In the first of a two-part series to mark 40 years of D&AD, Michael Johnson (the designer of 1994's pencil case cover) delves into the history of the annual's covers and examines how they reflect the changing times and a changing competition.

If D&AD had the chance to rewind back through its history, it might have approached things differently.

The Gold Award, for example, might have been gold, the Silver Award, silver. Little things like that. And the yearly task of producing the D&AD Annual cover? That could have been much simpler. Maybe a blow-up of the year's killer project, or a big bit of type on a colour, with just the date changing, year after year.

But no, that's not the way it happened. A little haphazardly at first, but now officially, designing the annual cover has become a kind of award in itself. It's become a presidential duty; handing the baton to a perspiring creative who knows only too well that the arrival of the new annual is subjected to fierce critiques in studios the world over.

The brief was once to do "whatever you want". It started perfectly simply.

The cover for the pamphlet for the first exhibition featured the black portfolio that Alan Fletcher had used only a few years before when hawking his work around America. The newly designed logo was placed on the handle, the shot was taken. Thank you very much, go home.

Sadly, for most of the rest of the 60s, the covers weren't much to shout about until Bob Gill's 1968 pastiche of soap powder vernacular, an early example of designers poking fun at the scheme's tendency to take itself a little too seriously.

But as art directors struggled with painful metaphors to sum up the scheme (we've "picked the reddest apple", "bitten the dangling carrot", even "hit ourselves on the head with a self-abusing hammer"), some merrily took the loose brief to heart. When briefed "do whatever he wanted", Tony Meeuwissen's reaction in 1973 was to draw an illustration of, well, whatever he wanted. An avid collector of ephemera, he developed a melange of a matchbox, a monkey, a ship, a lighthouse, a seagull and mice. Obviously.

The finest "expression of the time and hang the consequences" must go to the pop artist Allen Jones' 1972 offering of a pneumatic girl admiring herself in a yellow, glowing mirror. For probably the first time (but not the last), we see D&AD holding a mirror to some of the creative community's attitudes of the time.

Finally, however, someone cracked. It's true: 13 years after the scheme's inception, an art director put a Pencil on the cover (in this case his own, hard-fought-for black one because D&AD towers wouldn't lend him one) with 13 vicious little notches carved out of one edge. Neil Godfrey, the cover's designer, had in one fell swoop amended the brief for decades to come, by finally including the organisation's most famous prize.

Once the floodgates had opened, for 25 years much of the action focused on the scheme's wooden ambassador. We've had pencil sharpeners (twice), pencils as mountain ranges, pencils as honeycombs (with attendant bees), pencils sawn in half (revealing the scheme's age in rings), pencils as medallion ribbons, a pencil case, a pencil box, swarms of flying pencils, even pencils as rockets. (OK, I made the last one up but it wouldn't have surprised you, would it?)

Some designers have chosen to make the winning of the Pencil the idea itself. Trickett & Webb's 1978 cover is simply a crowing cockerel - that year's award winners waking to their golden sunrise, perhaps? Apparently, to crow correctly and raise himself to the right height for the meticulously prepared painted background (this is pre-computer, remember; it had to be done "in-camera") our feathered lothario had to be surrounded by the fluffiest and horniest of hens.

Farrow Design's brief coincided with a president who wanted a book more like a product - enter, stage left, a generous sponsor keen to help produce a steel slipcase. But it's under the steel that the best idea lies; 17,107 tiny pin pricks cover the surface (representing that year's total entries) of which 36 are silver, and one gold, the brutal statistics of the world's toughest award scheme meticulously brought to life.

Malcolm Gaskin's marvellous 1983 "blow-up" cover included a valve that allowed the blind embossed, heat-sealed, translucent dust jacket to be inflated, so the purchaser could at least play with their own air-filled friend (perhaps in the absence of the real thing?). Little did unwitting inflators know, the jacket had a non-return valve - once inflated, it stayed that way. This dust jacket also tended to be stolen, so many creatives went through college thinking of this cover as "the one with the boring yellow printed cover", not realising what they had been missing.

Sometimes, the core colours of D&AD have been enough - in 1981 Minale Tattersfield simply superimposed two Pantone colour chips and that was enough to say "D&AD" - an early reflection of how the organisation's colours had become ingrained in the collective psyche of the then UK's, and now the world's, creative community.

In 1996, Tony Kaye only had to place the thinnest of yellow slivers behind the forbidding blank white page of an unused pad to sum up the feelings of many starting a new project: "Will this be the one that wins? Am I good enough? Help!" By 2001, Gregory Bonner Hale created a "duster jacket" from acres of yellow duster material (with the help of a Bangladeshi T-shirt manufacturer) and it was still pretty clear whose book this was on the bookshelves of the world.

Given that many nickname the annual "The Book", it's unsurprising that some cover designers have picked up on the Bible analogy, some more successfully than others. In 1985, Roger Pearce placed a few simple lines of gold embossed capitals on to maroon leatherette, a subtle piece of anti-packaging for many people's bible of creative thinking. And, actually, one of my personal favourites, but I'm forever being asked what the "real" cover was, because people assume there was once a dust jacket that had either got lost or been discarded (missing the point entirely).

Now we have Mother's 2002 entry to the annual cover hall of fame, taking Pearce's idea one stage further by creating a journey into the bizarre, not for D&AD but its Victorian cousin, Dulverton & Asquith-Drake. Just to confuse potential purchasers even more, we're told, on the spine, that these are: "The unfortunate findings of the collective for the abolition of reason."

Mother's side-stepping of the brief reveals one of the new difficulties of this project - designing the cover gets progressively harder. Today's recipient of the cover brief is now expected to produce something that shows what a modern, more grown-up, D&AD stands for, booms out of bookshelves and becomes an instant talking point. I'm not sure that some of the old ones would have stood up to that kind of scrutiny (but then that's probably part of their pre-strategy, pre-marketing charm, isn't it?).

Come to think of it, I'll need someone to design an annual cover soon. Know anyone who might be interested?

Michael Johnson, the creative director of johnson banks, becomes D&AD's president in January 2003. The exhibition, Rewind: 40 Years of Design and Advertising, co-curated by Johnson and Jeremy Myerson, runs until January.

The book of the show, and annual of annuals, is available now from Phaidon, priced £69.

- Next week: The best work from 40 years of the D&AD Awards.


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