Just The Type

Always more a typographer than a graphic designer, Derek Birdsall’s body of work, from Pirelli calendars to Penguin books, demonstrates his mastery of the art. Mike Dempsey met him

For more years than he cares to remember, typographer Derek Birdsall has remained faithful to no more than a dozen typefaces: Bell, Bodoni and Eric Gill’s Sans, Joanna and Modern among them. He has experimented with more contemporary faces, he says, but finds them usually flawed, so sticks with the old workhorses, all of which have strong personalities.

Indeed, Birdsall selected Gill Sans, with its ‘wonderful italic’, for his much-revered redesign of the Church of England’s Common Worship prayer book in 2000. He felt so strongly about the typeface that he has said he would not have done the job if the client hadn’t accepted it. It is perfect for small books with relatively little text per page, like a prayer book, he says.

Birdsall is currently writing a book, with the working title of The Intelligent Book, which features a utilitarian typewriter face for the text, Schreibmaschinensch. In it, he describes how he selects a typeface.

‘[It] need not be an arbitrary decision,’ he says. ‘The suitability of a typeface to the subject of the book is less important than to the nature of its text. Text that contains dates, dimensions, formulae or footnotes needs a face with good numerals, fractions and mathematical sorts. Here, a type with numerals smaller than the capitals, such as Bell and Joanna, works well.’

Quotations, he continues, especially of poetry and titles of publications, suit a face with a distinguished italic. And sans serif faces, he says, can often be more legible than readable – not tautology, if you think about it.

Despite this astonishing attention to detail, Birdsall’s work is disarmingly simple. Like great screen actors, it is what is left out that makes the performance compelling. He is not a showy designer interested in trends. His passion lies in the details: the typeface, naturally and, with books, the feel of the paper; the quality of the binding; the cut of the font; the evenness of line endings; the perfect balance of image to space.

These are the things that elevate his work to the ranks of typography. These and an incredibly inventive mind responsible for producing a consistently high standard of work for over 40 years: he designed the first Pirelli calendar in 1964 as well as book jackets for Penguin and Monty Python, and art-directed magazines including Town, Nova and The Independent’s colour magazine.

Birdsall’s own view of his work is very pragmatic. ‘As designers we are here to please the client,’ he says. He doesn’t believe in forcing things down their throats. What he does do is weigh up all the possible questions and objections that a client might voice and have his answers ready.

Birdsall was born in Nottingly near Pontefract in Yorkshire in 1934, one of three sons. Bright and with a keen interest in chess and drawing, he passed the eleven-plus and settled into grammar school life. It was here his appetite for art and calligraphy developed and he soon became impatient to get the experience of an art school. But his headmaster was keen for him to stay put and complete his exams.

Eventually he secured a place at Selby Art School. This led on to Wakefield College of Art and later, in 1952, to the Central School of Arts and Crafts (which merged with Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design in 1989).

It was here he began to develop his skills as a typographer and book designer and was hugely influenced by the typographer Anthony Froshaug.

But life at Central did not go particularly well and Birdsall failed his diploma. His time there had only delayed the inevitable fate that befell every young man in the 1950s – National Service. In 1955 he packed his wife and his young son back off to Yorkshire while he was posted to Cyprus for his two-year stint in the army.

He was assigned to the army printing unit. To his dismay, on arrival he discovered the unit was now bereft of equipment due to the Suez crisis. He was concerned that he might be e e drafted off to something more physically taxing, but his commanding officer asked him if he was capable of drawing up plans. Despite having never done this, Birdsall said yes, he could.

He spent the best part of his service armed with nothing more than mapping pens, Indian ink and tracing paper, producing detailed drawings for three army depots and, in the process, learning an awful lot.

In 1957, back in civvy street and reunited with his wife and son, he set about finding work. He turned down a job as a typographer at Crawfords Advertising and opted instead for a more flexible arrangement at printer Balding and Mansall. John Commander was the managing director there, and on seeing Birdsall’s portfolio, immediately offered him a part-time job.

This appealed because it would give him an opportunity to build up further freelance work on his days off. This proved successful and he quickly had a fairly regular flow of work from various sources.

Around this time he started teaching one evening a week at the London School of Printing. At first Birdsall was supposed to be supported by an experienced tutor, but on his first evening, Tom Eckersley, LSP’s head of design informed Birdsall that he was on his own, due to the illness of the regular lecturer.

Panicked by this, Birdsall stood nervously in front of a very expectant class, racking his brains. Then he had a time-stalling idea. Clearing his throat he asked, ‘Does everyone have type scales and layout pads?’ There was a deathly silence. ‘No? Well you’ll find the school shop just along the corridor.’ The room emptied, giving him time to reflect.

Birdsall supplemented his freelance work with more part-time lecturing, this time at Maidstone College of Art, where he introduced a young John McConnell to the mysteries of graphic design. A little later, Eckersley suggested Birdsall apply for a three days a week lectureship at LSP. The guarantee of regular money was enough to persuade him. He recalls the LSP interview was like the Spanish inquisition, but the thing that impressed Birdsall most was being offered a cigarette from an elegant gold case by the very dapper creative legend Ashley Havinden.

Birdsall had prepared himself well for the interview and at just the right moment produced his coup de grâce, a specially designed book of his work incorporating an intricate Japanese binding. The interview panel was impressed. He got the job.

Birdsall was now able to support his growing family. He was also networking with other designers. It was with three of these, George Daulby, George Mayhew and Peter Wildbur that he formed BDMW Associates in 1960. Commander offered them accommodation in the attic of Balding and Mansall’s offices.

BDMW was a loose partnership with everyone having their own clients and sharing the expenses. The collective name gave it a presence and its work quickly became noticed.

After two years Birdsall’s freelance work had built up to such a level that he gave up teaching at LSP. In 1962 he took over the ground floor of Balding and Mansall, leaving his former colleagues in the attic. But out of this creative community came the influential book, 17 Graphic Designers Londoní published by Balding and Mansall in 1963 and designed by Birdsall.

It showcased a new direction in British graphic design. Commander wrote the introduction to the book and both he and the book became the catalyst for the formation of D&AD. In 1964 Commander became the first President, and BDMW’s George Daulby designed the debut annual.

Birdsall’s output was growing and he was working for a range of prestigious clients. He was commissioned by Pirelli’s advertising manager Derek Forsyth to design its 1964 calendar. Fletcher, Forbes and Gill had produced it the previous year, with photography by Terence Donovan, in Hyde Park. Birdsall felt it should be shot somewhere more glamorous and with photographer Robert Freeman he set off to Majorca, setting the pattern for the increasingly lavish productions that were to follow.

In 1964 Birdsall moved to Covent Garden and in 1967 joined forces with Forsyth, who had left Pirelli to start a hybrid design consultancy that also handled advertising, called Omnific.

Dennis Hackett, former editor of Nova magazine, often joined them to write copy. Unfortunately for Birdsall the experience became a weight around his neck. He felt himself being turned into a manager and missed the hands-on involvement of the creative process.

After two years he and Forsyth parted company. Fletcher and Forbes approached Birdsall with a view to him joining them (Bob Gill had recently left the consultancy). Although flattered, and a little tempted, Birdsall was determined to plough his own furrow.

He continued working in Covent Garden under the Omnific banner, and Alan Kitching joined the company, strengthening its typographical base. In 1984 Birdsall bought an old factory in Islington and converted it. This has been his creative base until a few years ago.

There are too many of Birdsall’s projects to list here. But certain work stands out: the 1963 Pirelli windscreen de-icer packaging; the 1971 photographic series of covers for W Somerset Maughan; the 1970 promotional poster for photographer Hans Feurer with Birdsall’s wittily applied typographical moustache to a portrait of an astonished-looking girl because she resembled Salvador Dali. And his 2000 typographical tour de force – the Church of England’s prayer book, Common Worshipí which demonstrates Birdsall’s ability to produce an eminently functional piece with great beauty.

Although Birdsall has scaled down his operation he shows no sign of stopping, for it is clear that design is his life, fuelled by a passion for detail and a desire to make things better. He still loves receiving a bulky manuscript and a pile of photographs in their raw state, he says. For him the moment of creation starts right there, looking at those disparate piles.

Mike Dempsey is founding partner of CDT Design

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