David Pearson talks books and typography ahead of The Recorder Issue 5 release

Ahead of the imminent release of Issue 5 of Monotype’s magazine The Recorder, which features an article on typographic book covers, I met up with British book cover designer and master of typography David Pearson, to talk about his career and the type-only approach he has often utilized.

David Pearson graduated from Central Saint Martins with a degree in Graphic Design before immediately working in-house at Penguin’s London office from 2002 onwards. He began with a brief stint as a text designer, before moving on to a position as a cover designer working in the art department.

David was at Penguin for five successful years, working on a variety of projects during that time. Most notably the vast, diverse and multi award-winning Great Ideas series of paperbacks and the book Penguin by Design written by his former tutor, and occasional collaborator, Phil Baines. 

These two projects both utilized Pearson’s love of design history, a passion which has often fed back into his work, especially from a typographical perspective. Phil Baines’ book on Penguin’s cover design heritage, for which David produced the cover and interior layouts, involved a memorable trip to explore the Penguin archive. A building in Bristol which holds almost every book the publisher has ever released. This visit was surely a formative experience and high-intensity crash-course in book cover design for David, as it would be for any design lover or book collector!

 

Pearson left Penguin just over a decade ago in 2007 to start his one-man studio – ‘Type as Image’. This change allowed him to work for a more varied range of publishers and clients, although Penguin was still one of them. Since then he has become one of the world’s best-known names in book design, especially renowned for his deft and bold use of typography on covers. So, who better to talk to about typographic book covers; past, present and future? I caught up with David over his weekly Friday fish and chip lunch at the studio he shares in Farringdon, London. 

Theo Inglis: Is there a difference in approach to book cover design in other countries? I know you have done very abstract work for French publishers. They don't use photographs as often on covers there, right? 

David Pearson: The differences are becoming harder to define. It used to be much easier to tell a UK and a US cover apart for example. Type styles would give the game up. Today colour preferences seem to be more of a giveaway: the French remain superstitious about the colour green and brown covers are very unwelcome in the UK. I feel like I am able to create more subtly suggestive covers for Editions Zulma since the French book market is less visually aggressive than ours. In the main, book covers are allowed to communicate quietly and the experience of a French bookshop is noticeably more serene as a result. Use of photography is prevalent but French publishers seem less interested in arresting readers with eye-grabbing images or cheap tricks. It’s also worth mentioning that France is the only country where physical book sales didn’t dip due to the arrival of eBooks. The relationship between the French and their books seems to be firmly entrenched within the national psyche. Added to that, their second-hand bookshops are cherished, rather than seen as a repository for tired or ailing books.

Books in shops are being shown with their covers out more and more. Does this affect how you approach your job as a book designer?

We are increasingly being urged to create objects of desire and the cover obviously plays a key role here, especially when a book is aiming for pride of place in a bookshop. Designers visit them regularly, to note the common visual language of related or competing titles. It can be a source of frustration then, when presenting a contrasting or conflicting design aimed at standing out, only to be asked to produce a copycat cover intended to hitch on the success of the latest best-seller. Booksellers often create themed displays dedicated to the latest hot trend, see Hygge for example. Publishers are all-too aware of this and often the pursuit of a like-for-like cover is their priority.

How do you think type-only covers fit into this new way of showing books in shops?

They are definitely more prevalent than they have been, perhaps because of the wealth of great display type that is being produced today. In that respect, designers have never had it so good. Being allowed to use ‘just type’ will always be dependent on what books are blazing a commercial trail though. Jon Gray’s cover for Swing Time and John Gall’s for Norwegian Wood, to take two current examples, prove to publishers that the mass market can handle bold, type-driven design and so this approach will be validated for a time. (Thank you Jon and John!) 

Do you see type as an alternative to being specific or literal?

Exactly. At college, I was taught to consider the inherent personality of a typeface; to look at the way it behaves and not just how legible it is. It can be liberating – and more than a little fun – if you can get into the habit of asking yourself whether letters have the right tone or temper rather than just the correct optical balance.

Obviously, the Penguin Great Ideas series was a big moment for your career, were the covers for the series always intended to be so typographic from the very start?

The project’s editor Simon Winder wanted each cover to carry a small, centralised illustration, or ‘do-dad’ as he called it, and I quickly translated that into a typographic ornament. As a young and under-confident designer, I was trying to operate within a framework I understood and that was typographic. Once a few covers had been produced the images fell away completely and type became the hero. Phil Baines was a big influence here, since his early covers for the series used only type and worked it as hard as possible (see Meditations). This really opened my eyes to how the series could work: type in all its glory. I had become lost in a world of curlicues and visual fuss with my own covers. Almost apologising for the very presence of type.

Do publishers come to you now knowing that they want a typographic approach, or do you still have to convince them to try it?

The convincing often comes when I deliver something that doesn’t resemble Great Ideas! It’s rarely stated in the initial brief but after a wave of unsuccessful designs I’m regularly asked to consider something more ‘Great Ideas-y’. It’s not a bad cross to bear of course – the toolkit was such a pleasure to work with – but you want to move things forward somehow, if not just to keep your neurons firing!

Is it difficult to convince clients about the amount of work that has gone into something purely typographic?

It can be. A common perception of type-only covers is that they were simply achieved and therefore easily altered. Sometimes my covers are adjusted after I’ve sent work off to print. Typographic compositions are considered to be more malleable for some reason. I do wonder whether the same thing would happen with illustrative or photographic covers.

Do you ever get the opposite case, where a publisher wants just type, so that they can do the unsubtle thing and have the name and title huge?

If you happen to be working with a big-name living author, their name will generally be the hero of the cover but it’s really helpful knowing this from the outset. In so many ways the struggle is over! Book design briefs can be incredibly nuanced – with designs often expected to reach out to multiple audiences – so it can be a blessed relief when big type is prescribed. You can just get on and design with conviction.  

I guess sometimes it can be quite fun to embrace it and make something as powerful as it can be?

Indeed. Being handed something that must be used on the cover doesn’t half liberate you sometimes. Working only with an author name and title can be similarly freeing. Especially if you have been juggling stickers and cover quotes for a few weeks. I was able to do this with Noam Chomsky’s covers for Pluto Press and I think they feel more direct and purposeful as a result.

Can you explain your studio name – ‘Type as Image’ and what you mean by it?

I’m simply trying to get in their first and manage some expectations. You might not, but there is a good chance you will receive work from me that uses type in some significant way. You would be surprised how many people expect me to draw or hand-paint a cover, despite having never done so before!  

Did you always know you wanted to primarily focus on typography in your work?

Halfway through university, I decided that I might want to busy myself with letters. A big reason for this was the influence of tutors Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon. They really illuminated the subject for us and – crucially – made it feel like an accessible world by smashing down a few barriers. This was a time when there weren’t loads of books available about typography. It’s a huge industry now of course but I remember when it was really just the Neville Brody book, the David Carson book, and Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography. Those three covered a surprising amount of ground but it was my tutors who made the world of type seem rich and interesting. Also, it just seemed to suit my temperament; noodling with letters, and obsessing over the minutiae of them.

Do you think the world's caught up with typography now then? Is it helping in the resurgence of typographic book covers?

Social media has been great for the dissemination of type. We get daily access to world-class type designers, to their ideas and their working processes. I can’t tell you what I’ve learnt from twitter alone. The secrets are out and standards are being dragged up as a result. The Pyte Foundry, how great was that?! Ellmer Stefan’s weekly creations definitely gave my covers a shot in the arm and I’m sure that other book designers were eagerly opening job files the second they got their hands on the stuff. 

I guess this is about technological changes too then?

I was preparing a cover for print recently and noticed that the relationship between the letters f and t didn’t look quite right in my composition. I realised I could email their creator and ask if they could provide an alternative. Within an hour they had sent me two newly-drawn letters, fit for purpose. Amazing eh? It just shows you how connected everything is at the moment. The technology allows for it and we are so lucky to live amongst that. 

Are you ever tempted to work on a typeface yourself?

I have a patient character but I’m not that patient!

A lot of book cover designers early on were also type designers too though, Berthold Wolpe or Jan Tschichold say…

I just don’t trust my hand: I can’t draw and find the process quite stressful. I never know when I’m supposed to be done. I’d end up doing the same letter for 8 months. No – I leave this work to the experts and as with other art forms I enjoy, like film and music, I prefer to not look behind the curtain. It’s a genuinely magical moment when Paul Barnes (of Commercial Type) sends over one of their latest creations but I don’t want to know how it got there. This is why we only talk about football when we’re together.

Thank You David, for the interesting conversation!

The Recorder is Monotype’s magazine, featuring 100+ pages of writing, typography and graphic design, exploring type’s role in a wider cultural context. Our next issue, number 5, features a cover which utilises David Pearson’s typographic experiments, and contains a fantastic and diverse selection of fascinating features inside. Including design legend Paula Scher, young but influential graphic designer and typographer David Rudnick, letterer Gemma O’Brien, illustrators Matt Chase and Braulio Amado and writing from Nicole Phillips, Angela Riechers, Madeleine Morley, Laura Snoad and Theo Inglis. It will be available in early September and can be pre-ordered here. Back issues of The Recorder can be purchased on the Monotype Shop.