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David Pearson, Designer

February 29, 2012
by the gentle author

“I’ll do this to the day I die if I’m allowed to!”

This man is so busy that the only way he can keep still is to sit on his hands. He is David Pearson, a designer who has been responsible for some of the most distinctive books produced in recent years, and it was my good fortune that he chose to apply his talents to designing the book of Spitalfields Life. I needed someone who could find a way to let my stories be at home upon the printed page and David rose to the challenge superlatively.

Over the last year, there have been innumerable trips over to his long narrow studio in Back Hill, Clerkenwell – the traditional home of printing in London – as David’s ideas have evolved until, at the very beginning of this year, we arrived at the complete volume in which one hundred and fifty stories, three hundred pictures and innumerable illustrations all fit together to become one four hundred and fifty page book with its own unity of purpose. Now that the mighty task is done and we can draw breath at last, I took the opportunity to make a return visit and enquire more of David’s rare clarity of vision.

Starting as a junior text designer at Penguin as recently as 2002, David was given the job of selecting the titles for a history of the company’s cover designs. In two weeks, he went through the entire sixty year archive, taking each one off the shelf for two seconds and replacing it again. Not only did “Penguin By Design,” the book David compiled and designed, achieve unexpected popular success, reaching a readership far beyond aficionados of publishing history, but the research that he undertook granted him a unique and inspiring insight into the evolution of book design in this country.

“Everything I have done since has been based upon an application of that to my own work,” he admitted to me with blatant modesty and an easy relaxed smile, “Good design is about refinement and details – I’ve learnt it’s ok not to reinvent the wheel.”

On the basis of “Penguin By Design,” David was given the job to design the covers for Penguin Great Ideas, an experimental series of low-budget books with two-colour covers. “I’m not an illustrator and I can’t take photographs, so I decided to do all the covers with type,” explained David, almost apologetically. Yet David’s famous landmark designs for these books, derived from his knowledge of the history of Penguin covers, were a model of elegant simplicity that stood out in bookshops and sold over three million copies. “I saw people picking them up and they didn’t want to put them down!” he confided to me, rolling his eyes in delight, “They were a phenomenon.” Then he placed a hand affectionately upon a stack of copies of this series for which he has now designed one hundred covers.

“I was only ever good at one thing, I used to finish off other people’s drawings for them at school,” he revealed to me suddenly, looking up as he retreated from his previous thought, taking me back to the beginning by recalling his childhood in Cleethorpes and adding, “I decided not to be an artist because I always need a brief or I flounder, so instead I trained to be a designer.” David’s disarming self-effacement is entirely in contrast to what I had expected, knowing him only through his bold designs.

It was on the basis of David’s brilliant typographic covers for the Great Ideas series, that I leaped at the chance of having him take on Spitalfields Life – because I wanted a designer who could work with classic type in a modern way and create something with an attractive utilitarian quality, reflecting the contents and subject of the book. Before I met him, I braced myself to encounter a fierce typographer with an authoritarian manner but – to my surprise – there was David, chuckling like a schoolboy, and with his corkscrew curls and plain features resembling a saint that just stepped off the front of a Romanesque cathedral, and lounging comfortably with his lanky limbs outstretched.

For interest’s sake I sent David a copy of a page of Dickens “Household Words” from 1851, as the closest precedent I knew for a collection of short literary pieces. Dickens published these weekly and for tuppence his forty thousand readers in London received a pamphlet of half a dozen stories every Saturday morning – a publication that today would almost certainly be a blog. When David saw this, he decided to adopt the same two column structure for Spitalfields Life, recognising that this format brought a pace and a dynamism to the flow of the type, and the font he chose was Miller by Matthew Carter, a redesign of a Scotch Roman face of a century ago which possesses subtle details, and that he characterised as “resolute.” What most appeals to me about David’s designs is that they do not look “designed,” they look as if they arrived how they are naturally and the success of his work on Spitalfields Life means that I could not now imagine the book any other way.

Like me, David likes to work late into the night when the phone stops ringing and the emails cease. “It’s a way to be able to pay attention to everything to the Nth degree,” he confided to me, “I can’t work quickly.” In spite of his success, David works long hours and weekends in his tiny studio where he has been established for the past three years. “I’ll do this to the day I die if I’m allowed to!” he declared to me candidly, almost in a whisper.

David Pearson’s beautifully proportioned title page for Spitalfields Life.

Charles Dickens’ Household Words provided the inspiration for David Pearson’s page design.

David Pearson’s page design for Spitalfields Life.

David designed this book and compiled the covers.

David’s redesign of the penguin for Penguin Books.

Illustration by Joe McLaren

Artwork by Phil Baines

Illustration by Joe McLaren

Cover design by David Pearson, Staffordshire dogs by Rob Ryan.

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    February 29, 2012

    so awesome, the marcus aurelius and spitalfields life are the best. i am so, so happy for you.

  2. Catherine permalink
    February 29, 2012

    These beautiful book covers make me very happy!!

  3. melbournegirl permalink
    February 29, 2012

    The covers are lovely – I have bought a number of these books (not just for the covers!) and admire them greatly. Just ordered the last title – CAN”T WAIT for it to wing its way to Aus.

  4. February 29, 2012

    What a man, what an appreciative story. Thank you to both of you.

  5. Ulf Jacobsen permalink
    February 29, 2012

    I bid you Good Morning and send my heartfelt thanks for an excellent presentation of book designer David Pearson who has meant so much for the revival of Penguins. You certainly put him on the right track with Household Words!

  6. February 29, 2012

    Like Melbourne girl, I’ve picked up books that turn out to have David Pearson covers for the sheer pleasure of appreciating their understated, elegant yet workmanlike designs. His approach – up to the minute yet steeped in tradition – seems (no, IS) perfect for your themes. What a wonderful team!

  7. JerryW permalink
    February 29, 2012

    I think I like your cover best, Gentle Author.. those dogs are just wonderful

  8. jondwill permalink
    February 29, 2012

    I have just placed my order of your book with Rough Trade. Can’t wait to receive it and only sorry I can’t come along to the book launch which sounds great. Good luck with it and have a great evening!

  9. February 29, 2012

    So pleased for you about the book, I have been following your blog since the start.
    Saw you on the BBC news lunchtime today, you have made it! Love the cover design.

  10. John T permalink
    February 29, 2012

    I love reading your daily stories online and now I can enjoyed them in print with such lovely typography and layout. Thank you very much.
    While the talk is of typography and letterforms, may I say how delighted I was to see that David Pearson had used the refinement of the ligature (the f joined to the i) to spell out the title on his excellent title page layout for your fine book.
    The absence of the ligature on your webpage masthead is the only irritation I find on your website. Here you use another Matthew Carter typeface (Georgia Bold), but the separate f and i crash together. Please carry David Pearson’s good practice onto your webpage masthead title as it would look even better with the ligature designed for this awkward letter combination.
    Perhaps David Pearson would agree for his more elegant form to appear across your webpage masthead as it would be perfect in this medium too.

  11. the gentle author permalink*
    February 29, 2012

    I share your frustration with the crash of letters on the header in the word Spitalfields but as far as I am aware the template I use does not allow for ligatures…

  12. March 1, 2012

    David is a scholar and a gent. An amazingly talented man indeed.

    Thanks for the article, congrats on the book and great to see one or two new covers in there too.

  13. Cherub permalink
    March 2, 2012

    I was given a Kindle as a birthday gift last year and I love it dearly. However, I will never ever stop buying books. There is nothing to beat the cover, the smell of the paper and the anticipation of what is contained inside that will spirit you away to another world.

  14. Andy T permalink
    March 4, 2012

    David is incredibly talented, and as I know from having had the pleasure of working with him at Penguin, very modest and great company too. Why can’t everyone be like that?

    I hadn’t realised that he was also responsible for the dramatic Cormac McCarthy covers – cracking stuff.

    And when my lovely but demanding three year-old gives me the chance I hope to read Spitalfields life as well.

    Great typeface on this site too – it makes such a difference.


  15. Bob Richardson permalink
    August 13, 2020

    David is a genius. Pure and simple.

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