To mark its 50th birthday, D&AD is delving into its archive to highlight significant pieces of work that have featured in the awards. We will be publishing one a week with accompanying analysis by ex-Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight. This week, Derek Birdsall’s talks to Relph-Knight about his highly innovative cover for To Kill a Mockingbird
“I tried to get my son to do it, but he failed miserably,’ says Derek Birdsall, the doyen of book design of the handwritten cover for the 1964 Penguin edition of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Christopher Birdsall was then aged about ten – a similar age to American author Lee in 1936 when the real event on which the novel is based occurred near her hometown. But, says Birdsall Senior, “you’ve got to exaggerate this kind of thing’ and a child doesn’t do that”.
The copy itself – an overblown build-up to the book – was lifted from a press release sent to Birdsall as background. Getting the contact to publish the paperback version of the American best-seller was “a big thing” for Penguin, he says, so he too bigged it up.
The colours – magenta, blue and orange – “were my favourite colours at the time,” he adds. No focus groups there then. The child-like drawing of a dead bird is a nice touch.
Birdsall was commissioned by Penguin art director John Curtis. Birdsall had worked with Curtis since 1960 and, despite its success, To Kill A Mocking Bird isn’t his favourite cover. He prefers The Great Crash 1929 by JK Galbraith, designed four years earlier, because of the simplicity of the idea of a falling dollar sign replacing the ‘s’ in crash.
Both covers predate Penguin’s top grid (see above) devised by Romek Marber for Penguin’s subsequent art director Germano Facetti. Birdsall wasn’t a fan. “Once they introduced the top grid, you were buggered,” he says, as it gives the cover designer very little freedom. He was grateful when Facetti’s successor David Pelham dispensed with it in 1968, replacing it with a simple grid using only the Penguin symbol.
Birdsall’s relationship with Penguin continued on and off until he created a cover for one of the commemorative Pocket Penguins in 2005 to commemorate the publisher’s 70th birthday. And it wasn’t only just related to literature, despite a series of novels by his hero John Updike building on an outline portrait of the author by Michael Foreman and a photographic Somerset Maugham collection, created from a long assemblage of artefacts put together with Harri Peccinotti and cut to create a string of covers.
In 1971 Birdsall became consultant art director to head of Penguin Education Charles Clark on Pelham’s recommendation and set about rethinking titles he describes as “typical 1950s design in their uniformity”.
“I took time to think what was the perfect brief for a Penguin,” he says. “I was on the side of the designers. I thought ‘Give me a typeface – Futura – so I don’t have to agonise over that,” They were mainly white covers with only one guidline. Then I got this spine idea of exploiting the width of the book – if it was a fat book you used fat type. Words [on the cover] became a housestyle.”
Birdsall is fascinated by how ideas are so often unwittingly recycled – the subject of his forthcoming second book. Looking back over his own work, he can identify themes recurring often years apart. But he’s not against such clichés. “There’s a power in the fact it’s been seen before,” he says.
But occupying a prominent place on Birdsall’s heaving bookshelf is an example of his idea being recycled by someone else. Rock band Travis asked to use an eye motif he created for Penguin’s Roald Dahl novel Someone Like You in the late 1970s for its 2008 album Ode to J Smith. “I made 2000 quid out of that,” quips Birdsall, gleefully. Birdsall’s To KIll a Mockingbird cover was itself referenced on the cover for Penguin’s 2007 history of cover design, Seven Hundred Penguins.
D&AD’s 50-year timeline of landmark work is here
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