A fresh chapter on the Net

7th January 2000 at 00:00
As chairman of Dorling Kindersley, Peter Kindersley has always been proud of his company's record of being at the forefront of learning. Dorothy Walker meets the man who now has boundless enthusiasm for the power of ICT Ask Peter Kindersley about the educational power of ICT, and he says without hesitation: "New technology is the most powerful learning device mankind has ever invented."

As chairman and co-founder of Dorling Kindersley (DK), he has taken the lead in proving the point. With a string of successful CD-Rom titles to its credit, DK has set new standards in the world of educational software, and the pioneering company is now doing the same on the Internet. Last summer Peter Kindersley caused a publishing sensation by announcing that all DK books were to be made available online, free of charge. Now, with 100 titles already on the Web, new Internet initiatives are being unveiled by the company at this year's BETT.

However, Kindersley's awakening to the power of ICT came more than two decades ago, by way of the more traditional medium which made him famous - DK's distinctive books. An art school graduate who entered publishing as a designer, he founded the company in 1974, driven by a personal mission to make words and pictures work together to communicate information better than ever before.

"The reader shouldn't have to dig down to find information - it should almost leap off the page. We tried to make it like having a narrator at your left elbow while you read," he says. The illustrations were lavish, the layouts elaborate, and in the Seventies the only way to produce the books cost-effectively for the mass market was to use emerging computer technology.

Kindersley says: "DK is a product of the computer age. We were very early users of computers, as we couldn't produce our kind of books without them." The results took the market by storm, and a new word - lexigraphics - was coined to describe the instantly recognisable style of every DK page.

By the late Eighties, Kindersley saw that new multimedia technology was the key to delivering information in "even more motivational and effective ways".

"We couldn't push book design much further - in fact we believe we have now

pushed it as far as it will go," he says. "In our daily lives, we are

constantly learning by interacting with things in unexpected ways. I knew

that if I could make information more lifelike - make the pictures move,

and the text speak for itself - it would be more memorable."

His own education had influenced his belief in the value of interactive

experience. The son of a sculptor, Kindersley was schooled at home in his

early years, learning through arts and crafts. He still recalls fondly the

activities that shaped his future: "We dug clay in the garden, sifted it,

and made it into pots. Then we built the little kiln and laid sawdust,

which we set alight after burying the little pots.

"It was the sort of education that one would love to see happening more,

especially for a large percentage of the population that is being failed by

the system. Many children put up with the system very well, even though it

doesn't suit thm." Although Kindersley went on to school and gained eight

O-Levels, he admits: "It wasn't until I left and went to art school that I

suddenly started reading all the classics, because somehow I felt free to

learn as I wanted to."

He believed that multimedia could bring the "kiln-in-the-garden" kind of

experience into the classroom and the home, providing a range of tools to

suit different styles of learning. And the real impetus to forge ahead and

produce CD-Roms came in the early Nineties, when he met Microsoft's Bill


Kindersley says: "We talked a lot about how we could use the huge banks of

content DK had built up, and DK and Microsoft began working together. Yet I

was also trying to find an investor for the company. The publishers were

all so backward-looking, and I wanted a forward-looking partnership.

Microsoft gave us that, together with the energy to go forward into


Today Microsoft no longer has a stake in the company, but DK continues to

invest in producing software, and is now blazing a trail on the Internet.

Its entire Eyewitness series - 100 books, complete with 40,000 images - is

already available on the Net, and will feature a powerful search engine, to

be unveiled at the BETT 2000 show. An Eyewitness "project maker" will also

enable schools all over the world to collaborate in using the material to

build projects, and several other developments are still under wraps.

"The Web is incredibly important, as it brings into the classroom a world

of information that is never possible in books or CD-Roms. There is so much

out there, and it gives children the ability to work in a less prescriptive

environment. In DK I frequently say: 'Whatever we are doing on the Internet

we should be doing 10 times more'."

He feels it is important to produce the same titles on paper, CD-Rom and on

the Web, so that teachers can switch tools to suit their purposes,

confident that the content will be consistent. He also denies that ICT

signals the demise of the book. "Television didn't stop the cinema, it just

gave people more choice. Books aren't going to disappear - one of the

wonderful things about a book is its ability to keep a child reflective.

Unless you have the ability to pause for thought, you are not going to


Nonetheless, he quotes the saying: "Everything that can be digital, will be

digital." He adds: "Over the next five years, technology will really impact

on the way teachers work. They will be guiding children, rather than acting

as processors, and we will see more freestyle learning."

And he warns that now is the time to be more decisive in our plans for

employing ICT in schools. "The government is pouring huge amounts of money

into hardware, and we need just a fraction of that to go into formulating a

strategy for software. The danger is that software from the US will swamp

our schools. We have excellent software developers here in the UK - I

haven't yet come across a country that can beat what we are doing, or beat

our potential."

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