A Conversation With Dorling Kindersley's Peter Kindersley

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 information?'

Are you saying that illustrations can be a replacement for text?
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 name.

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 books?
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 learning?
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 actively learn.

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 actively learn."



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