What a week it’s been in the supposed United Kingdom—not least for creative people who rely on the easy flow of labor and ideas between cultures. Politicians seem determined to destroy a robust and spirited industry with backward-looking ideals. So it was soothing last week to hear book designer David Pearson (most notably of Penguin and Picador) talk of keeping traditions in a voice of sagacity and calm.
Addressing an international crowd at Typography and Branding Week, an intensive program led by the Future London Academy, Pearson spoke of finding a niche within the massively transformed metier of publishing by blending a conventional design sensibility with his decidedly modern aesthetic.
Pearson is credited for having led Penguin (his first job out of art college) into the lucrative business of reading series with his “Great Loves” and “Great Ideas” collections. He sold his employers on the idea of a 70th anniversary anthology of book jacket design, which he researched in his spare time at the company’s extensive London archives, and eventually published in 2005. “I camped out in the office for three days,” he says, “and at one point got sent home to sleep. They considered me a health risk.”
Seeing all those texts in chronological order taught Pearson as much about typography, color, and technique—what prevailed, what died, and what improved with age—as it did about the power of merchandise. As publishing became increasingly mired in internet-related death threats, Pearson eschewed digital design, adopting an old-fashioned approach that has served him well.
I can see two main components to Pearson’s success that have served him well at both at large publishers like Penguin and smaller imprints like Zulma, in France. The first is the undeniable physicality of his work: the embossed covers, collage and lino-cut artwork, trompe l’oeil. Take his 2009 jacket design for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for which he designed a giant rubber stamp and splashed it with motor oil, creating an ominous, faux-tactility. His stylized typefaces are always dynamic, rooted in the historical era of each book, and, amusingly, always “book-shaped.” “If you use letters that have the same dimensions as the book itself, that always looks good on the cover,” he says.
The sort of integrity that might have dragged a lesser artist into obscurity netted Pearson his “dream project,” a Penguin reissue of George Orwell’s 1984. Unable to justify the cost of physically slicing the title and author out of the cover, the publisher went for the second idea, redacting them with bars of black foiling. “It was pure serendipity that people started actually scratching off the black, giving it an entirely more menacing meaning,” he says. “For a work in the age of mechanical reproduction, it was a happy accident.”
Which leads me to another component of Pearson’s success: a total refusal to pander intellectually to readers, forcing them to read between the lines. By playing with a reader’s imagination from the very first glance at the cover, he creates drama and sets the stage for what’s to come. “Collective effect,” offering one item of information and leaving the rest to the imagination, always trumps the “zero-confidence effect,” otherwise known as beating readers over the head.
This particular brand of subtlety might make Pearson sound quintessentially British, but he gives credit to Europe for helping shape his style with Italian flourishes, Teutonic type, and 20th-century painterly touches. The shared aesthetic that emerged in a more cooperative Europe anchors Pearson’s work “very subtly, in a quiet visual language.”
You could sense the students got what he was talking about. For the time being, at least.