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David Pearson’s Lecture

November 29, 2022
by the gentle author

As part of this year’s Bloomsbury Jamboree at the Art Workers’ Guild on Sunday 11th December, David Pearson will be giving an illustrated talk about his exemplary book designs, entitled MONEY FOR OLD ROPE




“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 my first book Spitalfields Life and many of the others I have published since. 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.

There were innumerable trips over to his long narrow studio in Back Hill, Clerkenwell – the traditional home of printing in London – as David’s ideas evolved until we arrived at the complete volume in which one hundred and fifty stories, three hundred pictures and innumerable illustrations all fitted together to become one four hundred and fifty page book with its own unity of purpose. Once that the mighty task was done and we could draw breath, I took the opportunity to 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. “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

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    November 29, 2022

    This is wonderful. I have a thing about type faces.

  2. Mark Smith permalink
    November 29, 2022

    In a word, Superb.

  3. November 29, 2022

    Great piece GE. I have many books designed by David including ‘Penguin by Design’ and a number of the Spitalfields Life publications, his Nineteen Eighty Four cover is just brilliant. He is a masterful designer and his love for letters and typography shines through his work. I worked throughout my career in graphic design, as a typographical designer and creative and can appreciate his meticulous eye for detail, the attention to kerning, line breaks and in every piece he produces. Thank you for featuring the personality behind all this superb work and taking him from the shadows, into the light.

  4. November 29, 2022

    A wonderful example for the power of typographic design. It would be great joy for me as a graphic designer to layout a Penguin paperback!

    Love & Peace

  5. David Antscherl permalink
    November 29, 2022

    I agree with Jonathan Madden. As a fellow designer I applaud the deceivingly minimalistic aesthetic David Pearson has used for much of his work. The appreciation of beautiful type faces, his choices and the way he uses them are superb. It’s a refreshing change from the jumble of over-designed work often seen today. Thank you bringing David to our attention , GE.

  6. November 29, 2022

    Design is SO important in our lives. Great designers have a way of beautifying and elevating everything they touch. I shouldn’t generalize, but most great designers work quietly, under the radar, contributing to the richness of everyday life. We notice their work in quiet moments — when we pick up a well-designed book, or notice a lovely textile, or recognize gorgeous typography. Every once in a while, the public becomes hyper aware of a designer — for instance, when the amazing Milton Glaser created the “I *heart* New York” logo — but most of the time we are simply enriched by a designer’s talents, period. Again — design is SO important in our lives.

    (Oh! Those orange Penquin book spines!? )

    Thank you for shining a light on this topic, this designer, these book covers, and more.

  7. Philip Marriage permalink
    November 30, 2022

    Congratulations to David for producing such a fine body of work over many years – as an ex book-designer I am envious! And congratulations to you too gentle author for selecting David for your many titles.

    More from both of you please . . .

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