Summer 2021

Cinematic storyteller

David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian

By Rick Poynor. Designed by Simon Esterson. Yale University Press, £30

I am not sure when I began to understand what graphic design was, or that I might like to practise it myself. But I do remember moments when images, typography, layout and colour grabbed my attention and refused to let go: the pages of my parents’ Sunday Times magazines; the covers of my cousins’ Jimi Hendrix and Who albums; the placards and posters I saw at gigs and festivals organised by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. Years later, I realised that they were all the work of one man – David King.

King led several lives. He was a graphic designer, journalist, artist, photographer, political activist, visual historian and archivist. In the time before [Neville] Brody and [Stefan] Sagmeister, when there was no such thing as a graphic design rock star, King was the nearest thing to it. His dazzling assemblage of grainy photography, heavy rules, bold sans serifs, strong colours, starbursts and lightning bolts created a unique visual style. But his approach and his passions fell out of fashion, and he is almost unknown to the newest generation of design practitioners and students. This extraordinary new book should change that.

David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian is a comprehensive monograph by Eye founder and columnist Rick Poynor. It is a biography, a critique and an appreciation of King’s fascinating life and career. But most of all it is an enthralling visual document of King’s work from his student experiments to the groundbreaking visual histories of his later years. As a commentator writes of one of King’s own publications, ‘on a documentary level the book is a gold mine … a picture book like no other.’

King always said that he was ‘less into form than content’. He began his career as an editorial design prodigy at The Sunday Times Magazine, where he avoided the lifestyle and consumer content and focused his formidable talents on features about crime, space and revolutionary Russia – an enthusiasm that would evolve into a lifelong passion. A gifted storyteller, he instinctively grasped that picture editing was a key skill in editorial art direction. His dictum that ‘most photographs are improved by cropping’ would not endear him to many of the picture editors I have worked with, but his cinematic layouts of Don McCullin’s photographs from the Vietnam War, stunningly reproduced in the book, are evidence of a brilliant visual journalist at work.

McCullin encouraged King to pick up a camera himself. He became an accomplished photographer, designing and publishing several books of his own images. He also freelanced on striking (and controversial) image-led album covers, although his music work was always just a sideline.

In 1970, he made his first visit to Moscow to do visual research for a Sunday Times feature. The material he brought back became the foundation of a world-class collection of Soviet graphics, photography and printed ephemera. The influence of revolutionary Russian design on his personal style is obvious. King always denied that he was a mere ‘Constructivist’ but he clearly had an affinity for an energetic and dynamic visual language that chimed with his personal passions and motivations.

Cover designed by Simon Esterson.
Top. Spread from ‘A Dictionary of the Revolution’, The Sunday Times Magazine, 8 October 1967. Design: David King; art director: Michael Rand; editor: Peter Crookson; picture research: Doris Bryen. Main image is Alexander Rodchenko’s ‘Books’ poster, 1924.

While the book covers every stage of King’s career, the most powerful section is devoted to his print and poster work for political causes. He was a self-described ‘unaligned leftist’, and was deeply committed to anti-racist movements. His personal style and visual intelligence became a natural graphic voice for many political campaigns, including some that inspired me personally (the book reproduces a Rock Against Racism badge I proudly wore as a student).

With time, King grew less interested in being a designer and devoted himself to visual history. The collection he had begun at the Sunday Times had grown into one of the most important in the world, and he was to spend the rest of his life producing books and exhibitions based on it. The books are astonishing for their bravura design and the richness of their material and visual storytelling, but also for the humanity of their content. The Commissar Vanishes, a visual document of how the discredited and disgraced were literally airbrushed out of Soviet history, is perhaps the defining example. As the monograph reminds us, Commissar is an ‘extraordinary combination of tragedy and farce, which evokes strong mixed emotions’. King tells a fascinating, even funny, visual story, but with an awareness of the dark reality behind it.

Rock Against Racism badge designed by David King.

Nowadays, we often engage with graphic design through the web and social media, where some designers are over-represented, and others almost ignored. I had collected some of King’s books and catalogues, but I knew much of his work only through an article (Reputations, Eye 48), and a few low-resolution images on blog posts. The book gives access to a wealth of material I had never seen, lovingly curated and meticulously reproduced. It shows what a joy a printed monograph, conceived, edited and designed by enthusiasts, can be.

As an avowed David King aficionado, I had been waiting for this book for years. But I am also thrilled that it will bring King’s work to a new generation. At a time when the world is confronting immense challenges, and much graphic design has become a matter of pure visual styling, David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian is a timely reminder that design can engage with important themes and be driven by a passionate desire to make the world a better place.

Mark Porter, founder and creative director, Mark Porter Associates, London

First published in Eye no. 101 vol. 26, 2021

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.