City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Cheese Monkeys, by Chip Kidd (2002)

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I just finished The Cheese Monkeys, by the brilliant designer, and now seemingly the brilliant writer, Chip Kidd (Ed. This piece was originally published at on 1 October 2002).

Or, in the words of James Ellroy, “The world’s greatest book-jacket designer finds a second spellbinding artist voice.” And when Ellroy speaks, you listen.

It’s a strange confection: part late-1950s coming-of-age novel; part introduction to graphic design. In the character of Winter Sorbeck, graphic design now has its Howard Roark character, for better or worse. In the narrator’s voice, it has a Holden Caulfield.

It’s a wonderful book, crammed with period detail and timeless smarts. And very funny. It also has numerous insights into the practice of design in general, and, if Sorbeck’s techniques themselves prove at odds with your local education policy (they probably ought to), it should be required ‘tangential reading’ on any design course nonetheless. Actually Sorbeck is a fallen Roark, eventually too principled to be in step with the modern world, his fervent idealism expressed in hilariously cruel, impatient bullying, but always through care for the craft of design.

A couple of gleaming asides from The Cheese Monkeys:

“Yes, Garnett Gray was an architect. Were a psychoanalyst to approach him from behind, tap his shoulder, and say “Humanity,” Garnett’d spin and respond, without hesitation, “Solvable.”

and this:

“Pigtails, we have to teach you how to see. Either that or you get a tapping stick and a dog with a metal handle and a lot of patience.” Titters in the room. Then, quite grave: “You are a designer. You have to eat the world with your eyes. You must look at everything as it you’re going to die in the next five minutes, because in the relative scheme of things, you are. You can’t miss a trick …”

(Ed. That last quote I have used countless times over the years, as a design leader and teacher, including quoting it in my book Dark Matter and Trojan Horses. Thanks Chip!)

Oh, and p106-p109 neatly picks apart Art from Commercial Art from Graphic Design with consummate ease and no little grace and wit. The book can be read in a day or so—in fact, you may struggle to not do so—and is highly recommended.

Ed. This piece was originally published at on 1 October 2002.


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