Guest blog by Scribbly Roo, a freelance Illustrator and Graphic Designer working from her home studio in Norfolk, UK, where she writes and illustrates her own graphic novels and children’s picture books.
In October 2012, I had the pleasure of attending a talk entitled ‘Cover to Cover’ at Arnolfini in Bristol. It was hosted by designers Teresa Monachino, who I’ve detailed in my previous blog, and David Pearson who I am looking at today. This article is based largely on his lecture, encompassing his love of design, type and what it is like to work for one of the most well known publishing houses in the UK and America…
Even as a young university student, David Pearson was determined he was going to work for Penguin as a book cover designer. Some of his earliest memories, before he could read, are of playing with numbered Penguin books. He informed his university tutors he was already consciously working in a ‘Penguin style’ and spent a lot of his third year searching tirelessly for jobs at the publishing house.
His first job at Penguin was as a Junior Text Designer. Sadly, this involved little in the way of designing, but Pearson acknowledges the job actually taught him a lot of vital thinking skills that he still uses to this day.
Six months into his job, the Text Design department at Penguin was unfortunately disbanded. This worked in Pearson’s favour, however, as he was finally taken into the Cover Design department. The world of publishing, particularly at such a large company as Penguin, is incredibly busy. This means that even those working at a Junior level are given a large amount of responsibility. And this is where Pearson flourished.
Fascinated by the Penguin archives, Pearson soon developed projects around them which he was allowed to work on in his spare time. This has given him a vast knowledge when it comes to the history of Penguin cover design, its pitfalls and its successes. Such knowledge made him the perfect candidate to take on the more experimental projects in the department, often handed to junior designers as it was unclear if they’d work out or not. The briefs for such projects were dauntingly minimal, but also allowed for a fair amount of design freedom as a result. Not confident in drawing or photography, Pearson used his skills in type to his advantage, bringing title pages to the outside of the books he worked on, feeling confidence in his ideas as he knew from the archives that this fitted well with the Penguin brand.
These covers are from the first series of Penguin ‘Great Ideas’. When presenting his designs for this project at the cover meeting, Pearson soon discovered it was better to show the images side by side, all together instead of individually. This way, you see them as a series, each design complimenting the next. Generally, his designs were quickly approved of when viewed in this manner, whereas meetings could go on a lot longer when looking at the designs separately. I can see where Pearson is coming from. Looking at some of the ‘Great Ideas’ covers on their own, I feel a little non-plussed. But as a whole, the designs work beautifully together, co-ordinating so satisfyingly and using such unusual type that they are bold graphic design statements as much as they are book covers.
As well as the Penguin archives, Central Saint Martin’s Picture Library is also a fantastic resource Pearson uses. It was here that he met Professor of Typography, Phil Baines, a very established typographer and graphic designer who has had a big influence on Pearson’s work ever since. Pearson designed the clever cover of Baines’ 2005 publication ‘Penguin By Design’ which looks at Penguin paperbacks from 1935 to the present and how their changing designs reflect the developments of British publishing and the role of artists and designers in ‘creating and defining the Penguin look.’
As Pearson’s designs for Penguin proved more and more popular, his confidence grew and he began to experiment more with using illustrations in his designs instead of just type. The Penguin ‘Great Love’ series is a good example of how Pearson’s designs have developed with each project he has undertaken. His clever use of illustration in this series gives each book cover the quality of an iconic poster or art gallery print. I’d want these book covers on my walls as much as I want the book themselves on my shelf.
It is interesting that the digital age of ebooks has not yet spelled the end for printed physical volumes. During the Q and A at the end of his lecture, Pearson explained how he thinks the digital revolution has actually been good for book design. He thinks that previously the demand for quantity in print meant the quality of such books was affected. Now, however, the making of physical books has a greater meaning behind it. Maybe books in the future will be more fetishised and used to furnish rooms or coffee tables, but at least they’ll be designed well!
If you haven’t come across any of the covers in this blog so far, Uk readers will almost certainly know about the £2 Penguin Popular Classics. Yes, I’m talking about the lurid green ones!
In 2007, Penguin relaunched their Popular Classics series with brand new covers. They’d held an in-house competition to find a good design for the covers, and David Pearson’s simple but striking type-based design won. It was a wonderful contrast to the dated-by-comparison classics series that was currently on the shelves- featuring classical paintings overlaid with the title and author information in an oval. Pearson’s design was refreshingly modern. It was also in a lovely shade of maroon, and the overall worry was that this beautiful design was actually too desirable! Why would anyone pay £7.99 or more on a book with a fancy introduction and reference notes when the £2 editions were so much prettier!? So, having won the competition, Pearson was then tasked with making his design less desirable, thus ensuring that the pricier versions of the classical books would keep selling too.
Not wanting to compromise his clean typesetting and flawless design, Pearson settled for changing the lovely maroon shade of his design to the most lurid of greens- so lurid, in fact, that it had to be specially mixed before the books could be printed, as Penguin had never before used such an appalling shade. Admittedly, I actually really love the green editions of Penguin Popular Classics as they completely contradict what you’d expect from a design for classic literature. I think it carries a lovely sense of humour, as well as fulfilling Penguin’s original aim to make the classics more accessible to everyone.
Pearson’s talk was littered with so many interesting anecdotes and design tips that I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface in this article. I love and admire his work. If you’d like to find out more on his work, have a look at this article in Eye Magazine and see his portfolio at TypeAsImage.com
Next week: Inspired by revisiting Pearson’s cover designs for Penguin, I’ll be taking a look at how Penguin covers have changed over the years. See you next time!
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