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Insights 2012: Talk Ephemera with David Pearson

Designer David Pearson began his career at Penguin Books a decade ago, creating seemingly traditional designs that can be both unorthodox and unexpected, such as all-typographic book covers for Penguin Classics or the rainbow spectrum applied to the book spines of Pocket Penguins. Here he discusses his love of printed ephemera, which informs his work.





David Pearson, who speaks in our final Insights lecture Tuesday night, celebrates the printed book in all its dimensions despite the publishing industry’s woes and its headlong dive into e-books and other digital platforms. He began his professional career in 2002 at Penguin Books, the venerable British imprint, where he fused a contemporary sensibility with classical bookish elements to reinvigorate the brand. His seemingly traditional designs can be both unorthodox and unexpected, such as all-typographic book covers for Penguin Classics, the rainbow spectrum applied to the book spines of Pocket Penguins, or the use of letterpress and tactile papers in the Great Ideas series. He formed White’s Books with editor Jonathan Jackson in 2008, repackaging classic texts by Shakespeare and Dickens as well as titles such as Jane Eyre and Treasure Island. He is also an avid collector of printed ephemera and maintains an overflowing Flickr site dedicated to print and typography.


See his Insights lecture here.

First off, what are you currently working on that you are really excited about?

Right now I’m writing a book about my collection of Eastern European matchbox labels. It’s the kind of deeply romantic yet financially ruinous project I am drawn to.


Your work with Penguin references the breadth of 2D design, from clay tablets to computer graphics. How do you keep your designs from being overly derivative of the source material, and why is it important and relevant to work in these historical styles?

I think I try and gain a way in by presenting readers with something familiar (in the case of Great Ideas this was the history of the printed word). With this in place, it is then possible to layer interesting new meaning on top and to play with the form in unexpected ways. These minor subversions are essential in elevating the work beyond pastiche.

Readers can only enjoy the rules being broken if they have a strong sense of them in the first place and using historical models greatly helps on this front.


Working with Penguin afforded you a vast collection of iconic material to work with, how did you both build on and pay tribute to it with your work?  Was it more inspiring or intimidating to work with designs and systems created by legends like Tschichold ?

Tschichold’s level of proficiency can be intimidating to say the least but the more I Iearned about his mission at Penguin, the more I realised the humble nature of it. His main achievement seemed to be that of brand re-affirmation and he attained this simply by refining what had gone before. Nothing more. That’s an incredibly powerful lesson for a young deisgner: that it’s OK to not reinvent the wheel.

The Harp and the Oak

Contemporary graphic design can have a tendency to be self-referential (for example, your amazing cover for The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Is there a distinction in your mind between that kind of work and the more historically influenced work?

Yes and no. All the (Great Ideas) covers are iterations of the rules we set ourselves e.g. using type as image, a limited colour palette and debossing. Within these parameters we just tried to create as much pace and variation as possible. This particular design was one of the most self reverential but of course, there’s no way the whole series could’ve behaved in the same way.

Your Flickr stream is full of beautiful examples of print ephemera from the first half or so of the 20th century. What was the impetus for it and how/where do you find the pieces you feature in it? 

It is the spirit of this work and the visibility of the process that draws me in. It took me a long time to work out that something can be quite poorly-created technically but if rendered with enthusiasm and spirit, it can communicate every bit as successfully as something polished.

In the main, the pieces come from ephemera fairs but online auction sites also throw up a few gems.
Clima Hotel, Innsbruck (74mm x 74mm) Grand Hotel & La Pace, Montecatini Terme (85mm x 116mm) Hotel Roctnhnua, Leningrad (95mm x 80mm)


Has this archive influenced the way you work and think about your own design process?

Only now, when I look back at the work I produced for Penguin, do I see how many lines trace directly back to what I learned in the archive.In fact, my talk will show just how few design choices have ever been my own!

Also on your Flickr page, you have some pretty impressive pictures of the Penguin archive. Could you talk a little bit about your experience there and how you as a designer utilized the seemingly vast collection there?

I joined the company as a fan and was already an avid collector of Penguin books. Therefore, the idea for producing a design retrospective (Penguin by Design) felt like a natural one. I’d always wanted to get into the archives and fortunately for me, this project gave me the perfect excuse. That said, I simply couldn’t take on such a project again as it was a true labour of love and involved too many all-nighters (the exclusive property of twenty-somethings, I’ve since found out).


David will speak on March 27 at the Walker Cinema.

Tickets Still Available. Buy Tickets 

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