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Monday, April 04, 2011

Design Canon: - 'Penguin by Design' <(")

Ever since I can remember, whenever I've walked up to a shelve of books the Penguin publishing brand instinctively and unconsciously stands out to me. I've always dismissed this notion of how a Penguin book is always appearing in my hand until, I had to think who was my design hero. We are told to never judge a book by its cover, as bad design doesn't necessarily mean a bad story. The history of Penguin publishing explains the difficulty of book design in an increasingly competitive market; to create a strong brand identity, and still appeal to a mass market by use of thrilling visuals. 
(Penguin logo)Ref1

Penguin was established in 1935 by Allen Lane, the managing director of limited edition book publishers The Bodley Head. The idea was to reprint fiction and non fiction titles in an attractive paperback edition, capitalising on what other publishers didn't seem to feel was important; accessible, well presented, cheap pocket editions. After ten years the word paperback and Penguin became synonymous. 

In march 1947 Jan Tschichold took over in production and typography of publications, the printers were re-educated in the importance of consistency with composition rules of which to structure the work. Before his arrival type was not being correctly letter spaced leaving awkward holes. Type looked standard and ordinary as all the features of which were left up to the individual printers.

Tschichold did little to the main elements of the horizontal design but instead tweaked certain aspects,  for example; Bodoni extra bold replaced Gill Sans. Thanks to his refinements the three paneled design provided strong visual language, there was a definitive clarity between author, title, and publisher through use of two type weights and a bolder typographic style consequently creating a benchmark achieved by no other publishing company. 

(Left - Initial cover - Edward Young.  
Right - Shows Tschichold's refinements to the cover design.)Ref2

However by the 1950's Penguin had over 700 titles in print all with a relatively similar cover design, which had become very hard to differentiate. Competitors were also manufacturing more modern approaches, leaving the horizontal grid looking boring and unimaginative by comparison. 
Hans Schmoller had an idea to change the horizontal grid to vertical to modernise cover design, allowing a continuation of brand identity but a new overall visual. For the first time different typefaces were introduced for certain authors to provide author identity. Despite the change, there was a restriction of whether to intrude on the coloured borders and thus impose upon the brand, this led to clumsy composition and therefore an off-putting visual language. Although it is evident how designers are trying to progress to a more contemporary approach in my opinion the intrusive artwork and various types appear to just sit on top of the vertical grid. As further progression was made, photographs became introduced and the graduating tones allows the image to blend in, which is more visually pleasing.

The horizontal and vertical grids allowed for a strong brand identity but displayed little variation and were very restrictive in regards to space, colour and typography. Originally these early examples were very fresh and distinctive but as time wore on they became a plain sea of orange and white titles, their presence formed a background to the unattractive yet bolder designs of their competition. The 60s 'represented change' for the company, drastic editorial adjustments needed to be made to keep up with the interests of modern society. 
Clear acknowledgement of audience is then demonstrated within each sub series, each composition targeting a specific audience. For example the Education series of 1971 displays large bold black type set on a white background which allows visual ease when selecting a title. Even the spine is instantaneously recognisable the audience can see what they're looking for without wasting time picking up the wrong book. This bold typographic style is repeated on the front, often highlighted and complimented through use of humorous illustrations. The daunting topic of education is therefore made bearable and approachable to students, which successfully addresses their audience. 

(Education series)Ref3

Penguin have always concentrated on sensitivity of design in relation to content, which spoke for the quality of its publishing setting the highest possible standard. However "the financial uncertainties of the early 1970s brought the inevitable shift away from the intrinsic value of books themselves towards the profit orientated nature of modern publishing."Ref4 Commercial pressure meant book covers became tie-ins to film and television series, promoting across both media platforms as a creative strategy to transfer the financial success of popular culture. The earliest example of a tie-in is the 1953 publication of the Quatermass Experiment, a BBC television series about the British Space programme. The book combines the classic tripartite style, with an illustrated imitation of the programmes opening credits, linking the two mediums. The covers were no way near as clever or visually simulating but the public are attracted to the familiar and thus will buy into fads or franchises in order to be seen as fashionable. 

(TV credits)Ref5

 (Cover tie-in)Ref6

The original cover design of the tripartite or horizontal grid is still found on a few books today. Coloured upper and lower sections categorise genres, concealed within each was the Penguin name and of course the infamous logo. Up until recently the penguin logo appeared on every publication in one place or another, drawn by Edward Young in 1935 it is now no longer thought to be necessary. The middle was left white to display, author and title.  This composition is “now regarded affectionately as classics of style.”Ref7

Despite eras where it was not possible to create outstanding design, it is evident the company are proud of their development. Their idea has always been to maintain a high standard of publishing and brand continuity, reinforcing the founding ideas of attractive, cheap, accessible literature. Penguin are a world renowned, trusted and quality publishing company and even in todays chaotic digital age they still manage to stand out amongst a shelve of design. My design hero 'King' Penguin. 

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Ref 4 - Phil Baines (2005). Penguin By Design. London, Penguin. p162

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Ref 7 - Phil Baines (2005). Penguin By Design. London, Penguin. p52

Phil Baines (2005). Penguin By Design. London, Penguin. 

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