CSR Issue: November/December 1997
To most Americans, Dorling Kindersley,
(or DK) is not a household name. But mention The Way Things
Work or the Eyewitness Encyclopedia of Science, and people
around the world understand what you're talking about. Who's
behind this fascinating work? We've always wanted to know,
so we called 57-year-old CEO and Co-Founder Peter Kindersley
in his London office. If you're interested in the
relationship between print and the "new media," read on.
CSR: We've known DK's work since "The Way Things Work"
book and the CD-ROM. Where did this unique style of
illustration come from?
Peter Kindersley: Basically it comes directly from me. It
has to, whether I like it or not. Our attempts to make
things very clear, as if they leap off the page or CD-ROM,
come from our interest in delivering straight information.
While a lot of publishers use art to decorate their books,
our style is to try to present things as they are and let
the beauty shine through. For example, if you take an apple
and you photograph it exactly as it is, preferably on a
white background because that strips away all other
associations and concentrates the mind, it is a beautiful
thing in its own right. That simplicity of approach, and the
clear emphasis on helping you extract the information from
an item, has led to our success.
What can you attribute this style to?
My father was a sculptor and a letter designer, and he used
to say "If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well."
While that might sound like a very trivial thing to say, it
meant to me that even if one was mowing the lawn, one should
do it as well as possible. This value was very instilled in
me as a child.
You started publishing in 1974?
Actually I started in publishing back in the 1960's with a
conventional publisher called Thomas Nelson. I was an art
director. I remember that I found it rather shocking that
there was such an emphasis on the written word. Whenever
pictures were put in, it was very "add on." I kept on asking
myself, 'is this the right way to layout this
Are you saying that illustrations can be a replacement
We have a statement at DK ... 'through the picture I see
reality, and through the word I understand it.' When I first
came into publishing I realized there was a missing link
between words and pictures. One of the problems with words
is they're incredibly slow, while pictures are incredibly
fast. When you put them together, they work in completely
different ways. We needed to find ways in which we could
slow down the pictures and speed up the text.
Who was the 'Dorling' of Dorling Kindersley?
Christopher Dorling was an editor at my previous company,
and we decided to start [DK] up together.
Christopher was a very good international sales person as
well. He was also a cartographer and had done some editorial
work. Eight years after starting our company, Christopher
wanted to leave, and that left me. I never changed the
You've said that "this form of children's books fits well
with the way young readers' process information." How do you
respond to a comment we often hear debated... that
electronic media (e.g., software) might replace traditional
This century has seen all sorts of predictions about the
falling out of this or that media. But as you know, cinema
and theater are both still around, even with all the videos
and television. I think what we're talking about here is
that books can do a really good job in many cases. The thing
is that everything has its place.
So what advantages does software have for
The real point is that one always learns best when one is
active in doing something. Purely intellectual, passive
knowledge is always difficult to learn. You have to learn it
by rote and hope you remember it. The active participation
that CD-ROMs provide closes the gap between actually doing,
and the passive world of the book. I sometimes say to people
'how many books do you need to learn to ride a bicycle.' But
yet we fall into this trap by thinking that learning has to
do with passive information. So for me, the CD-ROM is the
most incredible breakthrough in terms of getting people to
You state on your Internet site (www.dk.com) that this
style of presenting information supports a democratic
learning style. What do you mean by that?
Of my two children, a girl and a boy, one found words to be
very easy, and I was very proud of that for a time. Then I
had a boy who was not at all interested in words, and I had
to adjust my whole thinking. It really made me see that
education really fails a large number of children by
encouraging this one side to us all, which is the intellect.
Our books and our CD-ROMs suddenly allow these very
different kinds of children, in a democratic way, to
experience information from their own particular point of
view. So you, as a learner, have a choice ... you can either
start with the text and work toward the picture, or you can
start with the picture and work into the text.
Do you think of yourself as an educator, or a publisher?
Nobody's ever called me an educator before, but I think
that's a good label. I'm really trying to help people get
the information out of media, by making the media work much
harder for them, helping them become good learners.
So what about using multimedia for learning?
Multimedia is such an amazing media. You don't just get the
words. You get the sound, you get the movement, and you get
the pictures; all in a dynamic way. You can also give
problems to solve, create simulations and enable people to
actually use information to do something. Multimedia makes
real learning possible because it is active. Do you know one
of the interesting things about this new media is that when
you put it in people's hands, there's no doubt about the
power of this medium. It's absolutely amazing. One sometimes
forgets that, because of the problems in retail [the
difficulty in distributing software]. I don't think that
anybody should give up on it. It's an incredible medium.
You've been in the center of incredible change (in
learning and technology). What's that been like?
Its been tremendous fun. You know, here I am, 57, and I feel
I've just begun again. You know most people that have been
in mature industries like publishing haven't had this
terrific opportunity to suddenly re-express what one's been
doing for so many years in a new and much more exciting way.
It's been tremendous, and I feel just as energetic as I did
when I was 21.
Copyright 1998, Children's Software Revue
"For me, the CD-ROM is the most
incredible breakthrough in terms of getting people to