Typographer Alan Kitching, a former colleague and contemporary of Birdsall explains what makes Derek Birdsall so special. “I met Derek in about 1968 when I was just starting off. We met through a mutual friend, our teacher at Central, Anthony Froshaug. We both came through that school of Froschaugian typography which you can still recognise in Derek’s work today.
“Derek was always a fantastic typographer, long before he did books. He has a very lovely touch in the way he handles type. Whether it was for an ad, a poster, or a letterheading, the typography was always very carefully thought out.
“Some of my favourite pieces of Derek’s work are some of the things he did in his early days. As a student he did a small landscape poster in black only, which he printed himself. It was very beautiful. He also did some very elegant advertising for Lotus cars. He was good at advertising – he was also a very good copywriter, which not many people know. So it’s a shame in a way that he moved out of that world. He was also a very good magazine designer – he was art director of Twen and Nova which were iconic magazines.
“Somebody said that one of the things Derek brought to book design was a magazine approach. He does make them look very lively – he knows how to treat captions, the sequence of images. So there’s a nice juncture in his work between two activities that normally don’t meet. He brought a real freshness into book design, which he ended up concentrating on almost exclusively.
“Everything in Derek’s books is considered in its own right and put together as a whole so it all hangs together beautifully. He brought an integrity and delicacy of typography into books which wasn’t there in the 70s. He made book design very sophisticated, refined and beautiful. His lifetime has been given to it, right from when he was a student. He’s never deviated, all he did was typography – he didn’t take photographs, he didn’t draw.
“He is a very inventive designer with an exceedingly fertile mind, so therefore he brings to the solution of a design problem his own particular take, which makes him unique. He’s probably the best book designer in the world.”
The above is an edited transcript from a filmed interview by D&AD. See the complete film on the CR iPad App
Birdsall in brief
—Born in Wakefield in 1934, Derek Birdsall’s first design commission was to create posters for Knottingley Cricket Club, aged 13. In 1952 he won a scholarship to Central School of Art but failed his diploma on account of “not enough work and type too small”, according to an assessor.
—After national service he received his first commercial commission from printers Balding & Mansell. Through the 60s, at his studio Birdsall Daulby Mayhew Wilbur Associates, he mixed advertising work with Penguin book covers and the art direction of three of the most significant magazines of the era – Nova, Town and Twen. At the same time, Birdsall, along with contemporaries such as Alan Fletcher and Bob Gill, was one of the guiding lights in the foundation of D&AD.
—Thereafter he began to concentrate on book design, restyling the Penguin Education series in 1970 and designing a book for Monty Python in 1977 during which he was made a temporary member of the comedy group. In 1983, Birdsall was made a Royal Designer for Industry and in 1988 returned to magazine design on The Independent Magazine and the launch of the Sunday Telegraph Magazine.
—In 2000 he designed the book of Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England and in 2004 brought out his own Notes on Book Design, which has become highly influential. In 2005, Birdsall was awarded the Prince Philip Designers Prize.