It is one of those days, when nothing – not even the phone – works, but David Pearson, award-winning Penguin designer, is blessedly kind and obliging. As a junior designer he had the fortune of being selected for an experiment: a series of books to be called Great Ideas which would publish sections of larger works (like St. Augustine’s Confessions) in an inexpensive throwback to the days of pamphleteering. To everyone’s surprise, the Penguin Great Ideas series have been bestsellers, making the works of Marcus Aurelius, Rousseau, Marx, Woolf, and Sartre affordable and undeniably cool.
It was fate: as a child, Pearson occupied himself by playing with and rearranging the contents of his parents’ box of colour-coded Penguin paperbacks. The designer also shares my personal preference for print (the correct and moral preference). Books, he said, are unashamedly beautiful, tactile and tangible.
Pearson studied general graphic design at St. Martin’s College, London, specializing in typography. With his admiration of Penguin ever in mind, he kept an eye on their webpage for job postings, breaking in with the junior design position which led, two years later, to the Great Ideas gig.
Though most designers tend to prefer working with big name living authors, where they can expect high marketing and the establishment of a name or partnership, the Great Ideas was a publishing experiment in the manner of Penguin founder Allen Lane’s original vision of cheap, well-designed books. And, given the project’s experimental nature, there was a greater degree of independence for its designers.
A typical design meeting consists of the heads of each major department of a publishing company, each head laying claim to the finished product’s authorship. The response to the first Great Ideas series’ design was both approving and uneasy. The predominance of white covers (a no-go for advertisers) and lack of Penguin logos prompted Stefan McGrath, Penguin Press’s Managing Director, to admit that though there were faults, if the designers changed one thing, they’d have to change all of it, and he regretted to lose the designs’ visual confidence.
So, in a radical move, all covers were approved in toto. (Remembering this watershed moment makes Pearson a little emotional even now.) Seven or eight years down the line, Penguin’s Great Ideas has gone on to make five series. Pearson sees the first two – red and blue – as delicately considered and safe, becoming more confidant as the series developed into the green, gold, and purple incarnations.
Surprisingly, Pearson informs me, the world of book design is incredibly small. If you’re lucky enough to break in, you’re in. Unlike the popular competitive and cut-throat world of music design, book design is an ‘industry of hobbyists’. But alas, publishing is not the breezy industry it used to be. The book business as a whole is still anxious about the inevitable effect of e-readers on the market.
Pearson’s own prediction is that cheaper paperbacks will continue to fall away, and we should see publishers producing once-off editions to ‘flag up the physical book’. Eventually, he suggests, both mediums – print and digital – will be published side by side. Though Pearson is from the first generation of designers to have always worked on a Mac, ten years later he’s trying to find ways of getting away from it and back to tangible design.
Pearson’s design heroes come (no surprise!) from the Penguin annals: the work of the typographers Jan Tschichold and Hans Schmoller – ‘fastidious, elegant, balanced, timeless’ – and the dynamic designs of the 60s and 70s by Derek Birdsall and David Pelham. When I expressed my admiration for the boxes of postcards Penguin released last year and the wonderful range of design, Pearson said the magic words: ‘it was just a small snippet from the archives…’