Twenty five years of Laurence King Publishing

Over its 25 year history, Laurence King Publishing has transitioned from design books for students and professionals to creating beautifully designed books for the general market. Patrick Burgoyne speaks to its founder Laurence King and Creative Director Angus Hyland about Carson, content and colouring in

The last 25 years has been a period of immense change in design publishing, reflecting shifts in the design industry itself. The age of the ‘celebrity’ graphic designer, whose work would be catalogued in lavish monographs, has come and all but gone. A whole genre of showcase books has been rendered obsolete by the internet. And we have seen graphic designers and illustrators apply their skills to products – gifts, stationery and games – creating a lucrative outlet for self-initiated work.

A browse through the list of Laurence King Publishing over those years illustrates those changes perfectly. This was the publisher who introduced David Carson to the world, The End of Print being, at the time, one of the bestselling graphic design books ever published. Today, however, graphic designers make up just a small portion of the audience for Laurence King books. But that is not to say that the profession’s importance has diminished in the eyes of the publisher. In fact, it is its experience in the world of graphic design, and what it learned from designers, that has helped its transformation into a major publisher of illustrated books and gifts for all.

LKP began life, as its eponymous founder describes it, as “a specialist design publisher trying to do books for a professional market”. The company was established by King in 1991 out of the remnants of a former book packaging business, Calmann and King. Book packagers sell prewritten and designed books to publishers to put out under their own imprint. “It’s what you do if you don’t have the money to be a real publisher,” King explains.

Laurence King (l) and Angus Hyland, photographed by Julian Anderson

After Calmann’s death (he was murdered by a hitchhiker) King kept the “very shaky” business going, eventually under his own name, thanks in part to a £100,000 life insurance policy which the company had taken out on Calmann. It had one notable title – A World History of Art – whose sales kept the business afloat in the early years. But the field of art publishing was very well covered. King spotted an opportunity in the related field of design and had some success with the International Design Yearbook, a product design showcase.

The impact of Thames & Hudson’s The Graphic Language of Neville Brody, published in 1988, had alerted the publishing world to the potential of books on contemporary graphic design, of which there were few at the time. “We thought graphics would be a natural extension of [our books in] product design,” King says.

The role of former CR editor Lewis Blackwell was to be key in helping Laurence King into the world of graphic design. The two had met when Blackwell authored a book on interiors for the publisher. He went on to write 20th Century Typography for King. Through CR, Blackwell had met Carson. The latter’s work on Ray Gun magazine had shaken up the graphic design world and Blackwell convinced King that here was a star in the making.

Not that Carson was initially that keen to go with the publisher. The likes of Booth-Clibborn and Thames & Hudson at the time had more of a reputation for well-produced books – King’s by contrast, tended to be more conservative in format and packaging. “I had a hard job convincing David that he should give this book to us,” King remembers, “but I was enthusiastic!”

The End of Print, written by Blackwell, went on to have huge international success and, says King, “we suddenly became a major graphic design publisher overnight”.

“I would like to pay tribute to Lewis’s role in that,” King continues, “He would constantly enunciate various values which he thought we needed to adopt – to be sure to treat a book as a design object, and that everything about a book must be designed.”

Despite the success of the End of Print, Laurence King was then a very small publisher, typically putting out only around 15 books a year. In the development of its graphic design list, “there were two tactics that we followed,” King says. “One was to find other major stars to work with – we did books with P Scott Makela, Eboy, Neville Brody, Tomato. The other was to do books on themes, such as Browser [an early survey of web design] and Bored [a book on surf, skate and snowboard graphics]. And then the other thing we tried to engage with was the history of graphic design.”

The books were targeted mainly at a student or young professional market keen for sources of inspiration and monographs on their heroes. Vince Frost was brought in to rebrand the business and improve its marketing materials.

The production of the kind of visually rich surveys that Laurence King had success with was helped enormously by the impact of new technology. Digital image files and DTP reduced costs, page layout was quicker and the opening up of China reduced print bills (so long as you were prepared to wait for the books to make their way back to Europe by boat).

Suddenly the margins on publishing illustrated books became more attractive but this digital revolution also almost destroyed the market for design books – or at least a certain type of book. Designers could now access so much information and so many images for free on the net, there was no point publishing that same information in book form. The culture around so-called ‘celebrity’ designers also changed. Perhaps the whole notion became devalued as it seemed as if studios or designers had only to be working for four or five years before they became the subject of a lavish, adoring monograph, many of which (in the case of other publishers) were financed by the studios themselves. But the internet also had an effect in that cycles of trend, style and whatever passes for ‘fame’ in graphic design grew ever shorter. It became harder to differentiate yourself as a designer when everything was so accessible, everywhere.

Below: Illustrator Marion Deuchars’ Let’s Make Some Great Art was one of the first of the ‘activity’ books that were to become such a key part of the LKP list

“The qualities that designers brought to differentiate themselves made them bad designers – they thought, ‘what can I do that’s extraordinary’? King claims. “At a certain moment, everyone got fed up! The market became more sensible and mature.”

By 2006, King says, “We were beginning to worry about the future of showcase books.” That year was also significant in that it marked the start of what has become a key relationship for the publisher with Pentagram Partner Angus Hyland.

“I first met Laurence through Lewis, and I’d done bits and bobs for him over the years,” Hyland says. “I’d also authored three books on illustration by that stage so I understood the culture.”

Below: There was still a market for historical surveys and monographs in graphic design, but only if done with the depth and quality of Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham’s Saul Bass book 

Hyland joined as Art Director, eventually becoming Creative Director for the company. “I didn’t come in with a mission,” he says of his work in helping transform the business. “We all grew together. At the time, Laurence King was publishing particular books for a particular market and so within those constraints – the way they were packaged and the margins behind that – I tried to improve the product on an ongoing basis. It wasn’t particularly strategic.”

“I think Angus’s impact as a Creative Director came in three ways,” King says. “One, just in a strict art direction sense, he brought an attention and visual intelligence and applied it to everything we do. The second, is that in a company that is dedicated to visual culture, the people producing everything were very wordy people. Angus helped to give visual culture a much stronger voice in the company which was hugely important in changing the way we thought. And the third thing is that he brought a playfulness and a whimsicality which enabled us to be much more adventurous.”

Below: List-based books like 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne proved a successful formula that could be applied in other sectors

Hyland’s arrival coincided with the point at which Laurence King began publishing directly into America without having to partner with a US company, who were often very conservative in outlook.  “We were liberated from the need to be ordinary,” is the way that King memorably puts it.

“I used to get so annoyed by the way big imprints in trade publishing would undervalue the tangible object,” Hyland says. “I’d been banging on about this for years. Within the visual arts you had a bit of licence to unlock that and see that the book could be thing of desire in its own right.”

As an outsider, with considerable publishing experience, Hyland says he was able to make his opinions felt in a way that an in-house art director may not have been able to. King says that he also influenced others within the company to be more adventurous. “If you have someone who is deeply visually cultured at ideas meetings, other people around the table find something within themselves with which they can reciprocate, so the nature of the discussion becomes different,” he says.

With falling demand for graphic design books, and in other areas served by the publisher such as illustration, fashion and art, Hyland, King and other key staff such as Jo Lightfoot, began to look toward a more general market for future books. “We thought, if the professional market is going online, except for really serious books, then we needed to hit the general market in our subject areas,” King says.

2013, Secret Garden, Johanna Basford
Secret Garden, Johanna Basford, 2013

The Doodle Book by Taro Gomi was to prove highly influential. “We thought it was a great book and wondered what we could do in that area,” King says. The result was My Wonderful World of Fashion, a book by illustrator Nina Chakrabarti. This interactive colouring book was the first in a line of ‘activity’ books that were to change the company’s fortunes completely. It was followed by The Sneaker Colouring Book and Marion Deuchars’ Let’s Make Some Great Art in 2011. But it was Johanna Basford’s 2013 book Secret Garden that really changed things.

An editor at Laurence King had spotted some work that Basford had done for CR and recommended her. Secret Garden sold well – very well in the context of LKP sales at the time. But when its successor, Enchanted Forest, came out in 2015 things really took off.

“Sales of Secret Garden were going along at something like 20,000 copies a month which is pretty damned good,” says King. “That was what we thought was a bestseller then – still do really! Then we launched Enchanted Forest and it somehow exploded.”

Basford’s books for Laurence King have sold over 15 million copies worldwide to date – a phenomenon which changed the whole company. Both King and Hyland contend that part of the books’ success was that they were produced to the same high standards as the rest of the LKP list. “We said let’s make it really beautiful,” King recalls. “I remember showing it to the sales director of Thames & Hudson and he said ‘I can’t see who this is for, it’s too sophisticated’.”

2016 Floribunda Leila Duly
Floribunda, Leila Duly, 2016

Adult colouring books have now become a huge market and with LKP also moving into graphic products such as stationery, games and gifts it would be easy to imagine that it had left its publishing roots behind. But other parts of the list stay true to its roots – there are academic textbooks, practical guides and even a return to the art world in a new series that deals with Italian Renaissance Courts among other subjects.

2016, Alan Kitching: A Life In Letterpress, John L Walters
Alan Kitching: A Life In Letterpress, John L Walters, 2016

“I really like that we are still doing quite serious books,” King says. “Booksellers sometimes come to me and ask ‘what’s the next big thing?’ But that’s the wrong question to ask me. Our duty is to surprise them and come up with fresh things. We don’t know which will be a success but if we keep taking risks and having the courage to have ideas that can sometimes seem quite silly, then we will put ourselves in a place where luck might happen. In so far as we have a business strategy, that would be it.”

2016, The Great British Colouring Map, Ordnance Survey
The Great British Colouring Map, Ordnance Survey, 2016

I ask how the design book market has changed: “You’ve all got much more picky,” he laughs. “We have to work much harder for our money, deliver better and create books that contain their marketing within them, so that every bit of a book contains its essence. You’ve all become much more discriminating in what you are willing to spend money on.”

Hyland sums up how design has contributed to LKP’s success: “We took the apparatus, skills, and values of graphic design and reapplied them to other areas. That is what this transition has all been about.”

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