The Seed of a Book Designer

By October 26, 2011Uncategorized

I love biographies where the seed of the grown-up can be found in the child. (i.e. The architect who used to spend all his time making fantastic things with Lego. The famous undersea explorer who spent his sickly childhood recuperating by the ocean learning the names of fish.)

I came across this bio for graphic designer Derek Birdsall the other day: “As a child, DEREK BIRDSALL (1934-) loved stationery shops: infinite stacks and reams of paper, pads, notebooks and ledgers; instruments for writing, duplicating and erasing; virgin ink and paper in endless configurations of possibility. He speculates that this feeling was inherited from his grandfather, a clerk in a chemical works, and by Birdsall’s admission, a fountain-pen fetishist.”

As a child, I, too, spent countless hours in stationery shops—most of them in Tokyo (otherwise known as the Mecca of Paper Things)—so I took particular pleasure in reading about Derek Birdsall’s childhood. To my mind, there is still nothing more inviting than a fresh notebook and perfect fine-tipped pen, the former a repository and the latter an instrument of dreams. I am still ineluctably drawn to stationery shops. (I love how every country has it’s own unique stationery.) I never leave a shop without using the test pad for pens. My own practice runs tend to be loopy and abstract but I like to decipher other people’s hidden messages.


(Book Design by Derek Birdsall)

Derek Birdsall, for those unfamiliar with his name, is probably best known for his book design, notably his jacket designs for Penguin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Never showy, his work has a disarming simplicity and clarity. His emphasis is the beauty and personality of typefaces, the weight and feel of paper, the balance of positive and negative space, and how all these things contribute to the expression of a book’s intrinsic identity. He is a writer’s designer.

The preface to his 2004 Notes on Book Design (a hybrid of reflective musings and technical advice) states that the function of design is: “simply the decent setting of type and the intelligent layout of pictures based on a rigorous study of content.”

Some may disagree but I find that sexy.

p.s. While my own formative years as a stationery fanatic did not lead me to become a world-class graphic designer, I did spend four years working for one and, to this day, I remain partial to Pilot G-Tec Gel Pens.