Books, News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Q and A: David Pearson, design superstar

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How does a great creative mind work? The design superstar David Pearson tells us, before his appearances in Sydney tomorrow, and Melbourne this weekend.
There is more to life than increasing its speed’ —Mahatma Gandhi
Ta-da! Here is an exclusive interview with David Pearson, one of the handful of most regarded book designers in the UK (and thus, the world). He is coming out to speak on design in Sydney, and in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
My previous story on him barely hinted at his accomplishments, though I did use the Genius word —  let’s just say that the Penguin giant today would not look the way it does if Pearson had not been around, then making magic in his mid-20s . . . when he was a JUNIOR DESIGNER, jesus wept. He is essential, as far as design goes, he is the kingpin, the King Penguin.
Following is a set of questions about the creative process. I didn’t ask him what he has for breakfast (oats) or if he has a dog (a whippet) or if he has kids (none; partner is fabulous designer Clare Skeats), or why he’s coming to Australia (he really wants to see it/us). He does tell us he is a ‘slow-working technophobe’, a ‘frustrated historian’, and that a ‘nice way of working [is] to have … a limitation placed on you’.
Anyway, many of his answers apply to life very well. Eg: ‘Try to maintain an open and enquiring mind because you are never the finished article.’ (I like the modesty of the ‘try’ and the exact and truthful phrase, ‘you are never the finished article.’)
But I do know he was crazy busy, as he remarked, ‘It seems that I am having to do two week’s work in advance of going away for two weeks.’ At one point I noticed he was responding to me at 2:47am London time. He had like, ’18 deadlines and every second counted.’
At any rate he answered a bunch of questions with great consideration and generosity, as you will see, and I can add that they arrived characteristically immaculate: no typos or grammar or spelling issues. And his Zen lessons for designers (see below) should become a catechism in design schools.
Lo, the King Penguin speaks.
Some designers work on “inspiration” prompted by the text or title or theme of the book or series they are working on. Free-wheeling. Are you a freewheeler, or a more of an empirical, research-based, analytical designer? And do you know why one way is more satisfying to you?
Because the vast majority of my work is type-driven, and as such will be scrutinised by typophiles (not the most forgiving of souls), I factor in a generous period of historical research into type styles. I am a frustrated historian so this syncs up well with my character.
I often follow this up with a process of subversion (which is allowed because the familiar bit is already in place).
Ultimately, then, the finished piece will be informed historically, but should have a modern twist to it: the two things together hopefully creating a kind of visual charge/spark point.
I call this process, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants and then doing a bit of tinkle on their head’.*
* I don’t really**
** It’s awful talking about the way you work.
Above: Some covers in the Penguin Great Ideas series: the type and patterns are debossed.
When you are working do you listen to music, radio, podcasts, TV, online audio etc? If so, will you tell us what they are?
All the time. Music is the ultimate mood enhancer. It is essential to have it piped into my ears at all times. Here’s a sampling of what we play in the studio.
(Me: A list full of sound textures that play nicely in the background but crackles with the energy missing in most ambient music, amusingly annotated by David.)
A couple of examples of David’s notes:
Fred Lane: Danger Is My Beer — I love the spirit of Fred Lane’s music. The way his guitar interferes with the second half of this recording pleases me no end.
The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band: 13 Angels Standing Guard Round The Side Of Your Bed — I got to Silver Mt. Zion via the usual Post-Rock connections and quickly realised that only the more ethereal numbers – like this one – are fit for office use (and not so much the very, very quiet to very, very loud ones).
In the context of a book cover, how important is language to you? Or are the shapes of the words actually more crucial (to you)?
[See first answer]
You are designing a book of fiction: You may only use text, or image as the main design element. Which is your inclination? And does that inclination inform your work generally, consciously or not?
If type is my only tool in this situation, I would try and do something to it that gives it some sort of emotive quality: something to hang the eye on and inform the reader of the book’s import. This need only be subtle because the design must remain ambiguous enough to not over-communicate the book’s key themes.
It’s a nice way of working: to have such a limitation placed on you. It gives you something to kick against and crucially helps to draw focus on the job at hand (designers must be the most easily distracted people on the planet).
Above: Amazing cover design for the Popular Penguins reissue of George Orwell’s 1984: censorship as graphic subversion.
Are you symmetric, or asymmetric? Centred or ranged?
I think I’ve been all of these in the past 24 hours. One of the things I love about being a freelance designer is you can choose to embrace wit one minute and sincerity/earnestness the next, since the work comes from such varied sources. I would hate to have to adopt one approach for a lifetime and I enjoy not knowing what style I will be working in that day.
On this subject, I do get concerned when a designer — someone who is supposed to provide a service — preaches a singular, dogmatic approach. It suggests someone more willing to impose their own style rather than listen to a brief.
On a continuum, are you more into colour, or monochrome?
One positive side about my increasing age is a growing confidence in the use of colour. Through my work for Éditions Zulma I get to play out most of my colour fantasies. With Penguin, on the other hand, much of my work uses just two/three colours; partly because of commercial constraints but partly because it feels on-brand. Penguin designers have historically created designs using a reduced palette and it just feels appropriate to perpetuate this.
(Me: check out Éditions Zulma: David’s incredible pattern designs. If he blew them up to wall size, he would be showing at Biennales around the world. And a cool, dynamic website page too.)
Above: some covers for Éditions Zulma: psychotropic brilliance, tightly reined.
What would be a good Zen lesson to give a design student?
Pick your battles. You can’t fight them all but if you really care about something, do everything you can to make it happen. Be warned though: if you do fight for everything, you just look like a ****.
Try to maintain an open and enquiring mind because you are never the finished article. The brightest, best and longest-lasting careers are usually had by those who maintain an almost child-like wonder at the world (see Alan Fletcher, Michael Wolff, Stefan Sagmeister).
Strive to be a populist, not an elitist designer. Creating work solely for the pleasure of other designers very quickly wears thin.
Your favourite art/design quote?
Not an art/design quote as such, but I love the Gandhi quote, ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed’ (particularly reassuring words for a slow-working technophobe).
I do worry that many technological advancements are enabling us to achieve not very much, but at a much faster rate. For example, I cannot understand the very modern desire to produce work using a series of time-saving shortcuts when it is the duration of the working process itself that allows us to question, edit and fine-tune our output. To speed up or bypass this process is to give up on so much and risks the work lacking any discernible ‘human’ quality.
That said, I do work very slowly and sometimes think that a warm and welcoming hobbyist’s industry, like publishing, is the only place that would have me.
(Me: An incredible response, real wisdom. This section — it is the duration of the working process itself that allows us to question, edit and fine-tune our output. To speed up or bypass this process is to give up on so much and risks the work lacking any discernible “human” quality — takes us to the heart of the creative process. Or perhaps, as Lil Wayne wittily raps, ‘Repetition is the father of learning, I repeat, repetition is the father of learning.’)
Come and see David Pearson, or regret!
David Pearson dates
SYDNEY, at the Powerhouse: 6:30pm Tuesday August 25. (Brought by AGDA and ABDA, the Australian Book Designers Association)
MELBOURNE at Deakin Edge as part of the MWF: 7pm Saturday August 29. (Brought by MWF and ABDA)
MELBOURNE workshop: 2pm Sunday August 30. (SOLD OUT)

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