The Learners: A Novel

The Learners: A Novel

by Chip Kidd

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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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416564881
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 02/19/2008
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 297 KB

About the Author

Chip Kidd is a designer/writer in New York City. His book cover designs for Alfred A. Knopf, where he has worked nonstop since 1986, have helped create a revolution in the art of American book packaging. He is the recipient of the National Design Award for Communications, as well as the Use of Photography in Design award from the International Center of Photography. Kidd has published two novels, The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners, and is also the author of Batman: Death By Design and the coauthor and designer of True Prep, the sequel to the beloved Official Preppy Handbook. His 2012 TED Talk has been viewed 1.2 million times and is cited as one of the “funniest of the year.” He is most recently the author of the bestselling GO: A Kidd’s Guide To Graphic Design.

Read an Excerpt

The Learners

A Novel
By Chip Kidd


Copyright © 2008 Chip Kidd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743255240



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.

Why? Simple.

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.

Mandatory, actually.

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."


"Yes sir."



"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."

"I see."


"At 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."

"I see."

"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."

"'s obvious to me."

"That right?"

"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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents 1961 (October.) We'll be right back, after this. 1961 I. Before. (August, June.) II. During. (September.) III. After. (September-November.)

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Learners 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Mara_Jade on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My official overall opinion of this book is that it was alright. I loved the first book, [The Cheese Monkeys] which is why I wanted to read this, but I think it fell very short of the first novel. I think I would have enjoyed it better as a stand alone book with a completely new cast of characters. The Learners follows the main character ¿Happy¿ after he graduates from college with a degree in graphic design and gets a job at the ad agency where Winter (his GA professor from the first novel) had his first job as a graphic artist. We are then introduced to a new group of people who work for the agency all with their little quirks, including the head of the agency who is literally in love with her dog, and hired Happy on the notion that the structure of his ears made him destined to be a genius. Happy runs into Himillsy (his crazy BFF from The Cheese Monkeys) once then finds out a few weeks later that she killed herself. In an effort to explain to himself why she did it he remembers from their lunch conversation that she was doing ¿memory exercises¿, and linked that to an ad he actually created for a research study on memories. Happy then volunteers for the research study himself which was actually Milgrim¿s study on obedience, a real study conducted in the early 60¿s to try to explain why so many of the Nazis followed Hitler¿s lead during WWII. I remember the study from Psyc. class from a few years back and it was interesting to read about the thoughts of a person who participated in the study, fictional though they may be. As a very brief overview; Milgrim¿s Obedience study consisted of telling the participant to administer an electrical shock to the other supposed participant (who was actually part of the experiment) whenever they were unable to correctly identify the second word in an earlier stated set of word pairs. The shocks went up to 450 volts, enough to kill someone, and when a participant asked to stop or expressed concerns they were told ¿The experiment requires that you continue.¿ And that ¿The shocks were harmful but not fatal¿. The man participants thought they were shocking was safely in another room and his cries of pain and agony were actually on a recording. Happy, as well as 60% of actual participants did manage to administer the full 450 volt shock to a person they had never met before, all the while believing that they had killed that man. When the experiment is revealed and the participants were asked why they continued even though they believed they were killing an innocent person, many of them, as well as many Nazis gave the excuse that they were ¿Just following orders¿. Fascinating! I actually found this to be the most interesting part of this book and would be interested in reading more about the experiment and its findings. Happy is tortured by the idea that he had within him the potential to kill another innocent human being, and this thought consumes him. He is then reminded again of Himillsy and the way she intended to deal with this information, and tries to follow her example. In the end he finds a way to redeem himself in his own eyes and prove to himself that he is in fact, a good person. Again, I think this may have been better as a stand alone novel. Happy¿s choice to move to New Haven to work at the ad agency was almost irrelevant to the main story, and it could have been centered around anyone already living there who decided to volunteer for the experiment. Happy¿s involvement with the ad agency seems almost like background fodder to me, and his somewhat troubled but mundane character didn¿t have the balance of his out-of-control friend Himillsy, or the demanding-with-reason professor Winter that the first novel had.
woodge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a sequel to the author's first novel, The Cheese Monkeys, where graphic designer Happy (a nickname), finds a job and then gets involved in Stanley Milgrim's notorious Obedience to Authority experiment. The story is set in 1961 and is mostly about Happy's reaction to participating in the expirement and about graphic design. The author is a well-known graphic designer himself, especially of books. It's a thin story though and I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as The Cheese Monkeys. It has its moments but it's not a book I'd recommend. There isn't much in the way of characterization and the secondary characters are flat. Mostly, this is an excuse to yammer on about graphic design in a cute way. Skip it.
Zeolite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This quirky book is an creative entertaining read. The main character's charmingly naive enthusiasm for the working world enables him to crisply assess the career and lives of his coworkers and enables him to discover how people can lose themselves by becoming part of something. This is the second in a series, but you don't need to have read the first to enjoy this book.
arouse77 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
this was a random ¿snatch off the endcap at the library¿ book. i have very spotty luck with this approach. this time, however, i was most pleasantly gratified by the results of my engaging blend of strange elements, this novel is amusing and poignant, visually interesting and a tactile treat. i am a great sucker for the heft of a book in the hand, and this one was a winner. the pages are heavy with a sensuous weave. the typeface is not only pleasing to the eye, but has a voice of its own within the tale. moreover text, type, form, and content are all characters in this strange and moving tale. i found myself utterly absorbed and completely entertained.nominally the first person narrative of an ad-man circa 1960 (Mad Men: The Zeitgeist) it is also social and literary criticism and a work of art. one that is utterly self-conscious, but no less artful for easy read that was wholly rewarding.recommended.
princemuchao on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Learners picks up 3 years after The Cheese Monkeys left off. Happy gets a job at the small advertising firm that his Sophomore teacher worked at when he designed the Wrigley packages.Chip Kidd continues to show that he is just as talented with words as he is with design. The wit and laugh-out-loud funny dialogue make it easy to forgive the few flaws with plot pacing and a bit of a clumsy hand writing emotion.This is definitely on par with The Cheese Monkeys, but because the main character and one other character is reoccurring, I would recommend reading The Cheese Monkeys first.
coolmama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Love Chip Kidd - brilliant.Really interested sequel to his first book, "The Cheese Monkeys."This one also takes place in the early '60's and combines Happy's first job in a New Haven ad agency with the obedience training studies at Yale.Weaves in some characters from the first book, and all done in Mr Kidd's most unique way of writing and graphic design elements.Look forward to more from the mondo talented Mr Kidd!
omphalos02 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Clever and readable follow-up to "The Cheese Monkeys" details a graphic designer named Happy and his first job in the advertising world in New Haven in the 60's. The Milgram Experiments of the period play a pivotal role. Very enjoyable.
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