Obituary: David Sisman

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The Independent Online
Before the microchip changed all our lives, revolutionising the way we seek and receive information, there was another, quieter, revolution - in the world of reference books.

David Sisman was one of the small group of pioneers who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, changed the look of an entire genre - atlases, gardening books, DIY books, cookbooks, nature books, guidebooks. Where previously there had been solid text, peppered with black-and-white line drawings and perhaps a few colour plates tipped in, reference books suddenly came alive. Full colour photographs and diagrams conveyed to millions of readers what they needed to know on any subject from plate tectonics to pruning an apple tree.

Sisman had an exceptional eye for design, a rare talent for friendship, a deep interest in other people and a healthy lack of concern for money - either for making it or for holding on to it.

After wartime and post-war service in the Royal Navy and a brief spell in advertising he joined the London office of Reader's Digest in 1953 and was promptly seconded to their fledgling Itallan office, to take charge of art and design. To David Sisman and his wife Marjorie, coming from a country still in the grip of austerity, Italy was a revelation - a land of sunshine, and no rationing. Equally, David was a revelation to the Italians. They had been expecting a stiff, reserved English naval officer.

What they got was an artist and designer who could turn any deadline into a drama, and could match the best of them, histrionics for histrionics. The promotion copywriter in Milan found that the best way to get David Sisman to deliver material on time was to burst into tears. Then there would be apologies, flowers, chocolates - and a winning batch of designs. The Italians were so impressed that they gave Sisman a nickname: "the prima donna".

After four years in Italy, Sisman swapped jobs with his London counterpart and became art director for Reader's Digest in Britain. This meant visits to the parent company in the United States. On one such trip, he stepped into an elevator in New York to find the only other occupant was a smartly dressed woman who seemed to have something to do with Reader's Digest. By the time they reached the 16th floor, Sisman had so captivated her that she invited him to dinner. She was Lila Acheson Wallace, co- owner and co-founder, with her husband DeWitt Wallace, of Reader's Digest. David Sisman was to become their favourite Englishman, and to spend many happy years at the Digest, spotting and encouraging young talent.

In his youth he had run away to join the Merchant Navy, volunteering for the Royal Navy in 1942. Twice he was aboard ships that were sunk by enemy action. On the second occasion, when HMS Egret was bombed off Cape Finisterre in August 1943, only 27 survived out of a crew of 231. Some of the younger sailors, thrown into a heaving sea, were beginning to despair and to give up the fight. But Sisman, despite his hands being badly burnt, swam from man to man, keeping their spirits up and giving more than one young sailor the will to hang on until help arrived. Later, he volunteered for submarines and became a navigation officer on patrol in the Atlantic. He finished the war with a DSC, but always insisted that "everybody who was in the war got a medal".

A love of the sea stayed with Sisman all his life. He was a keen member of the British Sub Aqua Club, editing and illustrating their official Diver's Manual. He was the editor of The Professional Diver's Handbook (1982) and co-wrote, with Peter Dick, Underwater Diving (1985). He explored many wrecks off the coast of Wales and the South-West, where his training in navigation made him a valued member of any diving team. He could read tide tables, and predict a squall just by looking up at the sky. "I really must give up diving," he would say, turned 70 and the survivor of two strokes. But everybody knew he didn't mean it. He continued helping the BSAC with training courses and lectures that combined hard, practical information with wit and brilliant illustrations.

Right up to the time of his final, catastrophic stroke in 1992, Sisman stayed young by living life to the full. Calligraphy, classes in life drawing, slate engraving, flying - all of these he took up and mastered. Yet he still found time to set female hearts a-flutter, working for the charity Contact and looking after what he called "my old ladies".

After his last stroke, David Sisman was taken into the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen at Richmond, Surrey. He was divorced in 1967, but he remained a good friend of his former wife, to the extent of going on holiday with Marjorie and her new husband. He leaves a son, the writer Adam Sisman, a daughter, the designer Lucy Sisman, and the partner and companion of his later years, Annie O'Dell.

Robin Hosie

David Sisman, designer: born Hendon 4 February 1920; married 1948 Marjorie Parker (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1967); died Richmond, Surrey 24 October 1996.