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The Great Gatsby

When I write these blog posts, I usually try to bring light to something most people might never have seen or known before. I really enjoy understanding a process or to work backwards from the solution to discover that process. Just because you think you might know the whole story, there is usually more to discover. This post is no different.

I want to dig a little deeper into a book, and it’s cover, that I’m sure most of you have seen; The Great Gatsby. It’s fairly well known, but if you haven’t, you should definitely read it (synopsis to follow). From hearing designers like Chip Kidd speak and talking with other designers, book covers are usually made after the manuscript have been completed. That is what makes this book cover different and therefore far more interesting.

The Great Gatsby was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925. The novel chronicles Nick Carroway in 1922 as he returns from war and is looking to restart his life. He meets a number of characters, including Gatsby (his neighbor), Daisy (the woman Gatsby has been in love with for years), and a number of other characters who create a tangled web of dishonesty, betrayal, and bewilderment amongst the glittery back drop of the luxurious 1920s. It really is a good read.

The book cover was commissioned to Francis Cugat in 1924 while the book was still unpublished. At the time, Fitzgerald was still pondering titles for the book, including Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, On the Road to West Egg, and Gold-Hatted Gatsby. Cugat created this painting under the title of Celestial Eyes, not really knowing what direction Fitzgerald would eventually head. To Cugat’s surprise, Fitzgerald loved the painting so much that he went back and worked aspects of it into the story, including the green light (which appears on Daisy’s dock), and the large eyes in the sky (they appear physically on the side of a building, but act as much, much more to the story). Fitzgerald even went as for to state to the publisher, “For Christs sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”

Much can be taken from knowing the back story of one of the most famous books/covers in the world. The first being, as a designer, illustrator, creative, do what you think is best. Put your best idea forward and see where it might go. The client might even change their project just to enable more of your idea. Secondly, there is always more to the story. You might have already heard the story, think you know all the components, but there is always more. Perhaps this comes from my journalism days, but the more you know, the more you can learn, glean, and eventually grow.

Below is the original book cover and then subsequent covers for the novel.

Original Cover by Francis Cugat

Cover by Alvin Lustig

Cover by Aled Lewis

Chip Kidd: Design Genius or Comedian?

I believe the answer is both. Last week I attended a talk given by Chip Kidd at Indiana University, my ama mater. His talk elicited side-splitting laughter, groans of disapproval for examples of extremely ugly book jackets, and cheers when his locally-brewed beer was refreshed, on stage, mid-sentence. The more I listened to his anecdotes the more I realized something: He was only talking about the book jackets that were cancelled or rejected by author or publisher. Here is Chip Kidd, a man that is considered a rock star in graphic design, only showing his failures. Why?

I’m not sure of his reason, but my theory is this: Kidd stated that graphic designers are “problem-solvers.” The problem is posed to us where we are given restrictions, images, perhaps some copy and told, “Make this work.” So how do we get better at problem solving? We have to fail, be rejected, and told no. It’s at this point that we pick ourselves up, dig deeper into our creative brains, and try something different. It’s the only way, and every graphic designer goes through this every day. From a design student trying to get through a class crit to Chip Kidd, a rock star in the graphic design world, being told the publisher “the opposite of liked it.”

So I’ll leave with you a few quotes that I loved from his talk. He really is a comedian…
Q: What should go on this book jacket?
A: How about some type? Type is nice. You can reeeeaaadddd it… (Note Chip Kidd’s sarcasm here.)

Q: Do you sketch your ideas before heading to the computer?
A: I don’t have the sketch gene, the notebook gene, or the drawing gene. I just don’t. So…yeah.

Q: How do you come up with successful design ideas?
A: I rely on serendipity a lot. A LOT.

Go and see Chip Kidd talk the next time he’s near you. He’s a real hoot to see and his personality is just infectious.

Chip Kidd