Picture a Penguin Classic, the proper old school kind. A beaten-up paper back with that dusty orange hue spanning across the cover split in the middle by a creamy white band, where the title and author are starkly spelt out in Gill Sans. At the top is the delicately rounded cartouche emblazoned with the legend ‘Penguin Books’ and then at the bottom is the surprisingly comic little penguin, beak poised upwards at a perky angle.
It’s a simple formula really. The timeless Gill Sans typeface, robust blocks of colour, a quirky touch and the most important factor in good design: consistency. By stripping things back, Penguin had radically changed the face of the publishing industry and its approach to strong, coherent design. While the contents of a book is undeniably important, Penguin complemented that by creating a distinct visual language for their covers.
Allen Lane was already a publisher when in 1934 he found himself waiting at Exeter station, returning to London after a weekend visit to Agatha Christie’s place. He wanted something decent to read on the train, but all he could find were poor quality reprints of Victorian novels. Lane immediately saw that there was a yawning gap waiting to be filled: he decided to set up a publishing house that would produce well-printed, quality paper backs priced at sixpence each (the same as a packet of cigarettes, as it happens).
It’s easy to overlook the fact that in 1935 the concept of producing affordable paper back editions of ‘proper’ literature was radical. Previously, the ‘proper’ stuff would have been printed in expensive, aspirational hardback amid Lane’s outlook effectively democratised the publishing business. However, it’s Penguin’s design ethos that really highlights just how revolutionary the whole enterprise was. Lane established enduring aesthetic principles, eschewing the usual gaudy, illustrated book covers favoured in the 1930s for a cohesive, slick aesthetic. All Penguin books followed the same layout and typography and the rigorous colour-coding system (including green for crime fiction, dark blue for biographies and cerise for travel and adventure) was starkly different to everything else on offer. Penguin had a distinct, consistent design identity.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1940s that Penguin’s design legacy was really en sured, care of a certain Jan Tschichold. A German typographer, with an unerring attention to detail and a modernist outlook, Tschichold was only at Penguin for a couple of years but certainly left his mark in the form of the Penguin Composition Rules. While just a mere four pages, this booklet details all the various typographic instructions for editors and compositors.
Thrilling stuff right? I know, design guidelines don’t exactly make for entertaining reading material. But it’s easy to forget that the best designers operate in this strange space, straddling creative vision and painstaking attention to detail. Go wild – as long as you stick to the guidelines. And this is where Tschichold was so masterful. He understood that Penguin’s strong design identity was exactly what made it special and accordingly drew up the rigorous Penguin Composition Rules. This ensured that all-important consistency that any good design adheres to. But it’s also key that the aesthetic doesn’t end up stagnating.
Tschichold refreshed Penguin’s look, introducing the woodcut illustrations on the cover of the classics series, and overseeing the redesign of the horizontal grid cover into a vertical one. He retained the all-important visual spirit of Penguin, yet subtly revitalised it – nodding to both its heritage and future. Penguin diversified away from the standard classic cover in the 1960s, introducing a visually arresting cover image but keeping the trademark horizontal band of colour at the top, with the series, title, author, price and logo printed in Gill Sans. Penguin’s design remained compelling (even provocative on occasion) but it maintained key elements of its graphic heritage, and could all be produced systematically on a mass scale.
Penguin covers are a real design mainstay nowadays – to the extent that you can buy ‘Penguin merch’. I’m sure we’ve all clocked the odd Penguin Classic canvas bag being toted about on campus. Or you could buy a Penguin Classic mug, a teatowel, an umbrella, even wallpaper. Yes, it’s a ubiquitous sight now, but that’s what happens to real icons. Thanks to striking, clean design, all anchored down by a tireless adherence to consistency, Penguin built an aesthetic reputation that is arguably more notable than their literary one.