Judging a book by its cover
January is very much the time when people take time to reflect. And in the spirit of things, I thought I’d dig out an old interview I did with David Pearson on the traditional in book design. Book cover designer Pearson brings with him a wealth of experience from is awe inspiring collection of Penguin Great Ideas and Great Loves series, but also recently having carved a name for himself as a standalone book designer with his co-owned publishing house White’s Books. The transcript was for a feature published in PrintWeek magazine.
What was the idea behind White’s traditional cloth bound books?
We decided very early to have a high specification and create high spec books we knew we’d be using cloth and foil and all these very lovely traditional specifications and it felt like it would have been foolish to commission them to someone who’s working in a flashy modern way so it was very much the medium that formed who we should approach so we were looking at illustrators that were working with linocut and wood engraving and paper cuts and really quite old fashioned methods but with this super modern twist.
Why traditional and why high spec?
It’s a very selfish thing in that all my inspirations are quite traditional ones like my heroes are generally book designers that were working in the 50s and 60s, and even people like Jan Tschichold who I’m a great admirer of, he was himself being influenced by traditional methods in design and typography so it’s kind of moving that along and I’m looking at people that he’s looking at.
What was the specification and ideas behind White’s Treasure Island?
Its linocut, the specification is we use two or three pantone colours that are printed onto a cloth and then we give the illustrators the option of one foil colour just to give them a broader pallete to work with. So yeah in this sense we used the gold in a very literal way to hint at Ireland and the untold riches
And for Jane Eyre?
One of the things we say to the illustrators is that we don’t want to see literal depictions of characters and once you do that you’ve got to work very hard to invite other elements with some sort of characterful meaning that’s going to engage you on an emotional level. It’s this term called pathetic fallacy, it basically means the act of giving inanimate objects a sense of some sort of emotive character for example something like waves or the sky can suddenly take on this essence of the main character or protagonist, so that’s our way of getting around using characters. And again it’s just totally selfish – it is me not wanting to, or liking books, that tell you what Jane Eyre looks like.
Did you have a knowledge of traditional printing?
No just an interest in traditional books in that I collected books and I liked the sense of them and they impressed me as objects and I wanted to work with something that’s permanent. You almost sort of want to leave something behind and I think that books do that in a very neat way. […] A lot of books actually fall in the middle they sort of don’t feel like a cheap copy you might read. I mean you know there’s something lovely about cheaper paperbacks where you don’t think twice about putting them in your pocket but then there are books that you would not do that with. I worry about those ones that are in-between. They’re not quite sure what they want to be but you end up paying a lot of money for them anyway, so we just thought let’s be shameless about it and try and make something nice. For your own sanity it’s nice to know what your agenda is when you are starting out.
Was it hard to make your Penguin design different given the history?
If I look at Jan Tschichold as an inspiration by its very nature I’m looking at a Penguin person but then he brings with him his whole body of work so for example Great Ideas where you have this fusion of things and Tschichold did that all the time. He constantly merged old and new and in that sense it felt a good fit. […] A lot of it is born out of your own limitations and creating your own boundaries very quickly so you don’t get overwhelmed by the job.