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Features / Graphic Design

Cover Stories: Former Penguin designer David Pearson talks us through his favourite covers

First published in Printed Pages Summer 2014

Words by

Rob Alderson

David Pearson never gets to choose what he reads. As one of the most exciting book jacket designers working today, his literary tastes tend to take a back seat to whatever he is working on at the time. Not that his starting point is always immersing himself in the text; he gleefully admits that he doesn’t always have the whole book to read when he starts work – “I’ve done book design where I didn’t even have the title!”

For a creative at the very top of his game, David is both genuinely humble and refreshingly enthusiastic – you can hear the sheer passion for design in every sentence. Watch one of his talks online – they’re punctuated by giggles and ego-less asides – but fundamentally he takes the whole business of book jacket design very seriously. It helps that he got to learn in-house at Penguin, originally in the text design department but later on the publisher’s covers. Although he left to set up his own studio Type As Image in 2007, David is still very much associated with his work at Penguin, but it’s a case of what might have been for one of the publisher’s competitors.

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The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “A rare moment of clarity and design sure-footedness. I did two versions and quickly decided on the second. By this point in the series (number 56 of 100), one or two covers had a canny knack of falling together, largely because of the limitations in place (two colours, type-only, plus debossing). I’d like to make it clear that this isn’t always the case; I did 47 different covers before gaining an approval recently.”

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Penguin by Design: “A true labour of love this one. Because of it’s non-standard nature, this was taken on as a freelance job, and so worked around my day job designing covers at Penguin.At one point, I was escorted off the premises as it was deemed that I hadn’t left my desk in three days (and posed something of a health and safely risk).”

“While at college I was lucky enough to be offered a work placement by my tutor Phil Baines, to design a large-scale art monograph (for Lawrence Alma-Tadema) for Phaidon Press,” David says. “Phil walked me through every stage of the book’s production, from styling the edited manuscript through to the final lay-outs. I even got to run my designs past Alan Fletcher who at the time was responsible for overseeing Phaidon’s visual output. It was an absurdly privileged position for a student to be in. There was a slow and methodical nature to the work which seemed to suit my temperament, and I knew from-then-on that my future lay in book design.”

At Central Saint Martins he gorged on the college’s typography collection (the Central Lettering Archive) and joined Penguin soon after graduating. He was walking into a company who had employed some of the 20th Century’s foremost graphic designers down the decades; the likes of Jan Tschichold, Hans Schmoller, Gerald Cinamon and Derek Birdsall. Surely this was a daunting step for a kid straight out of art school? “It was the pedigree that drew me to the place but in reality, knowledge of, and pride in the company’s design heritage was not widespread; at least not in-house. This is what created the opportunity for Penguin by Design, a chance to shine a light on these achievements and place design back at the centre of the company. It was also – for somewhat selfish reasons – an opportunity for me to gain access to Penguin’s archives and learn from some of my heroes.”

In fact David became so obsessed with this graphic treasure trove that he had to be forcibly removed from the Penguin premises at one stage on health and safety grounds. He’s retained this intimate knowledge of some of the different eras of the company’s design history and can regale you with some of the stranger episodes; the decision to go pictorial in 1961 (which for some more conservative readers was the literary design equivalent of Dylan going electric); the bizarre couple of years later that decade when the company dispensed with an art director all together and the jackets were designed by the marketing department (producing what David calls “the panic covers”); the time when designers were first permitted to use circles on the covers and they start to crop up all over the place, regardless of genre or design sensibility.

It’s simplistic to say that Penguin by Design – published in 2005 – made him a star but it cemented his reputation within the company and so increased the amount of trust placed in him.

He was assigned to The Great Ideas series, in which Penguin re-issued books by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Machiavelli and Charles Darwin, some of which David designed himself, some of which he art directed. There are now five series of the Great Ideas titles and a whole host of spin-offs. It solidified the way David thinks about his process and opened him up to experimenting with new ideas. “I’m a rather uptight and precious designer, and very often find myself working energy out of my designs by over-thinking and over-fiddling. The ones I am most happy with are invariably produced quickly and intuitively, before the tide of self-doubt heads my way.

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Book v. Cigarettes: “Here’s my attempt at a two-for-one. On the one hand, the cover presents an ash tray and a recently stubbed cigarette but also a smoking bullet hole and a fatally-wounded book. This cover also makes reference to the hundreds of Penguin and Pelican covers – designed in the early 1960s – which use a large circle as their central motif. Relative to the company’s visual output, the frequency of such covers is extraordinary. I have my own theory: the circle’s diameter perfectly mirrors that of an up-turned pint glass.”

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The Road: “Rubber stamps, oil and water were used to create this crumbling, patchwork-effect cover.Originally, the design incorporated key quotes from the text but Cormac was opposed to the idea (hence the oversized marketing quotes).”

“As a result, I’m constantly looking for ways to liberate the working process; to make it feel quicker and more expressive in the hope that it will give the work a raw, essential quality.” This is why he loves working with rubber stamps – “You get a drama you could never produce on a computer” – which he used to great effect on a recent series of covers for Cormac McCarthy (a rare commission working with a living author).

The other thing he learned on the Great Ideas books was how to balance the competing challenges of giving each cover a sense of individuality while maintaining cohesion across the collection. “Limitations – self-imposed or otherwise – can be very useful since they provide something to push against,” he says. “They can also make a daunting, large-scale project seem manageable in that a myriad of potential choices can be eliminated, leaving us to focus only on what is essential. Choosing typography as the primary source of imagery is one such limitation. Adopting a limited colour palette is another, and knowing that these are my only weapons can feel incredibly liberating when beginning a job.

“Series design provides a unique opportunity to utilise cumulative effect. For example, key content can be removed from one cover since it can be found on others in the series, which then promotes inquiry from book-to-book.”

Not that he always got his own way. One of the key lessons he learned was to pick his battles; “If you fight for everything then you look like a dick, and nobody wants to work with a dick.”

But he admits to being fascinated by “the psychology of approval.” In the past he has taken his mock-ups into bookshops and photographed them on the shelves to prove they work in a real-world context. He is well-versed in some of the main obstacles marketing men and women might put in his way.

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An Apology for Idlers: “The case of the trusting client. Penguin seem to be in a small band of publishers that allow their brand to be subverted. Not all the time – that’s for sure – but they trust enough to know that by removing content here, another book in a series will set people on track by revealing the name of the publisher, the imprint etc. I suspect that this cover wouldn’t have been approved if Robert Louis Stevenson, the author, was still alive.”

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The Wolfman: “I am a big fan of the ‘puzzle picture’ covers of Robert Jonas (Penguin US c.1947) with their slow-release delivery and open invitation to interact. This is definitely one where I’m trying to slow the reader and pique their interest through ‘solving’ the cover.”

“I worry that legibility is always prioritised within the approval process. While I appreciate clean, clear communication, it can make for a very sterile landscape when we’re offered no alternative. It’s worth considering that book covers can be used to build relationships through complicating legibility and encouraging reader interpretation. By building in these pockets of space we obviously increase the chance of miscommunication, but we also open up the possibility for meaningful – and memorable – connections to be formed.”

Alongside his freelance work David also runs his own imprint, White’s Books, with Jonathan Jackson. The attention-to-detail lavished on the spines and the end-papers reflect the holistic design approach of this one-time text designer. In the bottom corner of each right-hand page there is a catchword; the first word of the page to which the reader is about to turn. It’s a technique widely used more than a century ago and one that David has clearly relished reviving. He also works a lot with the French publisher Editions Zulma; never mind not having a title, here he is working on covers for texts he simply can’t understand. Of course he can read French classics in translation and cites The Count of Monte Christo as one of his favourite books. The only issue is that it’s so hefty, he cut it into sections to create three smaller books to read on the Tube. Of course he couldn’t resist producing three new covers for these, proof if any more was needed that here is a man with book cover design in the blood.