Deighton the designer

How the author and his contemporaries influenced modern publishing

While best know for his written words, Len Deighton's career - had he not become a writer - could easily have been as one of the UK's leading graphic designers and stylist, such was his talent. Not only was he himself an accomplished designer; he knew, worked with and encouraged many other designers in the 'fifties and 'sixties who would go on to become mainstays of the British design scene and masters of their fields in many cases. Many of his books and films have also become associated with a design look and feel that is symbolic of that era - the iconic Harry Palmer films being a case in point, in many ways defining modern London.

As Deighton himself has commented, his work as an artist shaped his work as author. He wrote as he would design, with a particular emphasis on description for example.

As Alex Seago sets out in his book Burning the Box of Beautiful Things, which looks at the development of a post-modern sensibility in British art and design from the 'fifties onwards, it was the design students of the Royal College of Art and St Martin's College of Art who were aware of the social - and not just artistic - implications of postmodern culture. It was a rejection of the cosy, neo-Romantic, Victorian vision of what art should be, and the genesis of a generation of artists who took it upon themselves to shake up the art and design establishment and strike out on their own path. Life centred on Soho, where the heady mixture of art, music and a party culture created an explosive combination.

Len Deighton was at the centre of this revolution as student and then as a writer.

His pal Raymond Hawkey was a student with Deighton at the Royal College, and subsequently went on to design some of the most iconic book covers in publishing history, changing forever the scope of what a cover could do for a book, with his black and white photography and sparse, simple lettering. Read this article in Books magazine for a fascinating insight into the background to Ray Hawkey's designs for Deighton's books. Deighton, Hawkey and others were also to recognise the growing link between art and the commercial world such as in advertising.

The production of Ark magazine, the in-house journal for the Royal College of Art which subsequently became a commercial operation creating and designing a high end periodical on art, design and words, was something in which Len Deighton was involved and edited on a couple of occasions. Many of those who worked with Deighton on Ark and other projects went on themselves to become leading designers and artists. In conversation with Seago, Deighton recounts this tim as one of innovation and boundary breaking in design:

"No one knew what the hell ARK was for. When I took over the art editorship at the end of 1953 I said, 'What's it all about? Is it a college magazine? Is it something to sell the College to manufacturers and employers?' No one knew. It was typically English. No one could decide. In England the whole way of living is predicated upon never defining anything because that way no one can get it right or wrong."

Through his book covers, his posters, his work inspiring other designers, his own distinctive drawing style and his acceptance of the commercial benefits of good design, Len Deighton can add design to writing and cookery as areas where he has had a significant influence on the development of these fields.


Deighton's design for a Toronto advertising agency

Design note

The first published design work by Deighton is 1953's edition of Dove, a supplement for Ark magazine.

Download a copy here..