The Learners: A Chip Kidd Novel

A phone call. A dream job. A shot in the dark. The death of a friend.

And then you find out you’re a murderer.

A very twisted story for someone nicknamed, ‘Happy’.  World-famous book cover designer Chip Kidd’s own novel, “The Learners” takes you through the topsy turvy world of a design firm in the 1960s – with a twist.

While working in a Connecticut college town, the young Happy, an aspiring graphic designer, navigates the perilous world of ruling out broadsheets, Krinkle Kut potato chip advertisements, and eccentric, but lovable colleagues Sketch, Tip, Mimi, and Miss Preech. All seems well, until an old friend suddenly resurfaces in Happy’s life – someone he’s missed since college. But within weeks after seeing her, Happy finds out she is dead. Things only take a turn for the worse when a letter from that friend somehow finds him at work, containing an public announcement advertisement for an experiment which Happy himself drew up.

Wracked by guilt, Happy decides he has to answer his own advertisement and take part in the experiment.

But little does he know it is the famous Milgram Experiment at the nearby Yale University.

          A historical sidenote: The Milgram Experiment dealt with obedience and authority. It required the test subjects to test the memory of another individual in a different room with word combinations, and to “shock” that person (with stronger and stronger electric voltage) if they submit a wrong answer. The individual being shocked was an actor, but the test subject was unaware of this fact until after the experiment had concluded, so they believed that they were really shocking the other person.

Happy completes the experiment and finds himself shocking the individual to the highest degree the shocker allows, which would kill the person in the adjacent room. When he finds out after the experiment has concluded that the other individual was an actor, and that the experiment was designed to test his response to authority, Happy breaks and begins a downward spiral, hallucinating, unable to look at himself in the mirror, and even barely able to work.

Unable to cope with the pain and the guilt caused by the experiment, Happy returns home, and, on the way, overdoses on sleeping pills, hoping to be saved by his family and to be able to start again.

This book was not at all what I was expecting. I picked up this book before its prequel, The Cheese Monkeys, so I was thrown into the continuing plot line. However, I found my bearings very quickly, and there was no significant gap.

The language of the book was incredibly strong and descriptive, and the writing style itself was engaging; it felt like you were both in Happy’s mind and in the outside world at the same time, and always got a great sense of tone in the line breaks and fragments scattered throughout the book.

However, I felt that the plot line took very sudden turns from time to time, which disoriented me and threw me out of the reading loop. Regardless, the story was well told and very animated; I got a sense of the characters with very little knowledge about them, and, as a current graphic design student, the sneak-peak into the life of a 1960s agency designer was both interesting and intriguing.

Chip Kidd’s in-depth knowledge of fonts, design, form, and content was absolutely a highlight of the book. It shines through in every scenario and every one of the cleverly-designed interludes that pop up repeatedly throughout the book about the nature of content. I found these ingenious, hilarious, and, to a graphic designer, incredibly relevant, even today.

These interludes also give a rare and unique look into the life and world of a designer. In my experience, non-designers and especially clients rarely realise the amount of sophistication and effort that goes into advertisements, content, form, and especially typography. The inclusion of these bits and bobs, along with incredibly vivid storytelling, bring this other dimension to life in a way that designers laugh at and others begin to understand and learn from.

Lastly, this book had a uniquely psychological aspect. Happy’s response to the Milgram experiment and the book just before and after the experiment took place was incredibly immersing, and really brought the psychological pain Happy was experiencing to life.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, both as a fan of Chip Kidd, and as a lover of design and descriptive writing. Especially in regards to the Milgram experiment, it is a worthwhile read, and I recommend it to graphic design students and anyone looking for a thought-provoking read with a seamless blend of design knowledge, psychology, and fantastic writing.

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