In 1935 Penguin launched Britain’s first line of mass-market paperbacks and revolutionized the way we think about books. The brainchild of publisher Allen Lane, Penguins were inexpensive and high-quality; they were worked on by some of the world’s leading graphic designers. Though it began life as an imprint of the Bodley Head, republishing existing fiction and non-fiction, within a year Penguin had become a separate company and was soon commissioning original works, launching new series and redefining publishing’s boundaries. The typographer, graphic designer and teacher Phil Baines’s beautiful book Penguin by Design traces the history of Penguin’s covers and at the same time tells the parallel story of graphic design’s emergence as a profession. Those covers are about “far more than three colored stripes and a dancing bird,” as Baines says; in particular, the developments and changes we see in them reflect the attitudes of publishers and readers towards much larger design issues—for instance, the question of whether a book’s look should promote the imprint, the author or the individual title.
In 1937, Allen Lane expanded the business with the publication of George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism under the Pelican imprint, which was designed to educate as much as to entertain (Pelicans were discontinued in 1990). In 1940, the children’s imprint, Puffin, was launched with a series of nonfiction picture books. Over the years Penguin’s many new series have ranged from Crime and Classics through Modern Poets, Education and Reference. Among many other firsts, in 1960 Penguin famously brought out the unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (32 years after its first publication, in Italy), as a means of testing Britain’s 1959 Obscene Publications Act. The subsequent obscenity trial and legal victory for the defendants not only heralded the end of book censorship in the U.K. but boosted sales and marked Penguin as a fearless leader.
“There’s a fantastic organization of nerds, by the way, called the Penguin Collectors Society. I couldn’t have done the book without knowing a few people there who gave me immense help. I think Penguin today is a bit more conscious of its history, but they don’t always use it wisely, so there’s a lot of cynical exploitation of previous looks.”
The penguin as symbol was first suggested by a secretary, and an office junior was sent to London Zoo to make sketches. “He’s altered quite a lot over the years,” says Baines. The penguin started out as a more realistic bird; at times, he has been tipped on his back foot and drawn dancing (both a gentle two-step and a vigorous tap routine); his flightless wings have been given varying degrees of spread and then been snapped back to his sides, hollowed out and turned into calligraphic flourishes; he has lost his one eye and then gained it back, with and without an added pupil; he has been stylized into a column with a mate tucked inside; never skinny, he’s gained a few pounds (even with a spare tire or two) and returned to form; switched from left- to right-looking and even used double, with each side facing a different way. Most recently he’s been redesigned by the New York firm Pentagram in a version that much resembles that of 1949, and is once again “the old, rather portly gentleman re-weighted.”
THE HORIZONTAL GRID
Early Penguins appeared at a time before the roles of designer and printer were clearly differentiated; the basic tripartite division of the cover was devised by Penguin’s then-production manager, something that would be unthinkable even a few years later.
Still She Wished for Company, 1937
Penguin originally used orange for fiction, green for crime, dark blue for biography, cerise for travel and adventure and red for plays.
“It’s such a simple idea. Just a lightly colored book with a white belly band with some type on it. It’s such a straightforward thing. At the beginning that look was really important to the success of Penguin as an imprint; from a design point of view, it sets up one of the first approaches to the covers—one that is really about the publisher. The interesting thing as one goes through the years is the way that attitude chops and changes—is the book about the publisher or about the book itself? And how do you reconcile those ideas? Sometimes the approach goes one way and then another; but at this point I’m rather bored by that look. I know there are people who collect the first thousand titles. It’s fine, but it’s not that interesting from a graphic design point of view. By the 1950s, once it’s done its job, you can see how it really doesn’t work anymore. There are too many of them; they all look the same; there is no flexibility; and they can’t integrate anything with it.”
After the war, Lane realized that standards had fallen and styles were inconsistent across the titles, so in 1947 he hired master typographer Jan Tschichold to fix the problems. One of Tschichold’s most influential instructions, says Baines, was that capitals had to be letter-spaced—i.e., the spacing between them had to be individually adjusted. He was succeeded by Hans Schmoller, whose chief contribution during his 27-year tenure was in the work he did on the text pages inside the books rather than the covers. Dry and severe, Schmoller famously threw Richard Hollis’s design for John Berger’s book on art, Ways of Seeing, down the corridor in disgust—much to the designer’s delight.
PUFFIN PICTURE BOOKS
War on Land, 1940
An early illustrated Puffin Picture Book for children.
“Penguin recognized that it wasn’t necessary for sub-series or other genres to be so obedient to the uniform branding of the main series. The Picture Puffins, for instance, are fully illustrated all the way through. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, for a series that launched in 1940, the first three were all about war.) Some other series had also diverged from the look of the brand before this—the Illustrated Classics in 1937 and 1938, and the King Penguins around the same time—but Puffin was significant because it really embraced illustration.”
THE LATE ’50S
During this period Penguin started to use freelance designers such as Derek Birdsall, Alan Fletcher and Herbert Spencer.
“For me this is a really interesting time; while you’ve got this straitjacket of the vertical stripes for fiction (see below), the Pelican imprint was showing a lot of latitude. With the work of John Curtis, the publicity manager and temporary cover art director from 1957 to 1959, you’re starting to get a modern, integrated book cover with the typography and illustrative aspects combined.”
Flames in the Sky, 1958; Penguin
“Some of the decision-making seems quite arbitrary. While the incredibly beautiful covers by the 1957 art director Abram Games were separating text and image entirely for the first time, the Pelican series was trying to integrate text and image, and they made the transition to the later Marber grid (see below) really well.”
The Black Cloud, 1960, Penguin
“The concept of the two vertical stripes was a way of holding on to the original branding idea of stripes, with different colorways for the various series and subjects. I like the designs that start to mess around and violate the vertical stripes a lot, as the cover for The Black Cloud does—and that also happens to be such a good illustration for that book, as well.”
TEXT AND IMAGE
Geology and Scenery, 1961, Pelican
“Here you still see the color kept for the brand, and many of the covers at this time have a common strip along the bottom, but in fact the designs are quite free with it. The cover typography is not rigid, either; it can be whatever the designer decides, which gives quite a bit of freedom. The designs generally continue through the spine and onto the back, so the books work well on a shelf, whether they stand end-out or face-out. The text and image were already being integrated before Germano Facetti becomes the company’s art director in 1961 (he remained there until 1972); people forget about this little period in Pelicans. The designers for Pelican and Penguin were all in the same offices, so they shared ideas, but some seem to have been kept on a tight rein, whereas others were given a lot of latitude. John Curtis had been to America and brought some of these ideas back with him. At the time, Americans were much less worried about the identity of the brand; everyone focused more on the cover. The U.S. was a more competitive place and covers had to work harder in a market that was less bookshop-based, with major sales in other contexts, such as newsstands; they had to be more aggressive in a way that I think Allen Lane found difficult to embrace.”
THE MARBER GRID AND BEYOND
“After Facetti arrived at Penguin his work touched every series in the adult imprints. He famously began by commissioning several designers to look at the Crime series, and of these, Romek Marber got the job. Then you get the Marber grid. The grid separates text from image, and then separates the publisher, title and author’s name, using fine horizontal rules. He used a Swiss-inspired font and more relaxed capitalization. Facetti knew a good thing when he saw it; he ended up using the Marber grid for the Pelicans and Fiction series as well.”
No Love Lost, 1961, Penguin Crime
“Facetti’s approach is generally very straightforward typography, and in the main the separation of text and image is back. Later in the ’60s, when photography replaced illustration, the Crime series worked better—somehow someone drowning doesn’t seem so bad in an illustration.
Britain in the Century of Total War, 1970, Pelican
With a semblance of order at the top, this is an example of a classic Marber grid (though it is just starting to disappear), except that here text and image are connected, with the illustration underneath the type and the grid laid on top. The image also just happens to have the brand’s blue colors in it.
Beowulf, 1963, Penguin Classics
“The other important design that Facetti introduced is the black Classics. Facetti had an encyclopedic knowledge of world art—he helped set up the Snark Picture Agency in Paris—and his covers reflect that. Here he sort of gives up on the grid. It’s about his attitude to illustration as well as photography. With the black Classics he saw all the arts as related, so it seemed appropriate to illustrate them with something from the period; he was like a little picture research department in himself, so he had the knowledge needed to do it. Outside major museums and art galleries, it’s difficult to know who else you might have gone to for this at that time. He used Snark an awful lot, though—it was a bit of a gray area the way he mixed his own business with Penguin’s.
“Using photography was also important—at the time in England magazines had a big influence, with the advent of the Sunday newspaper color supplements, which began in 1962.”
Penguin Modern Poets, Volume 8, 1968
This tightly designed series isn’t the Marber grid exactly, but works variations on the theme, using abstracted and overexposed photography in an illustrative way.
“What was significant about what happened in the 1960s was that Penguin’s executive board felt that the design of the fiction titles should go whole hog and be properly illustrative; the Marber grid worked up to a point, but not far enough. It worked less well with fiction than with crime, and I can’t quite decide why: whether it was the kind of illustration that was used, whether the orange didn’t work as a second color, or what, really. The illustrations don’t seem quite right for the two-color treatment (although that worked well with the Specials, which were looser with the grid). Maybe it was the kind of illustrators they were commissioning.”
The Tunnel of Love, 1964, Penguin
“In 1965 the board decided to take fiction away from Facetti and give it to Alan Aldridge (who had previously freelanced for Penguin) and he went a bit mad. He was very young, in his early 20s, and he talked his way into it.”
Island, 1966, Penguin
“My favorite is Island, although the art wasn’t by Aldridge himself.”
Girls in Their Married Bliss, 1967, Penguin
“This is representative of Aldridge’s approach. The brand is carried only by the logo, which is somewhat ludicrously big, but—you’ve got cover blurb, author, title all merged together as one decorative set of hand-drawn and airbrushed lettering overlaid on an image. Alan is a bit of a pop-star illustrator; it’s a combination of cartoon and psychedelic lettering with a black-and-white, ’60s, sexy photograph behind. Apparently Graham Greene was not very happy with Aldridge’s treatment of Brighton Rock, which used a skeleton.
“So the cover was now a completely blank canvas, and everybody could do what he wanted with it. The fact that they are not all successful is partly because Aldridge was too young to know enough people to commission good covers from. You could see that change when David Pelham, the art director from 1968 to 1979, was brought in at the end of the decade. Pelham was an established magazine art director who knew far more people; he had the same kind of freedom with the covers but just got better people to do it. So the good covers in Aldridge’s time are great and a lot of the others are just a bit, well… Aldridge is also more explicit, which is especially visible in the Crime series.”
The Wind From Nowhere, 1962, Penguin Science Fiction
“This is an example where Aldridge used his own illustration (with a lot of help from his unacknowledged airbrusher, Harry Wilcox). Even the typography comes in for an illustrative treatment. At this point Penguin was getting a bit worried about the brand, so they slapped that Penguin Science Fiction nonsense on the top, but I don’t think we need to dwell on that.”
Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1968
The Tempest, 1968
Henry IV Part 1, 1968
New Penguin Shakespeare
“The typography is Facetti’s typical thing. They got David Gentleman in to do the woodcuts. Gentleman had been illustrating for Penguin since the ’50s, so he was well known to them. I imagine that Hans Schmoller may have suggested him for this. These are really good as a series. The quality of the illustrations is great and the balance between text and image is good. There is a very tight series look to them. The typography is very constant; it’s tough and bold against the image, but doesn’t flower it up in the way Pelham did 10 years later when he revisited the series in the late ’70s (see below) and tried to do too many things with the typography and with the image; the two are just fighting.”
A Clockwork Orange, 1972, Penguin
“Pelham’s approach came from the same point of view as Aldridge: the cover was a canvas, fully given over to the illustrator to work with. The logo was now in a corner and fairly constant, though which corner didn’t matter, so it could move to suit the design.
“The Clockwork Orange cover is pretty well known for a reason. It lasted as a cover for a ludicrous amount of time, 20 years, perhaps? For many people that is the image for A Clockwork Orange. Often when a book is filmed, the visuals connected with the film get into the popular consciousness as the image, but that book cover became iconic, particularly in Britain, since the film was banned there for so long and they couldn’t use a movie still. Aldridge had commissioned someone to do the design, but it was found to be unsuitable, so Pelham had to do it himself at the last minute.”
Someone Like You, 1982, Penguin
“This shows the quality of the illustrators Pelham was commissioning at the time, including many he did himself.”
The Drought, 1977, Penguin Science Fiction
“Pelham was the last person personally appointed by Lane before his death in 1970; the company was then sold on, eventually becoming part of the Pearson Group. Money was coming in, some authors were starting to get huge advances, companies were promoting certain titles in a big way, and so there was a change in what publishers were all about, with many formerly privately owned companies going public. The rules were changing.”
Spines: Penguin Education Specials, 1971
“Pelham commissioned Derek Birdsall of Omnific to give the Education series a new look. Birdsall’s typographic solution was to make the sans serif type on the spine as large as the spine allowed, in order to help give the series continuity, while using both illustration and photography, and strong typography with graphic humor, to reflect the content of individual books.”
Learner Teacher, 1972, Penguin Education
The Divided Self, 1974, Pelican
“This was a cover by the freelance designer Martin Bassett, and Facetti did an almost identical version for another R.D. Laing cover the following year, using different colored circles. Facetti and Pelham often credited themselves on covers; I don’t quite know if they did them as separate freelance jobs or just put their names on because they wanted that. They frequently created abstract covers for Pelicans, particularly on difficult subjects, funnily enough often using circles.”
Measure for Measure, 1979, New Penguin Shakespeare
Here Pelham was trying to say a lot with the typography and image. In the previous Shakespeare series (see above), the two elements, text and images, worked together in strength; here, the word “Shakespeare” was elaborately emphasized so that there were now three elements, making it all extra fussy.
“Things got a bit messy after this; there was not much consistency or unity to hold them together, and there were many one-offs.”
And the Ass Saw the Angel, 1998, Penguin
“Here it is business as usual—certainly for fiction and many other titles, the whole front cover is the canvas again. There is less belief in even the logo as a point of brand, and many other parts of the company don’t see a need even for that. From here on it’s a free-for-all. For most titles the degrees of belief in the need for a highly visible brand of the company vary.”
White Teeth, 2001, Penguin
“This one is a really interesting mix of decorative elements and type, fairly straightforward but beautifully handled, all the elements working together make it very striking.
“When the whole cover is a blank canvas, the illustrators do what they think is right for the book, including the typography. You wouldn’t know from the front cover who published it. For a time there was even a feeling at the company that flagging the name of Penguin too much was not a good thing. Things had got a little sloppy in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it didn’t have quite the name it had had previously. So they had to sharpen up their game a bit, which has certainly been done over the last 10 years. Fiction definitely has total freedom on the covers. More recently, Penguin has been a little more conscious of design again; they’ve rediscovered it. With new management coming in around the millennium—John Hamilton at Penguin General and Jim Stoddard at Penguin Press—so things are changing quite a bit.
“While there is this freedom in fiction and to a degree in some of the nonfiction titles—Pelican no longer exists and lots of books that in the old days would have become Pelican titles now look like standard Penguins—there are still a lot of sub-series that have branding just like the sub-series of old.”
“This is a strong use of photography. It’s that separation again: Modern Classics are clearly revisited, very well art-directed as a series with very good picture research, tapping into the collector in people.
A Clockwork Orange, 2000, Penguin Modern Classics
“The role of illustration in the Modern Classics titles—mostly established works by widely regarded authors—is slightly different from that in new, contemporary titles seeking to make their presence felt for the first time.”
The look is restrained: author, title and logo confined to a silver panel at the bottom. The images dominate but in a quiet way.
The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, 1999, Penguin Reference
“The Reference relaunch is a direct nod to the company’s history both in terms of Derek Birdsall’s earlier spine treatments and the tripartite blocking of the cover (see above). They work with the spine out on the shelf, very cleverly—very well in a bookshop context, in fact. When they came out there was nothing else like them, so they worked on a number of levels. The rounded corners were an affectation of David Pearson’s [the former student of Baines who designed Penguin by Design].”
Meditations, 2004, Penguin Great Ideas
“These were David Pearson’s idea. We decided to let the flavor of each individual text influence the look of the cover. They were cheap to do. The company reckoned it would cost them printing and some covers—no royalties. They were a big success. A huge number were bought by Bookclub, and they were really cheap at £4.99. We had to have the last word in the book.—LUCY SISMAN