Profile: David Pearson

After early success with covers for the Penguin Great Ideas series and then going it alone, this book designer is taking an even bigger plunge now and setting up a publishing firm. John Stones chats with him about the good old realm of print

’I’m very much a print guy – a pretty terrifying thing to say at the moment,’ says David Pearson. He is so analogue he does not even have a mobile phone, but he has managed so far to buck the trend, carving out a niche designing books that are garnering both critical and mainstream acclaim.

’No one really knows what the future of print is going to be – you get this weird subset of publishing where people are throwing money at the look and feel of books to remind the public of how great they can be,’ he says. ’I’m being given bigger budgets – it’s about wanting to reaffirm what a book is in this moment of sheer panic.’

Pearson sprung to prominence in 2004 with the Penguin Great Ideas series, the budget paperbacks that showed that a serious typographical approach could also be a massive popular hit. Pearson has now put the finishing touches on the fifth and final series (as delightfully inventive and meticulously crafted as ever). But he has done so as a freelance, and it is probably, he says, his swansong for the publisher for whom he first worked.

In 2002, in the last year of his studies at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, Pearson was lucky enough to land a job at Penguin Books, starting the day after graduation. Working for the ’unfashionable side’ of the business looking after backlist titles, he was soon given the freedom to design the Great Ideas series. ’People would assume I was the art director, but I was just a designer,’ he remembers. ’It’s not that there was a sudden shit storm and I had to leave, but promotion doesn’t happen much and I wanted to get on.’ So in 2007 Pearson gave himself a push and set up on his own.

The desk in the studio in London’s Clerkenwell he shares with two others is piled high with books, including a complete set of Cormac McCarthy novels he has designed for Picador, laboriously crafted from rubber stamps. ’I fall into the trap of calling cover design packaging and wince when I hear myself do it, because it’s just such a dirty word – but it is packaging in the sense that it doesn’t do anything other than draw someone in and protect what’s inside,’ he says.

Pearson has dipped his toe in packaging proper (wine labels and a CD cover for Natalie Merchant) as well as branching out with a set of titles for the film Cracks last year. Moonlighting while at Penguin to pay off his student debt, he also designed a logo for Ridley Scott Associates (and jokes that he is still living off the proceeds) and established an ongoing relationship with French publisher Zulma, for which he has designed a series of geometric covers.

Not all Pearson’s relationships are as harmonious. ’If you see any work that I’ve done that looks confident or that I’ve had a say in, it’s generally because the author is not alive,’ he says.

Pearson has now taken matters into his own hands, setting up a publishing company called White’s Books with book editor Jonathan Jackson to publish special editions of literary classics. Having secured mainstream distribution, the pair are now launching a cheaper series, with introductions by a popular contemporary author (to be serialised in The Sunday Times), beautifully produced and with debossed cover illustrations by Joe McLaren.

Pearson is also planning to write his first book – about his collection of Eastern European matchbox covers, some of which he has on display on his Flickr site. In the meantime, he has always got about five book covers on the go – but no e-books, not yet anyway.

’I hope I always will work in print, but I’ve seen enough of e-books to believe in them and to hope that they exist side by side with print,’ he says. ’But I’ve noticed some people have been trying to animate covers, and that fills me with dread. I try not to insult the readers’ intelligence.’

So it is safe to presume he doesn’t have an iPad? He laughs, ’No, that would come after a mobile phone.’

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