When PENGUIN was founded in 1935 with the radical concept of producing inexpensive paperback editions of high quality books, it adopted an equally progressive approach to typography and cover design. Under Jan Tschichold in the 1940s and Germano Facetti in the 1960s, Penguin became an exemplar of book design.
Returning to London from a weekend at the Devon home of the crime writer Agatha Christie in 1934, the publisher Allen Lane scoured Exeter Station for something to read. All he could find were reprints of 19th century novels and Lane decided to found a publishing house to produce good quality paperbacks sold at sixpence each, the same price as a packet of cigarettes.
Lane’s secretary suggested Penguin as a 'dignified, but flippant' name for the company and the office junior Edward Young was sent to sketch the penguins at London Zoo as its logotype. Young was then asked to design the covers of the first set of ten paperbacks to be published in summer 1935 including Ariel and A Farewell to Arms. Considering illustrated book covers to be trashy, Lane insisted on his following a simple horizontal grid for Penguin’s jackets in colours that signified the genre of each book: orange for fiction, green for crime, and blue for biography.
The rigorous application of colour, grid and typography in those early paperbacks instilled Penguin with a commitment to design from the start. The company then strengthened its design ethos under the direction of the German typographer Jan Tschichold (1902-1974) during the 1940s and the Italian art director Germano Facetti (1926-2006) in the 1960s.
A rigorous and inspiring visual language
The enduring principles of Penguin’s design were defined by Allen Lane when he founded the company in the mid-1930s, but it was not until the late 1940s that it adopted a disciplined and coherent approach to design under Jan Tschichold. Already established as an eminent writer on typography and a famous practitioner by the time he arrived at Penguin in 1946, Tschichold was more assertive at imposing his design philosophy than his predecessors.
Before his arrival the design of individual books had appeared cohesive, at least compared to those of rival publishers, but had varied with the views of the editor and printer. A firm believer in typographic systems, Tschichold designed a template for all Penguin books with designated positions for the title and author’s name with a line between the two. He unified the design of the front, spine and back and redrew Edward Young’s endearingly amateurish Penguin symbol in eight variations. Finally he produced a set of Composition Rules which, he insisted, were to be followed by Penguin’s typographers and printers to ensure that the same style was always applied.
Tschichold was equally rigorous in the design of special sets of books published by Penguin. These included Penguin Modern Painters, introduced in 1944 by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark to popularise modern art to “the wide public outside the art galleries”, and the Penguin Shakespeare Series, which had the same democratising objective for William Shakespeare’s plays. Among Tschichold’s innovations was to persuade Allen Lane to allow Penguin to take advantage of recent advances in printing by using illustration on the jackets of particular sets of books such as the Shakespeare Series.
In 1949 Tschichold returned to Switzerland after three highly productive years in which he had defined an intellectually rigorous and inspiring visual language for Penguin, ensuring that ‘its books, produced as cheaply as possible in millions for the millions, are every bit as well set and designed as the most expensive in the country’. His successor, the typographer Hans Schmoller (1916-1985) had a rich knowledge of type and unerring eye for detail, but was less radical in his approach and tended to refine Tschichold’s templates rather than inventing his own. Schmoller’s design for the 1950s architectural series, The Buildings of England written by the historian Nikolaus Pevsner, was modelled closely on Tschichold’s templates. However he did change the Penguin grid from horizontal to vertical in 1951 for Penguin fiction covers. The vertical grid had been devised at Tschichold’s behest by the designer Erik Ellegaard Frederiksen, but was not adopted until Schmoller had modified it. The result was the division of the cover into three vertical stripes, which allowed enough space for illustration while maintaining the tri-partite division and the original 1930s colour coding so strongly associated with Penguin.
Return to the cutting edge of book design
By the early 1960s Penguin, once a pioneer in book design, had lost its edge. In 1961 the company appointed the Italian art director Germano Facetti, who had studied architecture in Milan and worked for Domus magazine there before moving to London to design for Olivetti, then renowned for its inventive approach to contemporary design, as its new head of design. In an era when London’s fledgling graphic design scene was invigorated by the emergence of talented Britons like Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Derek Birdsall, and the arrival of the gifted US designers, such as Robert Brownjohn and Bob Gill, Facetti was charged with revitalising Penguin’s design tradition.
One of his most inspiring projects was the redesign of Penguin Crime. In 1962 Facetti commissioned the Polish-born designer Romek Marber, having admired his covers of The Economist, to redesign the series. Green was retained as the defining colour of Penguin Crime, but Marber refreshed it by choosing a brighter shade. The horizontal title band at the top stayed too, as did the hierarchy of information – logo, series and price, then title, followed by the author’s name – with rules dividing each band. Marber then added a visually compelling image, often a staccato photograph or illustration hinting at the drama and tensions of the plot.
The redesign was so successful that Facetti adopted variations of it for other Penguin series. For Penguin Classics, he introduced the use of an historic painting, invariably reflecting the themes of the book, to the covers and for Penguin Modern Poets, he commissioned a series of photograms by Peter Barrett, Roger Mayne and Alan Spain between 1962 and 1965. One of Facetti’s final projects before leaving Penguin in 1972 was to commission Derek Birdsall to redesign its education titles.
In just over a decade at Penguin, Facetti succeeded not only in modernising its approach to design, but doing so in a coherent way across hundreds of titles. At a time when publishers still tended to commission design on a title-by-title basis, described by Facetti as “the arty-crafty approach of the single beautiful achievement”, he had succeeded in establishing consistently high standards of inspiring and often provocative design in a systematic manner appropriate to a modern publisher of mass-market books in the 1960s.
A rich heritage revived
After Facetti’s departure Penguin’s design saw some of its less successful years, but the company has since revived its commitment to typography and cover design with particular series, notably the mid-1980s King Penguins collection of contemporary fiction with a cover grid designed by Mike Dempsey and Ken Carroll featuring the work of such illustrators as Andrei Klimowski. In 2004, Penguin published the Great Ideas series of social, political and philosophical tracts in paperback for £3.99 each. Penguin’s art director Jim Stoddart asked a junior designer, David Pearson, to develop the design identity of the series, which he did by dressing each cover in the lettering or typographic style typical of its time in a rigorous palette of black and burgundy type on creamy white – from lettering derived from early Christian sources used for St Augustine’s Confessions of a Sinner, to an Arts and Crafts style bookplate for John Ruskin’s discourse On Art and Life.
The Great Ideas and their bold typographic covers proved a great success, and the Penguin team responsible for the design was nominated for the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year in 2005. In the following years another four series were released, each with diverse and expressive covers yet also a coherent visual identity devised by Pearson.
When Penguin decided to celebrate its 70th anniversary by publishing a collection of 70 Pocket Penguins paperbacks to sell for £1.50 each, the design was entrusted to art directors John Hamilton and Jim Stoddart. As timing was tight, Hamilton hit upon the idea of inviting 70 designers, artists and illustrators to create one cover each. He and Stoddart then resolved that the covers should be designed within seven days for a flat fee of £70.
All the designers they approached said ‘yes’. In deference to Penguin’s heritage, each book was the A-format size of its original 1935 paperbacks, and some of the cover designers were Penguin veterans, such as Alan Aldridge, Derek Birdsall and Romek Marber. The finished collection of 70 covers acts as a panorama of contemporary graphic design and illustration: from Peter Saville’s glacial typography for Homer and David Shrigley’s sinister drawing for Freud, to the elaborate sculpture on Julie Verhoeven’s F. Scott Fitzgerald cover.
For the 60th anniversary of Penguin Classics in 2006, the architect Ron Arad, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, fashion designer Paul Smith, video artist Sam Taylor-Wood (Taylor-Johnson), and the graphic designers Fuel were each invited to select a favourite title from the series and design it as they wished. The results were five distinctive designs ranging from Paul Smith’s embroidered silk cover that dressed up Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Ron Arad’s stripped-down binding for The Idiot that let the book become its own cover. The set of five hardcover books was released as Penguin Designer Classics and limited to 1,000 copies each. Priced at £100, they sold out upon release.
In 2010, Penguin Decades was launched to mark the publisher’s 75th birthday, featuring some of the great books published in Britain from the 1950s to the 80s and original cover designs by Peter Blake, Zandra Rhodes, Alan Aldridge and John Squires. Five years later, having turned 80, Penguin released Little Black Classics, a set of 80 titles priced at 80p each, which echoed the series of mini books created for its 60th birthday. The ambitions of the project and the tight budget combined to shape the cover design. Jim Stoddart devised a simple black-and-white, typographic cover and made some visual references to Penguin cover designs from the past, such as placing a wider white stripe in the middle as an allusion to the original Penguin tri-band covers. The new series is accompanied by a simple but clever interactive website that invites its visitors to explore the collection.
These new paperbacks continued to celebrate Penguin’s ‘extraordinary design heritage’ as well as Allen Lane’s democratising mission, both of which gave Penguin books their distinctive identity from the outset and lasting popularity around the world.
Today, 70 years on from the publication of the first Jan Tschichold Classics, Jim Stoddart, Penguin Art Director since 2001 introduces the colourful, small-format Pocket Penguins. Developed in tandem with the multi-million selling Little Black Classics launched in 2015, The Pocket Penguins’ typographical covers use a new palette to denote the works’ original language, as Tschichold’s Classics did in the 40s. The new logo developed for these series frees the Penguin from the confines of its orange ‘lozenge’ on Classics for the first time in over 50 years.
(Portrait) Selection of Penguin Books' Logos, © Penguin Books.
Detail of an experimental layout by Jan Tschichold, with the assistance of Erick Kellegaard Frederiksen, 1948, © Penguin Books.
Detail of Penguin Books Letterhead template design, © Penguin Books.
Detail of book cover design for Penguin Great Ideas 'On Art and Life', (Book Author: John Ruskin), © Design Museum Collection.
Detail of book cover design for Penguin Books, 'Martha and Hanwell', (Book Author: Zadie Smith), © Design Museum Collection.
Detail of Penguin Books edition of George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of book cover design for Penguin Great Ideas 'On Friendship', (Book Author: Michel de Montaigne), © Design Museum Collection.
Allen Lane launches the first set of twelve Penguin paperback books by contemporary authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. Each book sells for sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes
Penguin becomes an independent from Lane’s former employer, Bodley Head. It distributes its books from the crypt of the Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road, London where a fairground slide is installed to bring deliveries down from the street
Allen Lane launches a non-fiction imprint after overhearing someone at a King’s Cross station bookstall mistakenly ask for ‘one of those Pelican books’. The first Pelican book is George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism.
German typographer Jan Tschichold is appointed head of design and devises rigorous design templates for all Penguin’s books. He persuades Allen Lane to accept illustrated covers for some books
After Tschichold’s return to Switzerland, the more conservative Hans Schmoller takes charge of design at Penguin
Introduction of the vertical grid designed by Erik Ellegaard Frederiksen in place of the original horizontal grid refined by Tschichold for Penguin Fiction
Appointment of the Italian art director Germano Facetti as head of design at Penguin
Facetti charges Romek Marber with redesigning the Penguin Crime series and commissions striking photogram covers for the Penguin Modern Poets series from Peter Barrett, Roger Mayne and Alan Spain
Penguin Classics are redesigned under the art direction of Germano Facetti. The covers eschew colour in favour of black backgrounds, accompanied by classical art and photography for the first time.
Allen Lane dies and Penguin is acquired by S. Pearson and Son Ltd.
Derek Birdsall is commissioned to redesign all Penguin’s education titles, including the University series of books. Facetti leaves Penguin
Mike Dempsey and Ken Carroll devise a constructivist-inspired grid for the King Penguin series of contemporary fiction with illustrations by Andrzej Klimowski
Steve Kent’s Classics grid introduced – a more traditional approach harking back to the designs of the 50s which reintroduces colour coding to a narrow strip on the spine.
The Penguin 60s, a set of small classics and contemporary works, capture the imagination of readers worldwide, selling over 10 million copies.
A new image-led Penguin Classics template is launched, with the author’s name in Penguin orange in a black box.
The Great Ideas of political, social and philosophical books is designed by David Pearson with art director Jim Stoddart
The Penguin design team responsible for the Great Ideas series is nominated for the Design Museum's Designer of the Year prize.
Launch of the Pocket Penguin 70s series of paperbacks to celebrate Penguin's 70th birthday, with 70 designers invited to create one cover each
Penguin Designer Classics is commissioned to celebrate sixty years of Penguin Classics, for which five leading designers are invited to each choose a favourite title and design the work with complete freedom
The Clothbound Classics – hardbacks designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith –are launched.
The Penguin Decades series is published to celebrate Penguin's 75th anniversary, with original cover designs created by Peter Blake, Zandra Rhodes, Alan Aldridge and John Squires
Little Black Classics, launched to mark Penguin's 80th birthday, is designed by Jim Stoddart, who makes a number of references to Penguin cover designs from the past
Penguin launches the Pocket Penguins in the original size to fit the Isokon Penguin Donkey.
Penguin Portrait: Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors, 1935-1970
Author: Steven Hare
Publisher: Penguin Books (1995)
The New Typography: A Handbook for Modern Designers
Author: Jan Tschichold
Publisher: University of California Press (2006; original ed. 1928)
Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography
Author: Ruari McLean
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press (1997)
Identity Kits: A Pictorial Survey of Visual Signals
Authors: Alan Fletcher and Germano Facetti
Publisher: Studio Vista (1971)
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Designs of the Year
Designs of the Year is the Design Museum's exhibition of the most innovative, interesting and forward-looking design of all kinds, from around the world.