Brain Pickings

A Kid’s Guide to Graphic Design by Iconic Designer Chip Kidd

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“Graphic design needs your willing mental participation, even if it’s subconscious.”

“It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed,” the late and great Bill Moggridge, designer of the world’s first laptop, famously reminded us. And, indeed, it is precisely because design touches every aspect of our lives — from our cities to our books to our governance to our communication with objects — that we grow so blind to it and so oblivious to its all-permeating power. Enveloped in design’s embrace since birth, since our very first conscious experiences of the world, we come to take its ubiquity and power for granted — that is, not to register it consciously at all — unless we start paying attention, and start paying it sooner rather than later.

So what better way to address our cultural blind spot than a graphic design primer for kids, and who better to do it than legendary graphic designer Chip Kidd, creator of some of modern history’s most memorable book covers and mastermind of this sublime visual adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s commencement address on the creative life? That’s precisely what he does in Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design (public library) — a refreshing addition to these nonfiction children’s books about the arts and sciences, inviting kids to learn not only about the basic practicalities of design as a discipline but also to awaken to the essence of design as a sensemaking mechanism for the world.

Kidd begins with something completely fundamental yet fundamentally overlooked, both by kids and by adults:

Whether you realize it or not, most of the decisions you make, every day, are by design.

Pointing to everything from milk cartons to book interiors to street signs, he adds:

Everything that is not made by nature is designed by someone.

In this excerpt from his fantastic interview on Design Matters, Kidd talks to Debbie Millman about what he means by that and how the essence of this awareness both reflects and shapes our most basic understanding of the world:

Much of what makes the book as enticing for children as it is refreshing for adults is Kidd’s determination to strip design from the shackles of over-intellectualization and boring jargon. He begins at the beginning:

Okay, so just what is graphic design?

The dull but correct answer is that graphic design is purposeful planning that uses any combination of forms, pictures, words, and meanings to achieve one’s goal.

But that is boring.

The far more interesting answer is that graphic design is problem-solving (and sometimes making something really cool in the process). There are all kinds of problems to solve: good, bad, complicated, easy, annoying, fascinating, dull, life-threatening, mundane. There are problems that matter only to you and no one else, and problems that determine the fate of mankind. And some of them are truly unsolvable — but of course that doesn’t stop people from trying, and it shouldn’t. But the main thing to learn about graphic design problem-solving is that the best solution can usually be found in the best definition of the problem itself.

Kidd illustrates this seemingly paradoxical proposition with the perfect example — the speed bump:

In fact, while the book is aimed at kids, it’s surprisingly illuminating for adults as well, opening with a brief and fascinating history of graphic design, from cave paintings to the American flag to the internet — a condensed version of the 100 ideas that changed graphic design. (For, as iconic designer Massimo Vignelli famously proclaimed, “a designer without a sense of history is worth nothing.”)

1826 PHOTOGRAPH BY JOSEPH NICÉPHORE NIÉPCE: This was the very first photograph ever taken. Niépce used a camera obscura to capture the image, a view outside his window, on paper.

1866 LOGO FOR COCA-COLA: Rumored to have been designed by the company founder John S. Pemberton, this logo hasn't changed much at all since then, as seen in this coupon ad from 1900.

1919 POSTER BY ALEXANDER RODCHENKO: Artists yearning for a bold, new graphic language found it in Russian Constructivism, a movement that sought to use art as a way of advancing political and social causes.

1967 BOB DYLAN POSTER BY MILTON GLASER: Glaser's iconic design became emblematic of the 'psychedelic' design of the '60s, as did many of the poster and magazine designs that came out of Glaser's studio, Push Pin Studios.

We learn, too, that the term “graphic design” itself was coined in 1922 by the renowned typographer, calligrapher, and book designer William Addison Dwiggins. But the most important knowledge Kidd instills in young readers (and, by extension, in those of us willing to rethink our stagnant ideas) is a beautiful, poetic articulation of what makes graphic design unique — and, perhaps, what places it closer to art, at least per Tolstoy’s definition, despite how vehemently many graphic designers defend the distinction between art and design. Kidd writes:

Graphic design needs your willing mental participation, even if it’s subconscious. Graphic design is message-sending into the brain. It is a cerebral experience, not a physical one. Architecture wants you to walk through it. Industrial design takes your hand (or other body parts) to appreciate it. Fashion makes you put it on. But Graphic design is purely a head trip, from your eyes to your mind.

Most endearing of all, however, is the irreverent geniality with which Kidd addresses his young readers, refusing to talk down to them or confine their inborn curiosity to narrow adult expectations about what “writing for children” should be like. Fittingly, the first page features a delicious vintage portrait of five-year-old Chip in 1969 — one can’t help wondering whether it’s that very kid Kidd is addressing today, his own bright young self, to whom he speaks both affectionately and resolutely, cultivating his wide-eyed capacity for wonder while opening his eyes to a new, life-changing understanding of what graphic design is and how it shapes his world.

Chip Kidd, age 5, 1969. Kindergarten school photo, Lincoln Park Elementary, PA.

Accompanying the photo is a piece of classic Kiddean self-reflexive snark:

The use of such images by graphic designers in their books is, admittedly, a shameless way to gain immediate sympathy from readers. It’s also very effective.

And now just for good measure, here’s another Design Matters excerpt in which Kidd explains how and why he and Neil Gaiman — with whom he had just collaborated on this gem — French-kissed onstage at Comic Con:

Given the magnitude of Kidd’s talent, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn about its multiplicity — Kidd used to be in a rock band called Artbreak with his friend Marco Petrilli. Though the band disbanded when Marco had to move with his family to Texas — where he ended up initiating a School-of-Rock-like music program at the Texas high school that hired him to teach math — the music impulse endured in Kidd, as did his friendship with Petrilli. The resurrection of both springs to life in this delightful trailer for Go, composed by Kidd himself and featuring his own beatboxing, with narration by Petrilli’s youngest son and a kid-chorus of his high school music class:

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design is a treat in its entirety. Complement it with these animated primers on six major design movements and the full Design Matters interview, then treat yourself to Kidd’s hopelessly entertaining TED talk:

Images courtesy of Workman Publishing

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