Thursday, May 15, 2008

"It used to be a gentleman's business. Now it's a horse orgy!"

So sayeth an aging copywriter about the changing face of advertising circa 1961 in Chip Kidd's fine new novel "The Learners." A sequel to Kidd's first book "The Cheese Monkey's", this tale finds the protagonist 'Happy' graduated from college and pursuing a position at the small Connecticut advertising agency that a design teacher he admired once worked at.

If you didn't know, Mr. Kidd is a much-sought-after (and understandably so) designer of book covers. His wide-range of work is impressive in that he has no discernible style, other than the fact that his covers are always well thought out conceptually and extremely well-executed. He doesn't force his personality on the work, nor does he always use one style of font, or always use illustration, or a rigid grid approach, or what have you. He designs something appropriate for the project at hand, which needs to be different from the solution that came before. Seemingly simple, but a task many designers utterly fail at. I guess a "style" is fine, but at some point there must be an acceptance that you are in service of the project and not the other way around.

Anyway, as highly as I think of Kidd's design sensibilities, I was admittedly a tad suspicious when I heard he was coming out with a novel back in 2002. But as it turns out, "The Cheese Monkeys" was an entertaining book with a particular kind of energy and wit that I enjoyed. The fact I went to art school (with all the good and bad that such an endeavor entails) and that the book was about the same thing no doubt helped, but the book was still rich enough in detail and characterization that anyone would most likely find it entertaining.

So I was interested in this sequel, and found it to be pretty darned good. The book was by turns humorous, dark, slight and deep, and successfully tied together a lot of themes such as:

The struggle of giving a shit and having taste when plying one's trade.

How the thumb of authority can change one's behavior in unexpected ways.

What is the proper way to advertise shoes or potato chips?

The death of the illustrator and the ascendancy of photography.

The emerging roles of metaphor, wit and irony in the changing face of communication.

It's also very-well designed, and laid out in a way that helps subtly communicate the book's themes without being overwhelming. I should also mention that, generally speaking, it's pretty funny. It's good stuff. Check it out.

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