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Book Review

A funny valentine to the world of graphic design

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Julie Wittes Schlack
April 17, 2008

The Learners
By Chip Kidd
Scribner, 258 pp., $26

As a graphic designer, Chip Kidd produces book jackets that are sometimes sly, sometimes extravagant, and always memorable. As the author of "The Learners," he achieves the first two qualities, and comes close on the third. Set in a small, second-tier ad agency in New Haven in 1961, the novel is rich with comic potential. And by and large it delivers.

The ironically named Happy is the book's protagonist, but that term also describes his emotional state on landing a job straight out of college as an assistant graphic designer at Spear, Rakoff & Ware. The agency has never recovered from the loss of the Doublemint account and the demise of one of its founders, but its small crew of hard-drinking copywriters and designers - Sketchy, Tip, and yes, Poopy - are nonetheless kept in cigarettes, whiskey, and golf balls by less illustrious but reliable accounts like Krinkle Kutt potato chips.

Kidd's love for his craft is made manifest in Happy's admiring apprenticeship to Sketchy Spear, a maker of magnificent cartoon worlds populated by anthropomorphized snack foods, a man for whom "to draw was to breathe, and so the air became lead - silvery in the right light, dark soot in the wrong; heavy, slick, and malleable - into shapes he brought together in glorious orchestration, with a child's eye and a rocket scientist's precision, all fortified by a furious melancholy, a quiet engine of sourceless shame and humility." And Kidd shares his deep knowledge of graphic design with his readers in inventive and generally delightful ways, through bold but controlled fun with typography, brief digressive expositions on the multifaceted nature of form and content, and annotated examples of ads, explaining how and why the fonts and spacing achieve their desired effect.

The ad that serves as the central example in Kidd's lecture about typography also serves as the primary plot driver. It is a call for volunteers to participate in a study of memory and learning, a call that Happy eventually answers. The experiment, of course, turns out to be the infamous study of obedience designed by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which designated "teachers" were instructed to administer electric shocks of progressively higher voltage to randomly chosen "learners" until the latter correctly completed a series of memorization exercises. The learners were actually lab assistants and the shocks were faked, but the prerecorded screams of pain and cries for mercy they supposedly emitted haunted the consciences of the hapless teachers, over 60 percent of whom obediently applied what they believed to be the full 450 volts.

Discovering himself to belong to that majority, to be capable of what could have been murder, Happy is wracked by sleeplessness and guilt. At the same time, he's under pressure to produce a business-winning concept for Buckle Shoes, one that will restore his agency to its earlier glory. So in the novel's manic climax, Kidd explores the odd confluence of shame and creativity, darting from comedy to tragedy to somewhat heavy-handed irony with mixed success.

But like the squawks of a pubescent boy whose voice is changing, Kidd's occasional cracks in tone are entirely forgivable. His wit, astute observation, and compassion make "The Learners" that rarest of offerings - a didactic but immensely enjoyable novel.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

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