Stephen Eskilson | Essays

Heteronormative Design Discourse

The question of sexual identity, a central focus of a great deal of thought in recent decades, has received scant attention in the design world. The subject seems largely invisible in both the practice of design and of design writing where a blanket state of heteronormative assumptions still prevail. The term “heteronormative” itself, a key theme of queer theory that was coined by Michael Warner over twenty years ago, while a mainstream standard bearer in art and literary studies,[1] rarely appears in a design context. Of course, this invisibility in the design world — a circumstance in which heterosexual mores appear natural and normal to the exclusion of all others — furthers a power dynamic through which heteronormative power is exercised throughout culture. As Warner wrote incisively in Social Text, “... so much of heterosexual privilege lies in heterosexual culture’s exclusive ability to interpret itself as society (my italics).”[2] I think a brief consideration of heteronormativity in design discourse can provide a fresh view of design’s transformative powers of communication.

Historically, one of the only attempts at the recognition of an alternative to heteronormative design discourse came in the form of Susan Sontag’s famous 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp.”[3] In this essay, Sontag used the pre-digital equivalent of a powerpoint format, elucidating 53 numbered thoughts on what she identifies as a new sensibility. “Camp” is taste that celebrates artifice, wit, and ironic decorative overkill. In statement #8, Sontag asserted that the Art Nouveau style, which in the early 1960s was in the midst of a flourishing revival, was exemplary of the camp sensibility. Sontag particularly admired the Art Nouveau tendency to transform, what she called “things-being-what-they-are-not,” such as the Metro entrances by Hector Guimard.

While Sontag, writing in a pre-Stonewall era, was oblique in explicating her thesis’s relationship to homosexuality (she broaches the subject directly in #51). “51. The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it's not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap.” Sontag’s equation of camp’s ironic attitude and homosexuality proved to have legs as conservative, homophobic critics latched on to her assertion in attempts to condemn it. For example, Hilton Kramer wrote some years later, “The origin of camp is to be found in the subculture of homosexuality. Camp humor derives, in its essence, from the homosexual’s recognition that his condition represents a kind of joke on nature, a denial of its imperatives, and thus a mode of psychological artifice.”[4] While clearly disagreeing on many matters of substance, both Sontag and Kramer recognized the transformative cultural power of persons operating outside of a heteronormative framework.

At this point I would like to shift gears and argue that Chip Kidd is a designer whose work has had a transformative impact on visual communication in a manner that contested the culture of heteronormativity. Born in 1964, Kidd rose to graphic design prominence through the book covers he has designed for the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. These covers have been widely celebrated for over twenty years, while Kidd’s many laurels include a memorable drop quote from a New York Times piece, “He put ‘famous’ and ‘dust jacket designer’ in the same sentence.”[5] One note: Kidd’s stature was elevated in the 1990s at the same time that Warner and others were eloquently building the foundations of queer theory and calling attention to heteronormativity in society. In examining Kidd’s book covers and considering their role in contesting the dominant discourse, I make no claims for his intent as an artist, nor do I seek some sort of hidden gay iconography in his work, but rather hope to view them with an eye toward understanding their powerful impact on contemporary visual culture.

Chip Kidd’s book covers are notable for their use of photography. As detailed by Veronique Vienne in her 2003 monograph, Kidd was led in this direction by his supervisor at Knopf, art director and book designer Carol Devine Carson. It was Carson’s love of photography that opened the door for Knopf designers to pursue a new course: the use of photographs on the covers of works of fiction.[6] Conventionally, illustration had been the medium of choice for fiction, while photography was reserved for non-fiction works of history and the like.

Kidd’s pioneering work in photographic-based fiction covers is grounded in a unique, conceptual use of the medium. Visually, one of his key strategies is the employment of synechdoche in images of people, whereby a fragment of the body stands in for the whole. For example, in this 1989 cover for Mark Richard’s The Ice at the Bottom of the World (a collection of stories based on life in the American South), the partial view of a worn male figurine grabs viewers while ultimately locking them out of any holistic sense of visual closure. The figure is also dislocated from the space by the combination of an upside-down reflection and a similarly reversed background.

Another collection of short stories, this one by Walter Kirn, served as the inspiration for Kidd’s 1990 cover for My Hard Bargain. This collection, which delves into powerful themes of sexuality and religious alienation, was published with a two-part cover, half-photo and half-text, a composition that has become one of Kidd’s trademark strategies. The front of the cover shows four fingers cropped at the knuckles, a suggestive synechdoche through which the fingers can serve either to recall an individual or a group of people. A similar yet blurred image on the back of the jacket further engages the reader with the conceptual slippage initiated on the front cover. (An aside: these photos show Kidd’s own hands, an example perhaps of synechdoche as selfie?). I would argue that the conceptual dislocations caused by these fragmented synechdoches are representative of a sensibility that rejects the heteronormative stability of most images.

A second strategy employed by Kidd in his cover work involves the serendipitous discovery of evocative photographs, many featuring damage of either the subject or the photo itself. These worn, appealingly second-hand photos play into the broken significations and discontinuities that mark his studio practice. 2001’s cover for Depraved Indifference, the third volume in a fictionalized trilogy loosely based on the life of Sante and Kenneth Kimes, features a sepia-tinted image of a figure standing alone, her face obliterated by damage to the photograph. The slightly askew photo, which had been given to Kidd by a fan, drives home a sense of emptiness and danger. In the case of another photo that Kidd received — rather than sought out — the medium is undamaged, but the subject is a stuffed animal that is clearly past its prime. This photo, which is from the portfolio of photographer Lars Klove, was utilized to create the 2000 cover of Paul Golding’s The Abomination, a novel that relates the struggles of a gay childhood. While perhaps some viewers bring a distant recollection of the haunting story of the Velveteen Rabbit (a 1922 magical realist story of a bunny seeking acceptance), for most others the image works in the gaps of meaning, the distressed state of the upside down stuffed animal offering a glimpse but not a doorway into the narrative therein.

Kidd’s covers discussed here are by no means aligned with the decorative irony of camp. However, their transformative impact is derived from the slippages in meaning that Sontag called “things-being-what-they-are-not.” In doing so, they destabilize the heteronormative, rearranging the manner in which a potential reader approaches a book.


1. See, for example, Tom Folland, “Robert Rauschenberg’s Queer Modernism: The Early Combines and Decoration,” Art Bulletin, December 2010, vol. XCII, no. 4, pp. 348-365.

2. Michael Warner, “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet,” Social Text, no. 29 (1991), pp. 3-17.

3. Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” Partisan Review vol. XXXI (1964), pp. 515-530.

4. Hilton Kramer, The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture 1972-1984, The Free Press, 1985, p. 6.

5. Penelope Green, “The Book on a Graphics Superhero,” The New York Times, November 3, 2005,

6. Veronique Vienne, Chip Kidd, Yale UP, 2003 p. 13.

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Comments [2]

Things being what they are not is an appropriate design method for book covers, especially fiction, being that stories exist on the boundary between reality and imagination.
Brian J. McKnight

Nice analysis of Kidd's designs and their use of photography. While I certainly welcome the use of important critical terms such as heteronormative in design discourse, I don't see a solid link here to that concept. The disruption here has more to do with the idea of 'visual language,' which is a very lazy and unexamined phrase in visual culture and design studies.
Kidd is able to simply step outside the norms and supposed grammar or syntax of design (illustrations for fiction; photos for non) simply because they don't exist. His work, like all challenging, fresh or creative design, shows us that the rules aren't rules at all -- not a language, in other words -- but habits, coincidental and contingent bits of mimesis, iteration, repetition; an entirely idiomatic bag full of bits of temporary code, easily and rapidly replaced.
It is unsettling but necessary for designers to think through how open-ended and unsystematic design is; and how hard the visual aspect of design is to 'read,' precisely because it is not linguistic in nature.
Brian Donnelly

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