Eileen Kern

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Designing Books and Reader Reaction

This post features two specific moments from the above video. Here’s the first: During Chip Kidd’s presentation about the design of book covers, he happens to answer a question I’ve had for some time: What is it like to discover someone has gotten a tattoo of your art?

(7:23) But if you think about it, from my head to my hands to his leg. (Laughter) That’s a responsibility. And it’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. The book designer’s responsibility is threefold: to the reader, to the publisher and, most of all, to the author. I want you to look at the author’s book and say, “Wow! I need to read that.”

And here’s the second: He describes designing the cover for Augusten Burroughs’s Dry.

Kidd’s vision was this: “I want this book to look like it’s lying to you, desperately and hopelessly, the way an alcoholic would.” But what fascinated me was the story of a reader’s reaction:

Not long after it came out, Augusten was waylaid in an airport and he was hiding out in the bookstore spying on who was buying his books. And this woman came up to it, and she squinted, and she took it to the register, and she said to the man behind the counter, “This one’s ruined.” (Laughter) And the guy behind the counter said, “I know, lady. They all came in that way.” (Laughter) Now, that’s a good printing job.

Both of these moments are about reader/consumer reaction, which is why I find them so interesting. Actually, the woman’s reaction to Dry made me viscerally flash back to a moment in a bookstore not long after David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King came out. (Side note: The jacket was designed by Karen Green, DFW’s widow. If you’re interested in The Pale King, you might want to check out this article.)

The Pale King had been featured on promotions and had been selling very well, and the cover, with its strips of text threaded through a playing card, created visual interest that appealed to Wallace fans and book browsers. As a bookseller, this object caused me worry: The nature of the the jacket paper (was it art paper?) gave it a tendency to pick up marks, and any promotional sticker placed in the upper right hand corner had to be removed with the utmost of care or the cover would tear. Copies of the book had to be handled with kid gloves, and many copies were already showing wear before they’d even found their final homes. Maybe it could all be a metaphor for the fragility of human life.