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Interview with David Pearson

By: Peter Terzian | September 24, 2009

Five years ago, Penguin Books launched the Great Ideas series, which excerpted world-changing works of philosophy and belle lettres packaged as pocket-sized paperbacks. The typographic covers, designed by David Pearson, then a recent graduate of Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, were nothing short of dazzling, with lettering contemporaneous with the classic contents debossed on a pristine white background. The series helped to usher in a new era of Penguin design and brought new attention to British book design.

Collection of spines for the Great Ideas series.

Pearson has gone on to design three more rounds of Great Ideas titles for Penguin, as well as such spin-off series as Great Journeys (travel writing) and Great Loves (short love stories) and a nifty line of “Popular Classics,” thrift editions with minimalist covers that sell for two quid each. Last year, he left a full-time position on the Penguin design team to start his own firm. (He still keeps his hand in with his former employer: a new set of Great Ideas was released in August.)

Cover and spine for Treasure Island, published by White’s Books. Illustrated by Stanley Donwood.

One of his newest projects is White’s Books, a boutique publisher of deluxe hardcover editions of classic works of literature. The bright, colorful covers are the handiwork of some legendary contemporary illustrators, including Radiohead cover artist Stanley Donwood’s take on Treasure Island (above), textile designer and Hockney muse Celia Birtwell’s Wuthering Heights, and Pearson’s own edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems. The publisher released its first four titles were released last year, and expects to produce about eight titles a year. The company is also hoping to tie up a deal with a US distributor quite soon.

Cover for Emma, published by White’s Books. Illustrated by Amy Gibson.

White’s Books is currently preparing to release new editions of Emma (illustrated by Amy Gibson, above) and a selection of Sherlock Holmes tales (illustrated by Michael Kirkham, below). We recently exchanged emails with Pearson as he was redesigning backlist titles for Cormac McCarthy.

Cover for a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, published by White’s Books. Illustrated by Michael Kirkham.

Peter Terzian: Can you describe your role at White’s Books?

David Pearson: White’s Books is currently two people: [publisher] Jonathan Jackson and myself. This is largely to reduce start-up costs but also so we can focus on the detailing of our books and make sure the small number of titles we produce are created to the highest possible standards. I always intended my main role within White’s Books to be that of a commissioner. First and foremost, I wanted to employ illustrators that I admire and—for very selfish reasons—have always wanted to work with. My skill-base very rarely extends to illustration and, even then, I wouldn’t say it’s a particular strength. So once the cover grid was decided on it felt right to send the real work out of the door. This may well be wishful thinking but I think we offer a genuinely attractive brief, if not simply because the only people to approve the work are Jonathan and myself. We are also in the unique position to ask our illustrators to work up something to the point where they are happy, thus removing many of the obstacles found in trade publishing.

Cover of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

What’s your vision for White’s Books?

Due to the arrival of eBooks, many prophesied the death of the printed word, but we see it as an opportunity to turn the spotlight back on the traditional methods of book production and to luxuriate in the craft and tactility of the physical book and the printed page. It’s lovely to be designing with longevity in mind as we aim to create objects that will be retained and cherished by their readers.

Cover of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

How would you describe the White’s Books aesthetic?

Our general look consists of a non-repeating pattern that has a certain narrative flow to it. We are in a position to offer the entire cover to our illustrators and I am interested to see how their artwork shifts as it deals with three different surfaces—back, spine and front cover. The finishes applied to our covers are very traditional and lend themselves to a certain kind of mark making, so where possible, we urge our illustrators to adopt similarly traditional methods to generate their artwork. For example, Petra Börner produced a paper cut illustration for us, Joe McLaren worked in scraper board, and Stanley Donwood worked in lino—all mediums that correlate with the very defined marks of foil blocking. We give our illustrators approximately a month to create final artwork. We then wrap it around a cloth-bound case, printing with a combination of PMS colors and foil blocking. Internally, illustrative endpapers and a decorative title page are joined by a rather unusual text setting method rarely seen in the last hundred years. Each right-hand page sports what is known as a catchword: a hanging word that provides the opening of the following page. We believe that this aids the flow of reading, especially when using a larger, heavy page with a slow turning rate.

Cover of Sigmund Freud’s Deviant Love, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves series.

Does your work at White’s allow you to explore areas of design that you weren’t able to at Penguin?

Since the cover artwork is farmed out, I am afforded the time to revisit my original occupation—that of text designer. Setting books is a wonderfully calming and non-competitive profession. In fact, I seldom receive any kind of critical feedback for my work unless, of course, it is done badly. The same cannot be said for cover design, for which every man and his dog seem to have an opinion. As with any job, variation is the key to a happy and prolonged working life and my time with White’s definitely helps provide that.

Cover, spine, and back of L’Univers, published by Éditions Zulma.

Can you tell me about the work you do for Éditions Zulma? Very few of the authors in the series are known to American readers, and I’m wondering if you can explain what kind of books these are.

Éditions Zulma are known for publishing fairly progressive works of contemporary fiction and as with most French paperback books, they retail at a fairly lofty €15–20.

Cover of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves series.

How does the design complement the texts?

Pattern-based covers feel like a good fit for works of fiction. I really struggle with the idea that book covers should have a distinct voice. In many ways I think a book cover should do no more than titillate, leaving the blurb—and reader—to do the rest. I don’t think it should be down to me to reveal what the chief protagonist looks like, nor to imbue a piece of photography with a meaning for which it was never intended. Typographic or pattern-led covers challenge the reader to project meaning onto them, which feels entirely more sympathetic and—luckily for me—the French publishing industry seems to embrace quietly suggestive cover designs.

Cover of George Orwell’s Why I Write, published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

Penguin just released the fourth Great Ideas series. How has the design of the series evolved over time?

Speaking from my own perspective I’d say that I’ve loosened up as a designer. Looking at my earlier efforts I think I was rather inhibited and it wasn’t until I brought in Phil Baines that I could see the true size of the project’s potential. Phil added pace and variety through his very bold, expressive designs and this made me realize that I too could let my hair down a little.

Cover of Edward Gibbon’s The Christians, and the Fall of Rome, published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

Many of your designs are for books that are produced in series. Does working with titles in a series complement your personality?

I’d probably put this down to my text design background. When I embark on a setting job, I tend to make decisions based on the accommodation of variables. For example, when settling on a heading style, I would have to consider both the largest and smallest heading lengths before creating a style for the common—rather than the specific—good. This approach can quickly become habitual and has resulted in my often creating overarching frameworks within which to work. It is true that my working life has been filled with series designs. I certainly enjoy developing them, but I would also hope there exists a prevailing typographic theme as this is my main area of interest.

Cover of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves series.

How does American book cover design differ from British book cover design? Do you find that your covers translate here in the States?

I’m not often approached by US publishers so I would deduce that my work is better suited to a European market. The lion’s share of my work currently comes from England, France and Germany. But there is certainly a vibrancy to contemporary U.S. cover design, which is increasingly leaning towards more cerebral solutions, much like those common in the British market in the early 1960s. Paradoxically, British book design seems to be embracing a form of pulp realism not dissimilar from the newsstand-friendly U.S. jackets of the same period. Perhaps the recent resurgence of forward-thinking independent booksellers has aided this change in the States, while in Britain, trade publishing seems to be increasingly governed by large supermarkets with a leaning towards the lowest common denominator.

Cover, spine, and back of Comment va la douleur?, published by Editions Zulma.

What single book cover that you’ve designed are you most proud of?

An op-arty cover for the French publisher Zulma, for a book (above) titled Comment va la douleur? It was one of my first for the company and I remember feeling incredibly liberated by the freedom they afforded me. More crucially perhaps, it didn’t take me very long and so I didn’t have time to develop a deep loathing for it. Also, the author, Pascal Garnier, kissed my hand and did a little bow when we met recently. That felt really good.

Cover, spine, and back of Contrebande, published by Editions Zulma.

Besides White’s Books, what other projects are you working on at the moment?

At the minute, I’m busy repackaging all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels for Picador [UK]. They’re shaping up to be typographic covers so I’m very happy. It’s also nice to be working with a living author for once!

Cover of George Orwell’s Decline of the English Murder, published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

What do you do when you’re not designing?

For years I have been an avid book collector and have recently been applying the same rigorous application to a collection of single-malt whisky. I’m also a football fan but unfortunately support the worst team in the league, Grimsby Town. Like almost everyone in England, I used to be a semi-professional footballer but gave up when I realized I would never be anything more. That said, should my team plummet through the divisions at their current rate I should be in line for a call-up in the not-too-distant future.