“For once I’m letting the image take the lead,” says David Pearson of design firm Type as Image, of his designs for Pushkin Press’ Found on the Shelves collaboration with The London Library, a six-strong series to celebrate the latter’s 175th anniversary.
Offering advice and illustrated instruction on topics ranging from dieting to trout-fishing, the series uses out-of-print material from The London Library archive; the six titles will publish as A-format paperbacks, priced £4.99, on 5th May. The series is edited by The London Library librarian Inez Lynn, its head of bibliographic services Dunia García-Ontiveros and Pushkin Press assistant editor Julia Nicholson. Pearson, who earned his stripes at Penguin and now designs for Pushkin, among others, on a freelance basis, was tasked with supplying appropriate livery for the quirky, retro reissues.
As a designer, Pearson is - as the Type as Image name suggests - known for his expressive typographical designs, which absolve letterforms from their utilitarian uses and utilise them in a more illustrative capacity. The results are striking, bold and often brilliant: his design for a 2014 edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—which used the iconic Penguin triband yet concealed the author’s name and the novel’s title, with both “legible” only insofar as they were debossed beneath the thick black strikethrough - won him a coveted D&AD Yellow Pencil.
Yet his approach for Found on the Shelves appears, initially, a little more restrained. “The type is in a supporting role and takes its cues from the image. If an image is coarse and heavy looking, the type styling corresponds; if an image is light and spindly, the type tends towards the same,” he says of the designs. “This kind of mark-matching can result in quieter covers, since everything speaks with a consistent volume, but this felt like the most sensitive series-wide fit.”
When pressed on his typecentric approach, Pearson explains: “I tend towards using type in place of images and when doing so for works of fiction, I feel a responsibility to make the type look emotionally charged... There is less need to stir such feelings with non-fiction design. Links to the text can become more abstract. These designs look to the period that the books were conceived - so type is being pulled from all different sources - but I only care a certain amount about historical accuracy. The type choice has to feel right over and above being right. I’m not so hung up on that kind of historical authenticity.”
This is not to say the letterforms have been neglected on Pearson’s latest designs. On Reading utilises a melting pot of no less than five typefaces, from the extremely condensed to the broadly set, invoking old-fashioned posters crammed with information and rendered in a dense black type for maximum visual impact. The Lure of the North is equally expressive, with the blue fill of the letters sliding and eluding their outlines, creeping towards the southward horizon.
Safety in numbers
Another epithet often associated with Pearson is his inclination towards, and skill in executing, series designs. His exhaustive work on Penguin’s immense backlist, realised in Penguin by Design, compiled and designed by Pearson and written by Phil Baines, coheres the publisher’s archives into a rounded archive; an unflinching and compelling narrative of its design history that enjoyed a readership beyond that of simply book-design aficionados. One could argue that the book helped to fully articulate the biggest publishing brand in the UK, as the Penguin character is, to many readers, inextricably linked to the appearance of its output in the 20th century - and indeed, through to the present day.
At the heart of successful series design is motif - be it colour, type, grid, imagery, or other visual touchpoints - yet Pearson’s latest covers for Pushkin are perhaps less obviously groupable. “The series identifier is a subtle one,” he says, “but it is present in the use of decorative borders. I had begun to explore this idea of active border-making with some of Pushkin’s Collection Covers; the idea being that a decorative border can provide a layer of meaning or a tension point within the cover, and not simply act as a framing device.
“For The London Library series, this takes the form of overlapping tyre treads in Cycling: The Craze of the Hour; snaking, northbound steam in The Lure of the North. It’s a small thing to hang your ideas on - and it matters little if no one notices it - but it ensured that I didn’t flounder at the beginning of the design process, as I had something to kick against, an inbuilt challenge to wrestle with.”
Pearson attributes much of the covers’ liveliness to the illustration, which he is quick to credit: “I intend to broaden the illustrative scope [further titles are scheduled for November] but for this first selection I’m relying on tried, trusted and incredibly talented hands. Joe Mclaren produced the illustrations for On Corpulence and Life in a Bustle - and as with all of Joe’s work, the result is joyous.” The additional images were sourced from illustrations within the texts themselves, giving some of the covers a distinctly vintage appearance.
Each of the covers will print using a spot colour - one outside the gamut of four-colour CMYK printing, as it cannot be created using a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black (“key”); as a consequence of this it is bolder, more vibrant and less ubiquitous (and therefore more striking) - and will feature black foil-blocking on uncoated paper stock.
Given Pearson’s publishing pedigree - having worked on production processes ranging from the delicacies of typesetting to the often brazen demands of cover design - I wonder what he makes of the packaging, per se, of a book in its entirety?
Bookshops are inviting us to fetishise books now more than ever before,” he replies. “You only have to look at Daunt Books and its influence over the past few years to see that books are increasingly being sold based on physical virtues. Waterstones, now headed by James Daunt, and the new Foyles store showcase books in a way that puts design at the centre of the book- buying experience.”
If such design is of such centrality to the commercial offer, it must follow that cover designers themselves have raised the bar too, I ask Pearson. “The industry has never been healthier in terms of the number of active designers, resulting in an ever-more varied and dynamic outpouring of covers,” he says. “As a result, the industry feels relevant and exciting in a way that it hasn’t for years.”