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Fresh out of college in the summer of 1961, Happy lands his first job as a graphic designer (okay, art assistant) at a small Connecticut advertising agency populated by a cast of endearing eccentrics. Life for Happy seems to be — well, happy. But when he's assigned to design a newspaper ad recruiting participants for an experiment in the Yale Psychology Department, Happy can't resist responding to the ad himself. Little does he know that the experience will devastate him, forcing a reexamination of his past, his ...
Fresh out of college in the summer of 1961, Happy lands his first job as a graphic designer (okay, art assistant) at a small Connecticut advertising agency populated by a cast of endearing eccentrics. Life for Happy seems to be — well, happy. But when he's assigned to design a newspaper ad recruiting participants for an experiment in the Yale Psychology Department, Happy can't resist responding to the ad himself. Little does he know that the experience will devastate him, forcing a reexamination of his past, his soul, and the nature of human cruelty — chiefly, his own. Written in sharp, witty prose and peppered with absorbing ruminations on graphic design, The Learners again shows that Chip Kidd's writing is every bit as original, stunning, and memorable as his celebrated book jackets.
A sequel to book designer Kidd's first novel, The Cheese Monkeys, this beautifully composed paean to pre-computer graphic design pitches recent graduate Happy (his nickname), now 21, into the mercantile halls of down-at-the-heels New Haven ad agency Spears, Rakoff and Ware. Kidd paints the agency with all the customary conventions of a mid-century office culture farce: lacquered secretaries, lunchtime scotches and broken-down businessmen. Happy wiles away his time in blissful drudgery until he fields a call for designing a tiny ad for a seemingly innocuous psychological study. The study is being run by (real-life psychologist) Stanley Milgram, and Happy is unable to resist volunteering; little surprise for readers that Happy finds himself a participant in Milgram's notorious Obedience to Authorityexperiment, playing the role of "The Teacher" who is ordered to shock "The Learner" with near-lethal doses of electricity. Though character development is less the point than jokes about behaviorism and old school office culture's last gasps, the experiment teaches Happy more than he ever hoped to know. The jokes are sometimes dippy, and some of the typographical pyrotechnics are on the twee side. But Kidd's ebullience and generosity in unpacking the art and practice of graphic design carry the novel. (Feb.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
When Tip is standing in the doorway as he is right now, it can only mean one thing. I brace myself. He shouts, eyes pleading:
After two and a half months, I'm starting to get used to it. Very jarring at first, but now I'm practically a pro. I counter, with excellent timing:
Aha. Got him. He wasn't ready for that.
I raise my head from the potato chip coupon I've been laying out with blue pencil for the past ten minutes and arch my right eyebrow, which is all he needs. Sketchy ignores us, as always.
"Faaassssssssinating." It's like a gas leak from Tip's mouth and he darts back down to his office.
And I am reminded, grateful: This can be a pretty fun place to work.
* * *
Who am I? I am Happy.
Not in any descriptive way, God knows -- it's my name. A nickname, to be more precise, which I acquired relatively late in life, as those things go. From a teacher of mine in college, freshman year. And because of that it will always be who -- not what -- I am.
I wear it proudly, my sleeve's own Purple Heart.
Me: twenty-one years old,Caucasian male of mixed Anglo-Italian origin, olive-skinned, round tortoise-shell horn-rimmed glasses, hair sort of like Brandon De Wilde's in Shane, otherwise not interesting to look at. Or at least that's what the evidence would suggest.
Which is fine by me, because I'm the one doing the looking. I'm a graphic designer -- I pretty much see the world as one great big problem to solve; one typeface, one drawing, one image at a time. Life is a life-long assignment that must be constantly analyzed, clarified, figured out, and responded to appropriately.
I am inquisitive, though I hope not in any obnoxious way; and while I'm wary of any sort of unfamiliarity I am also quickly and easily bored by routine. I grew up in the eastern mid-Atlantic region of the United States, raised Protestant -- the United Church of Christ -- but have become very much of the "religion is the opiate of the people" school (the sole piece of common sense I gleaned from a course on Marxist theory, senior year), which of course I have elected to keep from my roundly nice, doting parents, lest they call the police. But I am close to my family, the way you are close to other people in a small crowded elevator that has temporarily stalled but will be moving any minute now. And as far as I was concerned, that minute was almost here.
Let's see, what else. I am convinced that ALL sports are a sanctioned form of mass-demonic worship, that cathedrals and museums have traded roles in the greater culture, and that Eve Arden is woefully underappreciated by society at large -- as are comic books, malted milk, cracking your neck, secret decoder rings, glass tea kettles, whoopie pies, and television test patterns. And -- ahem -- graphic designers. That should do for now.
Wait, I'm forgetting something. Oh.
I do not write poetry.
But most of all: I am eager to start my career as a newly certified Bachelor of the Arts in Graphic Design, with a very specific goal -- acquiring a job at the advertising agency of Spear, Rakoff & Ware; two states away, up in New Haven, Connecticut.
It's where Winter Sorbeck started. Long ago.
Now, yes -- Winter, the teacher in question who christened me, my GD instructor during my first year at State -- is a whole other story. And certainly one with no small amount of pain. But however bullying, severe, terror-inducing, and unnerving he was (and boy, was he), he was equal parts mesmerizing, eye-opening, inspiring, and brilliant. He was unlike any teacher I'd had, before or since. By the end of that spring semester he abruptly quit the faculty and vanished. I would have gladly dropped out to follow him anywhere, but no amount of amateur detective work revealed where that might be. So I bided my time, worked for the next three years to get my degree, and upon graduation decided: If I couldn't be where Winter was now, I'd go where he'd been. In the course of solving one of his earlier assignments I discovered that he started his career at Spear, Rakoff & Ware, and if that was good enough for him, it would be good enough for me.
And proving difficult. No surprise there -- if Winter was anything, he was difficult, as would be anyplace associated with him. But no doubt worth the trouble. I approached the firm early, in March, three months before graduation. My initial inquiry went unanswered, as did my résumé (which could have won the Collegian's annual First Fiction award), and the letter of recommendation I'd extorted from the dean's secretary. By May I was desperate, so I telephoned. The voice that greeted me hummed with the same welcome slow tone I knew from three years earlier, when I'd called for help on that gum wrapper label design problem for Winter. It was Milburne "Sketchy" Spear -- the head of the art department. He didn't remember me and I didn't remind him -- I wanted a clean start. The years had not changed his enthusiasm:
"Oh, you don't want to work here."
"Um, yes sir, I do."
"Sorry, I'm inking. Mind's a porch screen when I'm inking. I'm trying to do a crowd scene with a Number 5 Pedigree pen tip. Should be using a Radio 914. Doesn't really matter -- can't draw anymore anyway, never could. God, I stink. Wouldn't you rather work someplace else? Where people didn't stink?"
What? "No sir, I'd like to work for your firm. You know, to sort of get my feet wet." Dreadful. Why did I say that?
"Heh." He sounded like a lawnmower trying to start. "Heh. That's what I thought. I mean, that's what I thought when I got here. You know when that was?"
"No. I -- "
"You know dirt?"
"Um, yes. Dirt."
"Well, I started here the year before they discovered it."
"At least...it must have been spotless when you arrived."
"Heh-heh. Can you airbrush?"
"Yes, but -- "
"Operate a photo-stat machine?"
"Did you receive my résu -- "
"Do you know what I'm doing right now?"
"Uh, drawing a crowd scene with a...Number 5 Pedigree pen tip?"
"No, that's done. Now I'm trying to decide what kind of face the potato chip should have. That's always the question. Everything's a question."
"For this newspaper ad. A whole half-pager, due by five. Everyone signed off on it yesterday -- the crowd, see, they've all filed out into the street to worship a giant potato chip."
"Because it's a Krinkle Kutt. One of our biggest accounts."
"Six stories tall." His tone was casual, as if he was telling me about his brother-in-law. "So, exactly what sort of expression should it have on its face? Because obviously, it's a very happy potato chip, to be a Krinkly Kollosus, and looked up to by all these tiny people, who adore it so."
"Well...it's obvious to me."
"It should look chipper."
"So to speak." Boy, was I making this up. Pure hokum. "You know, not so smug. He doesn't want to frighten everyone. I mean, I'd be wary of a protean jagged slab of tuber towering over my fellow citizens, our fate in his many, many eyes. Especially if he's been fried in lard. Which he has, I hope?"
"Heh. You still want to work here?"
Copyright © 2008 by Charles Kidd.
Excerpted from The Learners by Chip Kidd Copyright © 2008 by Chip Kidd. Excerpted by permission.
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