Design for Today is Joe Pearson, an independent publisher of beautifully illustrated books, such as ‘As Time Passes’ by Madalena Matoso. We first met Joe at Ink Paper + Print in Eastbourne where we spent some time marvelling at all the nice books at his table.
1. Hello Joe, tell us a bit about yourself
I’m a one-person publisher, under the imprint Design For Today. I came late to publishing, just five years ago, but have been hooked on illustration for as long as I can remember, mainly as a collector though. Some years ago I was persuaded to write a book on the history of the Puffin Picture Books, and that sparked off the idea to start publishing myself. Until recently I worked in education, and if I learned anything it was in the value of interactive learning, when children were not just talked to, but took an active part in their learning. I’ve tried to make the books I publish ones to play with and interact with too. Books and music have always been important, and way back I ran a music magazine, promoted bands in London’s pubs and clubs, and more recently, as a part of my publishing have co-organised Illustration fairs.
2. What inspired you to start Design For Today?
In part it was a sense of frustration, even anger, at the books I was seeing in major bookshops five or six years ago. They all seemed so bland, the vast majority printed in China (still are), on poor quality shiny paper, horrible bindings that cracked when you opened a book more than a few times, and full of stereotypical pink ballerinas for girls, war history and dinosaurs for boys, and so on. You had to search out small independent bookshops, which were all closing anyway, to find books that were inspirational. And those were usually Italian, Portuguese or French.
I did like those books from private presses, beautifully printed, but usually very expensive, and also some artists books, those that were less pretentious, and were illustrated by craft processes. Again, usually horribly expensive. So really it was an attempt to bridge the gap between those beautifully crafted books, but to try and make editions that were accessible in terms of price. I also felt strongly about printing close to home, keeping it local, so from the outset I was determined never ever to print in countries like China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and India with the resulting impact on climate change and with all the human rights issues too.
3. For people who might not be familiar with your work, can you give us an idea of what kind of books you publish?
All the books I publish are illustration led. I’m also slightly obsessive about craft processes, paper, binding and inks too. So, all the books I publish are on quality paper, usually a heavier weight than that of mainstream books, and I prefer uncoated paper, as I like the texture and feel, very old school. All the illustrators I’ve worked with have one thing in common, they’re obsessive drawers. Some may use contemporary technology but all the preliminary work is by hand, on paper. I prefer to use ‘proper printing’ methods, so have steered away from digital printing, and use off-set litho, and even spot-litho, where each individual colour is mixed to print with. I love the ‘feel’ of the result, a bit like comparing a vinyl record to a CD, a much warmer feel.
In terms of content, although the illustration techniques and printing methods may nod back to past eras, I like to bring things up to date in terms of content. Simon Armitage’s book, Hansel & Gretel, is in fact a story about Syrian refugees, whilst Natsko Seki’s Broadway Market deals with the changing nature of urban markets and their regeneration and the positive impact of Europeans who have brought their own culture to our old markets.
4. If you could publish a book by any creative, living or dead, who would it be?
Well, if it was to be someone from the past, then I’d love to have been able to work with Vladimir Lebedev, the Russian Avant-Garde illustrator who was responsible for so many sensational children’s books during the 1920s & 30s. Then there’s Eric Ravilious, who was just starting out on his autolithography with High Street, but was tragically killed in 1942. Moving forward again I love Kathleen Hale’s Orlando books and Bruno Munari would have been such an amazing person to work with.
For today’s creatives then I get the most reward, and pleasure, from working with younger illustrators, at the start of their careers, and perhaps playing a small part in setting them off on the first rung of their career. There’s so much talent out there, and it’s not always the most talented that makes it. So, it’s always the next exciting talent I may stumble across.
5. We hear you’re quite the collector! What’s in your collection?
I think everyone is a collector, memories, objects, friends. Aside from all of those it was always books and vinyl for me. I seemed to always have a book on the go for as long as I can remember and I suppose my collecting started with trying to find those old Penguin Books, which in turn led to the 1940s Puffin Picture Books. These are just fabulous, most lithographed direct onto the plate by the illustrator and printed in layers at printers such as Curwen and the Baynard Press, both long gone. From those it became a natural leap to track down the other books by those illustrators, such as Enid Marx, Edward Bawden, then in turn the books that influenced them, the Russian and French books, and finally the books that were influenced by them. It’s become a huge treasure hunt, a literary game of consequences. Along the way so much to discover too, and still learning every day.
6. What have been your greatest challenges as a small publishing house?
I think on one level it’s a hugely challenging time for any new publisher, starting out with a small list, a few books, no pedigree. If you were to try and adopt the mainstream model of distributor, getting books sold by Amazon, and into those high street chains, then you’d need a huge amount of capital, and need to be prepared to print long print runs, and give vast discounts. Thankfully there’s better and more enjoyable ways of publishing if you ignore that model. So, for me, the challenges are to tap into and create your own routes for getting your books out there. If the books are good then they’ll find the audience, it just takes more time, but I’d rather a book sells over three or even five years than go down the route of pulping books after a year, once they have been returned by high street book chains. You need to find storage of course, so that’s a challenge, and then to tap into networks, shows, events, and slowly to build up contacts with people who do the same as you. In the end it’s the best way. You may not become the next millionaire, but you’ll have so much more fun, meeting people who like your books, and being truly independent of the evils of Amazon.
7. Do you have any tips or advice for someone thinking of starting up their own small press?
I think to follow your own instinct. Don’t try to set out to copy anyone, or follow a trend, as you’ll always end up two steps behind. Don’t think about how to make money, just publish the best you can, and take it one step at a time. Ask, ask, ask, and take advice from anyone who will talk to you, especially printers. Also, if you can, try and avoid relying on shops to sell your books in the early stages, and use events, small fairs, web sites, social media, and word of mouth. The rest will follow.
8. What would be your desert island books?
You’re allowed three books on the Desert Island, but I’m going to cheat by choosing three sets of books [Tsk tsk! – YUK FUN]. The first would be all of the Puffin Picture Books. There are only around 120, but they are just the best series of British illustrated children’s books from the last century. The next set would be the complete series of Albums du Pere Castor (1931-39) again they are around 100, but they are just sensational, and revolutionary at the time, activity books, puzzles books, fairy tales, wild animals, and all lithographed on stone using beautiful paper, yet inexpensive too. The last choice would have to be those Russian Children’s books written by poet Samuil Marshak during the 1920s & 1930s, and illustrated by the cream of the Russian illustrators and artists at the time. So forward looking and the illustrations are still absolutely fresh and modern.
9. What new projects do you have lined up?
I always seem to have a half-dozen projects on the go, some take a couple of years to eventually appear, some a few months. At the moment I’m very excited to be publishing a riso book, Screen Printing at Home. I love Riso as a medium, it’s slight uncertainty, and the way the lays almost always fractionally misregister, and in many ways it’s so similar to screen printing. There are lots of dreadful risos at the moment, as it’s actually a very skilful craft, and works best when the illustrator has a good grounding in screen printing.
Another book I’m excited about is a book on trains, an extended pull-out concertina book, and illustrated by Emma Lewis. It’s one of those complicated books that we’ve been working on for over a year now, but it’ll be just brilliant.
Thank you so much for answering our questions Joe! You can buy all of the Design for Today books here, visit one of Ink Paper + Print‘s illustration print fairs in the near future and follow Joe on instagram @designfortoday for more book illustration inspiration.
Screen printing at home: an illustrated guide is available for pre-order now.