Design legend Mike Dempsey shares the treasured books of his career

29 August 2018

Graphic designer Mike Dempsey is a name It’s Nice That readers will know well. With many awards to his name (including a Black D&AD pencil for being the most-awarded designer in its 50 year history), Mike is a bit of a legend and icon round these parts.

In this brilliant bookshelf, Mike reveals how he got to this point through reading. After leaving school at 15 with an O level in art he went on to have 14 jobs, “four of them horrible,” and “ten constituted the creative stepladder,” he tells It’s Nice That. But through it all books have been by his side. This started by finding “great solace by escaping to my local library,” he explains. “It was warm and spacious and above all had masses to look at. I mostly looked, rather than read. Over the years I would spend hours there. I loved the sense of order and calm.”

Mike’s hours in the library introduced him to his first love, book jackets. Selecting two books to check out of the library he’d “carefully remove the jacket from the security of its hardbound parent,” on his kitchen table at home. “I didn’t think of it as stealing — more a case of liberating them from an eventual death from wear and tear,” the designer justifies. “So, you could say that the library and books embraced, inspired and led me into a short period of crime at a tender age. The passion for book jackets was responsible for propelling me into a decade in publishing from the late 1960s.”

Below Mike shares the books that shaped his career from his library theft days. Talking through a childhood treasure to what he’s reading at the moment, this week’s bookshelf shows the importance and ever entwined relationship between reading and communication design.

The Odhams Encyclopedia for Children 1954

Childhood dreams: Being asked to select just five meaningful books is a BIG ask. I could easily have selected 100. But first, a little background on how I embraced books – or, rather, how they embraced me.

As a young boy in the early 1950s, I lived in a working-class factory town with little chance of escape and a home devoid of books, no TV and little in the way of mod cons, with a rotten education (this is not a sob story). In 1954, my uncle gave me a copy of The Odhams Encyclopedia for Christmas. I loved it at first sight. I would curl up next to the fire and turn the pages while listening to my favourite radio serial, Journey into Space. With that purring away in the background and the book on my lap, I would imagine my way out of the world into which I was born. The spreads that occupied my imagination most were about the making of TV programmes, feature films and animation. I became fixated on the latter, as I was a compulsive drawer – I didn’t do much else.

The animation pages from the book prompted me to write to Walt Disney, enclosing my drawings in the hope that somehow they would say: “Oh my, Mike, come over to California! We have a desk waiting for you.” It didn’t happen, of course, but I did get a very nice letter back thanking me and enclosing stills for the soon-to-be-released film, Lady and the Tramp. I was thrilled and stuck them on my bedroom wall.

Josef Müller-Brockmann: The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems

The Eureka moment book: By 1962, I had been working in a string of deeply depressing dead-end jobs. One winter evening, out of desperation, I cycled to my local technical college to see if I could join an evening class to do something ‘arty’. This was a month after all the main classes had started, and all that was left was a place on the calligraphy and illuminated lettering class. I jumped at it and found that I absolutely loved it.

A few months in, I was browsing through the reference library and came across a stark-white cloth-bound hardback with embossed black type: The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems (its original 1962 title). I had no idea what I was looking at, but each week I would read and re-read a chapter until the penny dropped and I suddenly understood that there was a world where you could work with image, type, colour and space and make it look magical. That was the beginning of wanting my ticket to ride in the creative world. I got to meet Josef Müller-Brockmann in London shortly before he died in 1996. I shook his fragile hand and thanked him. It was an emotional moment for me.

The 1963 D&AD Annual

The inspirational book: I was working as an assistant to an elderly designer called Mr Smith. When I say old, he was around 60 and I was 21. Among other things, Mr Smith designed book covers. He would trace out his design and I’d have to get the type set and paste the thing up. I was learning the ropes and enjoyed being in the world of Indian ink, cow gum and tracing down paper. But Mr Smith only wanted me to use Albertus, as it was his favourite typeface.

I had recently purchased a copy of the 1963 D&AD Annual. It was only printed in black and white, but, even today, when I thumb through the pages, my heart still skips a beat. On those pages, I was looking at young British designers strutting their stuff. I was desperately trying to emulate what I was seeing. And on a day when My Smith was off ill, I had to deal with an urgent book cover. Eureka! It was out with cobwebby Albertus and in with Akzidenz Grotesk Medium, set at a jaunty 45° angle, and off it went to the publisher. Well, they hated it and you can understand why I didn’t last long with Mr Smith. That D&AD Annual had got into my blood. Little did I know that, 34 years later, I would become president of D&AD. What a book can do for you.

Christopher Alexander: The Timeless Way of Building

Learning to love buildings: The late great advertising copywriter David Abbott gave this book to me. I have always been interested in architecture, and Christopher Alexander’s theories on the subject were a revelation to me. His book is about how people use space, its practicality, the light and the emotional feeling one gets from occupation. It is one of the most insightful, inspirational and beautifully written books I have ever read on architecture.

I have always had an aversion to curatorial speak: that over-intellectualised gobbledygook that you get in so many gallery catalogues. And the very same claptrap spills over into the world of architecture, where they never talk about rooms but volumes. And many architects hate it when people eventually take over their buildings because they make a mess. That’s why most architectural practice brochures are void of people in their creations or, if they are there, they’re just a motion blur.

Every architect should buy Alexander’s book and keep in their mind’s eye that a building should be about how people use it, not about glorifying architects’ egos. The other wonderful thing about Alexander’s book is the carefully chosen images. They are all about expressing the emotion of being in a place, be it strolling through a leafy courtyard or looking out of a window from the comfort of a window seat. David Abbott said that he kept the book by his bedside. He would leaf through it and always find a little gem.

David Lynch and Kristine McKenna: Room to Dream

The regular reading habit: My last book is what I am reading right now, David Lynch’s Room to Dream. It is an exhilarating book and a wonderful insight into the mind of a genuinely creative maverick. I have always been a fan of Lynch, and, on reading his segments (he shares alternate sections with critic and journalist Kristine McKenna), it is as though you are sitting in the room with him while he tells you stories about how he thinks and works in his wonderful, homespun, all-American, apple pie way. It is filled with over 500 images from his childhood up to the present day and printed using the gravure process in a blacker than black. And, coincidentally in conjunction with my love of Christopher Alexander’s book (above), Lynch has the same intuitive feeling about architecture. In this book, he says: “Without architecture, everything’s just open, but with it, you can make a space, and you can make it beautiful or you can make it so hideous that you can hardly wait to get out.” Lynch feels things very deeply, and this permeates throughout the pages of this wonderful book.

Well, that’s my offering to the ‘It’s Nice That’ bookshelf. I often think back to the 1960s and dear old grey-suited Mr Smith in that tiny studio near Fleet Street, with his passion for Albertus and my disdain for this old man’s lack of typographical adventure. But, ironically, I am now 14 years his senior. I am now that old man, but, at heart, I’m still 24 and every day offers wonderful creative opportunities, and I always grab them with the same enthusiasm that I had back in those early days. I always make a point of reading every day for at least 1.5 hours straight after breakfast. It’s a great way to start the day, and I’m a big supporter of the library service – something I’ve stayed faithful to all my life. Everyone should join; otherwise, this heartless government will cut it back and back until all the libraries are shut.

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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