David Pearson: “We can be braver with book design in the UK”

The former Penguin in-house designer talks typographic tips, avoiding apologetic design and why authors care so much about how their books look today.

The third year of book cover designer David Pearson’s university degree at Central Saint Martins, he admits, should have been spent focusing on his degree show.

But rather than following the example set by his classmates, Pearson was job hunting. He tells Design Week the search was all-consuming: “I was terrified of graduating without a job and having to move back to Grimsby, so I tried to get the jump on everyone else.”

It was a good strategy, it turns out – the day after he graduated in 2002, Pearson started work at Penguin.

“Cover design is at its most fun when you have something to kick against”

Reflecting on landing such a coveted position so early on in his career, Pearson says it really was a dream come true.

“I remember the biggest challenge of the interview was trying to mask the fact I was stupidly excited – I didn’t think they’d want to hire that person!” he says. Now, as he was then, Pearson says he is a big fan of Penguin’s work and the “indescribable secret formula” that goes into making the publisher’s covers.

Pearson left the in-house team to go independent in 2007, but Penguin remains one of his biggest clients. The most recent project from the partnership is the latest instalment of the Great Ideas book series, which he worked on with fellow designers Phil Baines, Catherine Dixon and Alistair Hall.

Titles from Great Ideas Volume III

The series holds a special place in Pearson’s heart and career history – the mini-book collection dedicated to “great thinkers” has more than 100 titles and Pearson has designed the covers for most of them over the last two decades. New titles are brought out in volumes and each feature a stripped back colour palette. This is the only thing the titles share however, as all are designed to be “pleasingly inconsistent” when sat alongside each other.

“The Great Ideas series was always about trying to make each book as different as possible,” he says, adding that the first step for every stage of the collection was to set parameters and limits. “Book design is at its most fun when you’ve got something to kick against.”

The secret with the Great Ideas series, Pearson says, is “managing variables”. Designing 20 books in one go presents an “interesting dynamic”: “I could have made them all look crazy but then of course none of them would look crazy – my tactic was to allow most of the covers to look ‘straight’ and then went mad with the remaining four or five.”

Covers for books written by George Orwell. Left is Nineteen Eighty-four

Pearson now has 18 years of cover design experience behind him, and a successful solo practice in Type As Image. Throughout his career, he says his working methods haven’t changed.

“When you do what I do, a lot of it stays the same,” he says. “Whether you’re a junior designer or a senior designer, whether you’re in-house or not, you’re still designing a book cover, and I like that consistency.”

But that’s not to say the output of work has stayed the same – audiobooks, e-books and social media have all had their effects on the profession. Instagram in particular has provoked a huge shift in the perception of cover design, he says.

Titles from Great Ideas Volume IV

“When I first started out, authors were not that preoccupied with how their books looked, but my god they are now,” Pearson says. “The success of a ‘cover reveal’ on Instagram is a huge indicator of how the book is going to sell.”

And the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has provoked another change in his work. For the last six months Pearson, who has spent most of his career working in backlist publishing, has spent more time working with living authors alongside dead authors. The onset of the virus and subsequent lockdown, he explains, meant book tours were cancelled and publishers needed new ways of engaging prospective readers.

“I’ve had more work recently than I have in ages and I’m doing most of it right now from a very hastily assembled home office,” he says. “It’s been amazing.”

(L-R) Cover from Great Ideas Volume IV and Great Ideas Volume III

“What I can do is incredibly limited”

Pearson’s work – be it with the Great Ideas series or other covers for the likes of George Orwell, Karl Marx or John le Carré – is focused around typography. That’s “his thing”, he tells us.

“I can’t draw or paint or take photos – what I can do is incredibly limited, but I use typography in an expressive way on my book covers,” he says. “And that’s good, because when people approach me for work, they’re not going to be too shocked with what I produce.”

The good thing about the book cover design profession, Pearson adds, is that everyone within it has their own “wheelhouse”. For this reason, he views his fellow designers as friends and collaborators rather than rivals. He says: “We all operate in very distinct boxes and have unique skillsets that don’t really cross over, so what you can and can’t do drives things along.”

Titles from Great Ideas Volume V. Right cover illustration by Joe McLaren (same as banner image)

“I like creating systems in my work,” he says, referencing the Great Ideas collection as an example. “It’s not the most expressive or spontaneous way of working but it works really well for me.”

The way that Pearson arrives at the final product differs depending on the book at hand. The ideal scenario, he says, is to receive a manuscript, read it and then respond directly. But the reality can often be quite different, since schedules are often tight and changes need to be made. And sometimes the book simply isn’t finished.

“You have to work around these obstacles where you can and often this opens up some really interesting avenues,” Pearson says. “Talking to the author and discussing themes and emotions and tones is a great way around that and it really serves to bond you together.”

Titles from Great Ideas Volume VI

“You can tell when a book cover is quite apologetic”

So with almost 20 years of experience in the industry, how does Pearson view the state of the profession he is in? He says there are “waves of brilliance” coming from different publishers around the world. In particular, he says many UK designers are looking enviably at publishing imprints in the US, like Knopf and New Directions.

“There are lots like these two who are doing work that is consistently and endlessly brilliant,” he says. As for the UK, he says there is some similarly impressive work going on, but that “we’re maybe a little bit more fearful” here. “I feel like you can tell when a book cover is quite apologetic, or if too many people are working to make it dance to different tunes and I’d love for us to become braver.”

Titles written by John le Carré, designed in partnership with Nick Asbury

On the topic of dancing to too many tunes, Pearson is hoping the industry will soon embrace the idea of having more than one cover for a title. The standard at the moment is to have one cover to fit a growing number of contexts.

“A book cover is such a small space, and I’ve always had the opinion that each one should be redesigned for all it’s different uses,” he says. “A small thumbnail for online use, a poster, an e-book cover and the physical product require different treatments, I think.”

In the future, he hopes, publishers will embrace the idea of a “cover toolkit”, which features several designs that are all “fit for purpose”. Pearson says this way, “we could all go about our jobs in a braver way”.

Titles from Great Ideas Volume II. Left cover illustration by Stephen Russ

“A book cover is basically a little poster”

As for how hopeful book cover designers might crack the industry, Pearson says the key is to be “an ideas factory”.

“A book cover is basically a little poster, so if you’re interested in the field I think it’s all about being able to demonstrate you have the power to snag someone’s eye and communicated quickly,” he says. “There are so many ways of interpreting a book, and you’re working with different content all the time, so you have to be able to put on different hats.”

For this reason, he says those wishing to get into cover design shouldn’t necessarily think they have to fill their portfolio with just examples of cover designs. Instead, they should focus on work that conveys good ideas and an understanding of typography. A little bit of resilience never hurts too, Pearson says, since “you can go through a lot of covers before you get an approval sometimes”.

Titles from Great Ideas Volume VI

So after all of this, what is Pearson’s favourite project? He says it is actually a recent collaboration with writer Nick Asbury for a series from John le Carré. Hiring a writer to do the copy for the cover was a first for Pearson, but he says the results were “dynamic and rewarding”.

In the 18 years he’s been designing covers, Pearson says he has no idea how many covers he’s actually created but estimates its “hundreds and hundreds”.

“Someone once said to me: ‘When a book comes round and you already designed the cover for it once, that’s when you should retire’,” he recalls. “But I must have designed 30 covers for Karl Marx alone, so I think I’m beyond that now.”

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  • mike dempsey October 13, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    TELL IT LIKE IT IS.

    A staggering 184,000 books were published in the UK last year. All had to have their covers designed. That’s a lot of work for a lot of designers.

    The ‘Great Ideas’ Penguin series paints a rosy picture for any budding graphic designer wanting to work in that seemingly lovely area of design. But what appears to be a free creative rein with Penguin is not what it seems. Yes, we see considered covers on selected classics, backlist titles and out-of-print works, all of which represent steady turnover for any publisher, especially if they are recovered every few years. But they are not the main event.

    As nobody else seems to comment on the reality I will, by directing DW readers’ attention to what is going on with the main event, that’s ‘NEW’ titles, both fiction and non-fiction. Penguin Random House is owned by the German multinational media conglomerate Bertelsmann. At last count, Penguin Random House had 365 imprints and had published 15,000 print editions under its ever-expanding umbrella, making it a formidable force in the book trade.

    If you care to dip into the heavily packed Penguin Random House website and randomly click on any one of the many literary genres on offer, you will get a true picture of the design output of this publishing oil tanker. Even better, go through all 14 of the listed genres – the result is shocking to behold. The percentage of what I would consider exceptional design is a tiny fraction of what is being spewed out. I happened to click on ‘mystery and suspense’, and of the 335 covers displayed, and this is from a significant range of their imprints, I could only find three or four covers worth a second glance. The rest just SHOUTED!!! at the browsing customer.

    “In an ideal world book covers wouldn’t contain anything but essential information…” ANGUS HYLAND

    In a recent DW article, Penguin’s new digital creative director eulogised about the importance of Penguin’s design ‘heritage’ (legacy), but that harks back to the days of Jan Tschichold, Romek Marber, Germano Facetti and David Pelham. In 1978, the American Peter Mayer was hired as CEO to re-energise and make Penguin profitable – all of the publishing industry was in the doldrums, along with the entire country as we were undergoing an economic downturn. Britain was engulfed in what was called ‘The Winter of Discontent’ – an ongoing saga of strikes as a result of the Labour government’s attempt to control inflation by imposing rules on the public sector. The country was in a deeply unstable economic climate. I remember because that is exactly when, my then company, Carroll & Dempsey started (later to become CDT Design).

    Meanwhile back at Penguin, Peter Mayer set about decimating the list, slashing departments. people and introducing books that wouldn’t have been given house room under the eagle eye of Allen Lane. He slowly eroded the quality of the covers, which ultimately hastened the departure of David Pelham, one of Penguin’s most brilliant art directors. The great broadcaster Alistair Cooke put it so perfectly when he lamented the transformation of ‘the publisher’ into ‘the book business’. That was Mayer’s world.

    Ever since the ‘Mayer effect’, all Penguin art directors (post-Pelham) have concentrated their creative energies on repackaging classics and backlist titles at regular intervals. But when it comes to those ‘NEW’ titles, the standard has consistently taken a dive especially over the last decade – even non-fiction (a one-time bastion of wonderful ideas) is no more.

    Just check out any Waterstones and you’ll see for yourself. But if you look online at the Penguin shop and dismiss the cuddly toys, much of the items are reproductions from the ‘legacy’ periods of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

    In my view when a company states that “design is at the heart of everything they do”, they have to believe it and, importantly, deliver it. Apple is such a company. They don’t just produce 10% of exceptional design. They produce it in every aspect: products, packaging, dress code, interiors, websites, copywriting, commercials, service design, their HQ… everything. Penguin Random House just doesn’t deliver that truth. The covers from the overall Penguin Random House assembly line have the same look, with the occasional gem that somehow manages to get through. No wonder it is like this with such a concentration of imprints and opinions under one roof – it is a factory.

    It would seem that the sounding board for cover design these days is, “what will it look like on Amazon?”, where the cover appears stamp size. Ironically Royal Mail has been delivering outstanding designs, stamp size, ever since David Gentleman RDI revolutionised the look of special issue stamps 50 years ago.

    I don’t know who is responsible for the churning out the jelly mould approached the covers, but I bet it’s not the art directors. For me currently, the best book cover design work is coming out of New York, where designers are more original and seem to have more clout and garner more respect from publishers, as they should.

    “Bring back ideas, simplicity and consistency. Not pastiche typography and decoration.” MIKE DEMPSEY

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