first thing we see is that there is a service change, and then, in two complete sentences with a beginning, a middle and an end, it tells us what the change is and what’s going to be happening. Call me crazy! (Laughter)
[“Useful mystery“] here is a piece of mystery that I love: packaging. This redesign of the Diet Coke can by Turner Duckworth is to me truly a piece of art. It’s a work of art. It’s beautiful. But part of what makes it so heartening to me as a designer is that he’s taken the visual vernacular of Diet Coke — the typefaces, the colors, the silver background — and he’s reduced them to their most essential parts, so it’s like going back to the Charlie Brown face.
It’s like, how can you give them just enough information so they know what it is but giving them the credit for the knowledge that they already have about this thing? It looks great, and you would go into a delicatessen and all of a sudden see that on the shelf, and it’s wonderful. Which makes the next thing — [“Unuseful clarity”] — all the more disheartening, at least to me. So okay, again, going back down into the subway, after this came out, these are pictures that I took. Times Square subway station: Coca-Cola has bought out the entire thing for advertising. Okay? And maybe some of you know where this is going. Ahem.
“You moved to New York with the clothes on your back, the cash in your pocket, and your eyes on the prize. You’re on Coke.” (Laughter) “You moved to New York with an MBA, one clean suit, and an extremely firm handshake. You’re on Coke.” (Laughter) These are real! (Laughter) Not even the support beams were spared, except they switched into Yoda mode. (Laughter) “Coke you’re on.” (Laughter) [“Excuse me, I’m on WHAT??”] This campaign was a huge misstep.
It was pulled almost instantly due to consumer backlash and all sorts of unflattering parodies on the web — (Laughter) — and also that dot next to “You’re on,” that’s not a period, that’s a trademark. So thanks a lot.
to me, this was just so bizarre about how they could get the packaging so mysteriously beautiful and perfect and the message so unbearably, clearly wrong. It was just incredible to me.
18:05 So I just hope that I’ve been able to share with you some of my insights on the uses of clarity and mystery in my work, and maybe how you might decide to be more clear in your life, or maybe to be a bit more mysterious and not so over-sharing. (Laughter)
18:30 And if there’s just one thing that I leave you with from this talk, I hope it’s this: Blih blih blih blah. Blah blah blih blih. [“‘Judge This,’ Chip Kidd”] Blih blih blah blah blah. Blah blah blah
Book designer Chip Kidd shares what inspired his iconic covers: