David Pearson’s exhibition at London’s Kemistry Gallery showcases the designer’s work for Penguin, Zulma and Pushkin Press. We asked Pearson about the show and his career so far…
It’s little over a decade since David Pearson graduated, but he is already one of the UK’s best loved creatives. He has designed typographic covers for dystopian fiction, political essays and dictionaries; was named one of Britain’s top 50 designers by The Guardian; been awarded a yellow pencil by D&AD and two best in books in the CR Annual – most recently for his striking ‘censored’ cover of George Orwell’s novel, 1984 (read our blog post on it here).
Pearson’s take on a curious version of Penguin’s iconic logo, painted on the wall outside Kemistry Gallery.
After studying graphic design at Central Saint Martin’s, Pearson joined Penguin as a text designer. In 2007, he set up his studio, Type as Image, and continues to design regularly for Penguin as well as French publishing house, Zulma.
It is his work for these publishers that forms the bulk of Pearson’s current show at London’s Kemistry Gallery, Type as Image. Many of the covers featured are for Penguin’s Great Ideas series, a collection of influential texts by politicians, authors and philosophers. Texts published so far include work by Rousseau, Nietzche, Orwell, Marx and Freud.
Uniting such disparate authors and themes is a tricky task, but Pearson has done so through the use of colour and type. Covers in each series feature a different key colour and typographic covers are by the period in which the text was written. The result is a diverse but connected range of work.
“I was given the series as a junior designer, when I was 23 or 24,” says Pearson. “It was an experiment for Penguin, which freed things up as there weren’t so many expectations, but it was also quite daunting. I introduced colour and type limitations to make the brief simpler and more focussed – when those things were nailed down, it felt quite free,” he explains.
The series includes 100 covers, with designs inspired by newspapers, wood type, mosaics and modernism and as well as representing a large part of his career to date, Pearson says they offer a look at his creative progression.
“The first and last series feel completely different to me. The first feels very precious, with a kind of delicacy that I think was born out of me not being sure of myself. In the fifth series, the designs are much more intuitive and expressive,” he adds.
Type as Image also includes examples of Pearson’s work for Pushkin Press, Penguin’s romance series, Great Loves, and designs for several Cormac McCarthy novels including The Road. Lettering on The Road was designed to look “cobbled together” and worn, he says, to represent the sense of degradation in McCarthy’s moving post-acopalyptic tale.
“I wanted to hint at the novel, but in a subtle way,” he says. “Using type or abstract imagery lets you convey lots of different moods by essentially conveying none,” he says.
“Book covers are small things and if you overpopulate them, they look crowded. But if you use abstract imagery or type, you’re not telling people what to think, just luring them in, which I think is a nice thing for a book to do,” he adds.
Conveying complex imagery or content through type is a challenge that Pearson describes as liberating. “It’s a good challenge for any designer, as I think it’s important for designers to feel like they’re solving some sort of puzzle,” he says.
In his work for French publisher Zulma, however, he has taken a different visual approach, using bold graphic patterns instead of typography.
Designs are intended to stand out against the minimal covers often favoured in French bookshops, says Pearson. “French publishing is quite different to British – books are more expensive, and they’re pitched a little higher,” he says. “A lot of the books will have spartan covers or tiny type. My Zulma designs probably look the trashiest on the shelf – but I think it makes people notice them,” he says.
Pearson rarely reads the books he designs for Zulma, which he says is an “appalling habit”, but one that has led to an interesting dialogue with the publisher. “They have to communicate all the nuances of the text to me verbally, and why they’re excited about it. By the end, they feel incredibly involved in the design process, so it’s created a lovely dynamic,” he says.
Of all the work on show, Pearson says his favourite covers are those born out of a single, quick idea, rather than the results of careful manipulation. “Ultimately though, they have to sell – that’s what makes me so proud of 1984 and Great Ideas,” he adds.
New designers may often be warned off pursuing a career in print in a digital age but for Pearson, the gamble paid off, and it’s an industry he remains passionate about. “What always brings me back to book design is the people. It sounds corny, but there’s so little money in this type of publishing, the people who are here are doing it for the love of it.”
Budgets may be tight, but Pearson says publishers have fought hard to stay faithful to their original ethos and “old fashioned make-up” – particularly Penguin. “I think books that are produced now, have to be done with a little extra care….and not having much money to produce them, in a way, frees you up. Great Ideas was one of the cheapest series Penguin had produced in years, and I’m really grateful for the work they’ve given me, and the trust they have in me,” he adds.
For anyone interested in editorial design, the show is well worth a visit.
Type as Image is open at Kemistry Gallery, 43 Charlotte Road, Shoreditch EC2A 3PD until June 28. See kemistrygallery.co.uk for details.