Book designer David Pearson returns to Penguin’s bestselling series, Great Ideas

Having designed the first books and even coined the name of the four-million-copy series, Pearson tells us more about some of his favourite covers for the new titles featuring authors Simone Weil and Audre Lorde.

Date
23 September 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

Great Ideas is a series of non fiction books by Penguin that takes extracts of previously published works by authors such as George Orwell, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf, and publishes them as standalone mini-manifestos on a subject. Making them digestible and pocket-sized was, it turned out, itself a great idea by the publisher, as it has gone on to sell four million copies and publish 120 different titles. Graphic designer David Pearson was there at the start, designing many of the covers and even coining the series name, and has returned to design many of the series’ new set of 20 books, ten years after he last worked on the project.

“It’s a really interesting process, picking up a piece of work that you put down a decade ago,” Pearson says. “After 100 books it feels like the series has created its own rules and its own version of reality, which is an unbelievably fertile space for a designer to work in. When you get this far down the line (six series with 120 covers) you have the option to self-reference and doing so can help keep things looking varied and interesting.” Whereas the first series used pastiche and historical relevance, Pearson tells It’s Nice That each subsequent series has been able to “gradually break away from that and play with its own conventions… For example, the cover of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (series three) has no historical relevance but is instead playfully self-referential (using the series parameters of type, two colours and debossing to make a sideways connection with the content).”

“The challenge has always been to develop a sort of pleasing inconsistency, so that books play nicely together but also jar and spar when displayed in different combinations,” he continues. “Some covers prescribe, some misguide; some are formal, some informal; some are minimal, some maximal; some shout and some whisper. Some are legible and some – let’s be honest – require a good deal of deciphering. It was great fun wearing all these different hats, often on the same day!”

GalleryDavid Pearson: cover designs for Great Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2020)

Pearson uses a music analogy to describe the process of designing the books, stating that while the first series felt like straight-up cover versions of the original full books, the later series “are now in the realm of thrillingly-inauthentic remixes. To stretch the music analogy further, a few of the traditional or expected instruments have been swapped out. For example, a mid-century French typeface (Mistral) is used for a 120-year-old Japanese text about the life of a samurai. An abstract connection can be made (the construction of Mistral is suggestive of brush and ink) but nevertheless this would be the musical equivalent of replacing a trombone with a kazoo.”

The new series publishes the words of authors such as Sojourner Truth on equal rights, Simone Weil on the power of language, Audre Lorde on female strength and Peter Singer on vegan philosophies. Pearson worked with series art director Jim Stoddart on his many covers, and on some with creative collaborators, while some titles were taken on by other designers. Pearson has picked out a few of his favourites from the new series and explained more about the thinking behind the cover design.

GalleryDavid Pearson: Ain't I A Woman, from Great Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2020)

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Ain’t I A Woman: “This is an incredibly powerful speech with a very notable rhythm. These compositions aim at capturing some of that energy and dynamism by playing with cadence.”

GalleryFelix Koeberlin and David Pearson: final cover for The Decay of Lying, from Great Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2020)

The Decay of Lying: “I found an image online that perfectly captured the mood I wanted for this cover and when I reached out to its owner, Christoph, he explained that it was drawn by his eight-year-old son, Felix. Felix – now ten – doubted that he could recreate the marks made two years earlier so he instead adopted an art director’s role, overseeing the reconstruction of his work (by a 42-year-old).”

GalleryDavid Pearson: What is Existentialism? from Great Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2020)

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What is Existentialism?: “Chasing down an idea: here are two different expressions of the same idea (and there were many more in-between!).”

GalleryCover design by David Pearson based on original lettering by Ken Garland: final cover for Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books from Great Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2020)

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Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books: “There’s no need for an anchoring quote when you have such a wonderfully explicit title. I have dozens of unfinished starts like this one, where I’m pushing around and patterning with book shapes, but the cover felt far more interesting when the letterforms doubled up as the books themselves.”

The latest set of Great Ideas books are out today (24 September), published by Penguin with cover designs by David Pearson, Alistair Hall, Catherine Dixon and Phil Baines .

GalleryDavid Pearson: cover designs for Great Ideas series by Penguin (Copyright © Penguin, 2020)

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David Pearson: cover design for Great Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2020)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny joined the editorial team as It’s Nice That’s first news editor in April 2016. Having studied 3D Design, she has spent the last ten years working in design journalism. Contact her with news stories relating to the creative industries on news@itsnicethat.com.

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