“There’s an enormous amount of pressure when you’re designing predominantly for other designers,” says David Pearson. “I’ve tried to avoid it as much as possible.” The brief that final broke his resolve was to design the cover of this year’s D&AD Annual, which gathers together the best of the best from the design and ad worlds. Exactly, then, who David had so far feared making work for.
He was contacted about the commission by Mark Bonner, D&AD’s incumbent president and the co-creator of agency GBH. It was a departure for David, whose usual line of work is designing book covers under the direction of an editor and art director, for a largely non-design audience. Now, he was under the direction of a designer, and designing for designers, too. “Designing under a designer meant I was getting very nuanced feedback. It was really nice as it’s the designer’s job to look between the lines and find the appropriate visual form. It was really refreshing,” says David.
“It’s a good sharpener. It’s nice to work for D&AD and have that level of focus. It’s a privilege to have that many people caring about that job. You do think about past covers, and that could be the worst thing you can do. There are only so many approaches you can take.”
David had a long history of previous iterations of the annual design to look back on– 52 years’ worth, in fact – both a pleasurable and a daunting possibility. What soon became clear though was that whoever was behind the cover, there were broadly speaking two paths to approaching the cover. “With D&AD you either focus on the pencil, or don’t focus on the pencil. We did the former,” says David.
“The annual is a one-off statement, and you’re summing up a vast amount of brilliant work, so when you have that as a concern the first thing you think of is pulling back, and not showing that on the cover. [All the work on show] is quite relentless so we were doing something calmer with the cover and holding back.”
The resulting image is a deceptively simple design, showing a single pencil in one of five colourways (reflecting the different colours of the pencils D&AD awards to creatives) on a wood-look background. But for all its simplicity, David and designers Paul Finn and Alistair Hall spent a vast amount of time poring over every last detail. David explains: “We worked together very closely, but it was one of those covers where 90% of the process is talking, as you’re trying to get rid of as much as possible. At one point Alistair put a piece of paper on the floor and plonked the award on top of it, and that was it. The rest of the process was just about protecting that idea.”
That protection would be tested by the fact this was a fairly complex cover series: not only were there five different colourways, but David had his heart set on a rather unusual paperstock for the cover. The wood effect material was made by G. F. Smith but was to be discontinued, and in a glorious twist of fate, the supplier had just enough sheets left for the project. “It’s so lifelike you’d swear it’s actually wood,” says David. “I suppose you either love it or hate it. It’s really cool but it could be seen to be crass or weird, but I think it really works for this. It’s a bit like Comic Sans: it has to be a very specific use to be used well.”
The production side of things was worked up alongside the talented hands of D&AD production manager Martin Lee. “He was amazing at making it all come together – it was proper old school print production,” says David. “That process of trying to find the right method of production became a joy.”
Sounds like a dream. A nice brief, a talented and driven designer setting it, and a lovely idea hit upon by moving a few props around. Naturally though, things weren’t that straightforward. “The fraught aspect comes in the protection of the work, and how to make it work across several covers with a budget. That’s where the sleepless nights come in,” says David.
And he’s well aware that for all the beautiful work and camaraderie of the design community, it can also be a cruel mistress, as any comments thread beneath the unveiling of a new logo or identity design will immediately testify. “It’s a weird thing having negative comments ringing round in your head. You know the tidal wave of negative comments are coming, but all you can do is when the design leaves your hands is know you’ve thought about it as much as you can. We’ve had huge conversations and thoughts and pored over tiny details.
“The only way I’ve been able to hand over any work and feel ok about it is to throw an inordinate amount of time into thinking and thinking and editing and thinking. Then when you hand it over you know you’ve really tortured yourself thinking about what you can get rid of. It’s amazing we ended up with something as clean as we did: you have to get rid of absolutely everything.”
Hopefully for the designer, the torture and the sleepless nights are over. We reckon the insomnia’s been worth it: a brave, clean design that deserves to be put in front of that big, scary design community after all.