Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman and Chip Kidd
Every graduation season, amazing people make amazing commencement speeches. And because we’re lucky enough to live in the digital age, their stories, advice, and inspiration is available to everyone, not just the graduates. In 2012, Neil Gaiman joined in the fun with his “Make Good Art” speech delivered to the graduating class of Philadelphia’s the University of the Arts. I remember it absolutely blowing up around this time last year, as I was facing my own graduation from college.
And I didn’t watch it. 2013, as you might recall, was a busy year for me, and I’ve developed the embarrassing habit of dragging my feet when a video is longer than ten minutes. (This, naturally, vanishes if it’s during scheduled sleep hours.) I saved it to Pocket, where it languished for a few months, but I soon realized it wasn’t going to happen. A state later, I discovered this tiny, gorgeous book in the equally tiny, gorgeous Carnegie library I’ve claimed here in the mountains. Given my obviously jittery focus, it seemed logical to read the speech instead of listen to it.
Neil Gaiman, of course, is one of my favorite writers, despite his taste in women. (Amanda Palmer’s pulled a lot of cringe-inducing stunts over the years, but “playfully” stage-raping a Katy Perry lookalike to punish the singer for the abominable “I Kissed a Girl” went over the line for me. Ugh. Here’s Jill Sobule’s superior and original “I Kissed a Girl” to wash all of that out of your brain.) I am not devoted as some, but he was a very solid anchor for me in high school when I was learning how to be the reader I wanted to be. For that, he will always hold a special place in my heart.
The speech, obviously, sounds like him; wry and sincere. It tells the assembled artists that not having a plan besides their medium frees them to find other ways to do it, to make art they’re proud of, and make the art that only they can make. Oh, and stop and enjoy yourself when you’re successful. I’m enamored by one metaphor where Gaiman places his title on a mountain and considers if what he’s being offered or doing is getting him closer to that mountain. Particularly, he points out that there are no bad steps, just steps that make more sense chronologically. For someone starting out (albeit in a little bit more of a structured industry than freelance artistry) and dealing with a lot of adaptive moves, this is a great visualization.
But the reason I really picked this up is because of graphic designer Chip Kidd. It’s called Make Good Art, but the cover is emblazoned “FANTASTIC MISTAKES” in beautifully embossed yellow print. Every inch of the little thing is used, to the point that the library security sticker in mine obscures a quote from Stephen King on the inside of the back cover. The interior pages work with a limited palette—turquoise blue, poppy red, and white—but Kidd makes it sing. There’s even a sentence in the book, about breaking rules, you can only read in a mirror; when I finally realized this, I laughed out loud.
In this lucky digital age, I remain fascinated by the codex, by the book as beautiful object. Investigating Chip Kidd, one of the most eminent cover designers in the United States, is the next logical step in that research. His work is beautiful and appropriate, as shown here at the Book Cover Archive. It’s occasionally iconic, as it was with the first cover of Jurassic Park that now flavors every iteration of that franchise. Luckily, he’s a lot more accessible than most cover designers, presumably because he, like Gaiman, is involved with a lot of different projects at any given time. There’s his 2012 TEDTalk, which, being over ten minutes long, is going to have to wait until my next day off, and Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, which will be a gift to my beloved nephew Wolfboy one of these years. It makes lovely, lyrical sense that the book containing the text of “Make Good Art” would be good art in and of itself. (Although, amusingly, Chip Kidd’s website declares that good is dead and we should go for great.)
Bottom line: Neil Gaiman’s wry, sincere speech is upstaged gracefully by the design work of legendary graphic designer Chip Kidd. A gorgeous book that’s a perfect gift.
I rented this book from the public library.