Bruce Robertson, a beret perched jauntily on his head, with twinkling eyes and a beard worthy of an Old Testament prophet, is underlining his role with the Diagram Group.
"We named it a 'group' because it was all about the team," he insists. "It's like football; I was a manager, but I never scored a goal." This is not affected modesty. Robertson is effusive about the people who helped the company grow throughout the years, particularly his friend and partner Bob Chapman with whom he set up the company in 1960.
Indeed, Diagram's raison d'être is collaboration: between artists, illustrators, researchers and writers. Many outside the trade may not know Diagram by name, but they will know its work. The group makes illustrations, graphics and text content which has been the bedrock of series such as the Collins Gem guides, Macmillan Visual Desk Reference and Facts on File, while Diagram's own-brand series include The Encyclopedia of Weapons and Rules of the Game. All told, it has produced over 500 titles with 270 publishers, which have sold more than nine million copies in 48 countries.
Of course, many punters know Diagram for its oddest book title prize, which was conceived by Robertson and the group for the 1978 Frankfurt Book Fair, and has been awarded by The Bookseller each year. The frontrunners this year include Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich (Trafford) and Governing Lethal Behaviour in Autonomous Robots (CRC Press).
Robertson was born in Sunderland and apprenticed to become an architect before switching to art at the University of Sunderland. Those studies were interrupted by his National Service. "Since I couldn't spell and didn't have any grammatical skills, the Army decided the best thing was to make me a cypher." He spent his time decoding Soviet transmissions and ferrying documents around Germany with a briefcase handcuffed to his arm: "it was all very Len Deighton".
Robertson next did an MA at the Royal College of Art in west London, where he met Chapman. The pair eventually taught undergraduates while working freelance, designing book layouts and graphics for newspapers before setting up Diagram. Its first office was in a building in Soho. Comedian Tommy Cooper had his magic shop on the ground level, and on the floor below Diagram were "a couple of songwriters always on the scrounge called Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. I don't know if they ever amounted to anything".
Forming the future
Though Diagram has been going for 50 years there is not the least suggestion of looking back, with Robertson particularly energised by digital possibilities. He says: "I began working in newspapers where we printed with lead, copper and wood. If you had to change something you had to destroy it and start over. With digitalisation you can change with a touch of a button. We now have this huge technical facility. Product you make in one form, can be made in any form you choose, from books to online."
Diagram's model has changed in recent years, with much of the company's business done abroad. The shift is not all online— Eastern Europe is a huge print growth area— but that is the way it is headed. "The direction we are going in is good, it just means our industry, as it stands, will die out," he says. "The evolution of content delivery will be like those evolutionary charts you see with animals. Some become extinct, others rare, others continue in some form. It's not a bad thing; it will all just be coming in a different way. The future is different, but it is going to work."