The clerk was sent to the zoo. Twenty-one-year-old Edward Young
was a junior member of British publishing firm The Bodley Head when
he was charged with creating the logo for the new Penguin line of
books in 1935. So he headed for the London Zoo to find living
models in full feather.
The story has been much told but it is time to retell it:
Penguin Books turned 75 years
old this summer and is reiterating its founding legend in multiple
media, including a
book, a design-your-own-cover
website project and an
A shop window celebrating 75 years of Penguin Books (left) and a
customized Penguin cover enabled by the website Speaking to the Past.
The young Mr. Young was charged with his task by publisher Allen
Lane. While returning from a weekend in the country visiting one of
his authors, Agatha Christie, Lane noticed how station shops
offered a poor choice of books to rail travelers.
He came up with the idea of inexpensive paperbacks, sold at
sixpence each, then the price of a pack of cigarettes and packaged
with a similar philosophy: a logo and name, simple type and color
coding (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for
The first 10 titles included work by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha
Christie, and Ariel, the biography of Percy Shelley by Andre
Maurois, a once-popular title no one reads anymore. The second 10
included Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. The first million
Penguin books sold in 10 months; three million sold in the first
Penguin covers from the 1940s and '50s: The War of the Worlds,
1984 and The Grapes of Wrath. (all images Flickr:
This founding myth, however, is not quite so neat a tale as Lane
told. The idea and very name, Penguin, were inspired by Albatross, a
German publishing firm that produced similar paperbacks from about
1932 on. Germany had paperbacks even earlier, and later the
coverless Reklam series was even cheaper and smaller than English
Still, in the United Kingdom, and soon the United States, the
impact was huge. “The Penguin Books are splendid value for
declared George Orwell in 1936, “so splendid that if the other
publishers had any sense they would combine against them and
But it is Penguin's design that was novel and has kept its story
alive all these years. Penguin's original cover design was rightly
chosen among the great British designs honored in
a set of commemorative postage stamps, celebrated along with
the Anglepoise lamp and the Spitfire fighter airplane.
Lane made books into packaged goods, like the cigarettes and
chocolates beside them on the railroad shop racks. The basic cover
design—with its side-glancing bird, “Penguin Books” in the
cartouche above the author and title names set simply in Gill
Sans—remains a classic. But it was refined and systemized by the
Tschichold between 1946 and 1949, and then redefined and given
new life by Germano Facetti
in the 1960s. Under their influence Penguin became an exemplar of
Iterations of the Penguin from Patrick Cramsies' The Story
of Graphic Design (Abrams).
The Penguin design program was the subject of
a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2005, accompanied
by a book by Phil Baines, Penguin by
Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005. And the evolution of the
logo was included in Patrick Cramsies' The
Story of Graphic Design; the character's modification began
almost immediately, from the original side view to its basic
head-on form established just before World War II.
Creating a four-page booklet of design guidelines, Tschichold
established a grid system that regulated almost every aspect of the
design. These also governed the classics line, established in
The Italian designer Germano Facetti gave the line a new format
in 1961. Facetti in turn hired the Polish-born designer Romek Marber to
redesign the Penguin Crime series. It was typical of the evolution
of Penguins: Marber produced a new template, with hopped-up green,
sans serif type and abstract illustrations.
I somehow ended up with one of those Penguin Crime books. It is
probably the oldest Penguin I own: a 1962 detective mystery by
Simenon (the prolific mystery writer left off his given name,
Georges) about Inspector Maigret and his scruples. The price: two
shillings, sixpence. The cover—or really, the illustration—is
credited to Edwin Marks: a corny graphic of figures on a seesaw and
a photograph shot through a repro screen apparently the grade of
I am not sure how I ended up with this Simenon, except it was
sometime in the early 1990s. Could I have stolen it from a
bed-and-breakfast while traveling in the U.K.? It is in remarkably
good shape, considering. While early Penguins are rare, millions
were made, and they often turn up—usually tattered and torn—in used
Copies of Penguin Crime series books in the author's personal
collection, including Simenon's Maigret Has Scruples (left).
We forget how cheap they were. By contrast, a recent series of
Simenons—with an odd golden-section-inspired shape (4.625 inches by
6.5 inches, or 12 by 16.5 cm)—is wonderfully and richly designed.
But at $13 for a book that a mystery fan will read in a few hours
it seems wildly over priced. (The cover credits the series to Jesse
Like most book folk, I have a good number of Penguins on my
shelves, runs of orange, black and green spines here and there
signaling several volumes of a single author. In college I was a
heavy Penguin user. So were we all, in my ambitiously intellectual
circle, between reading Hegel and Levi Strauss and Foucault. A
friend asked for birthday presents by the linear inch of Penguins.
By one accounting, done in 2005, the Penguin classics catalog
included 1,082 titles and a complete set would weight 750 pounds
and occupy 77 linear feet of shelf space.
The stern black-backed classics contrasted with the
lighter-orange bound British and American titles. How many hues of
orange survive exposure to the sun in my collection! My copy of
Wilkie Collins Woman in White for some reason is a
Creamsicle shade of pastel orange.
The author's British-only version of Nabokov's Ada, featuring an
orchid on the cover.
There was special satisfaction in finding a British-only
mid-1970s edition of an American title, of Nabokov's Ada,
with an orchid on the cover. Or a Faulkner in Adriatic pale-green
binding instead of the familiar U.S. vintage livery. (Today's
green, by the way, is a harder, more metallic verdigris than the
old softer, creamier hue.)
The format for the Penguin Classics included using a a great
painting or sculpture on the cover. These changed over the years:
Great Expectations went from a fairly confusing detail from
a Turner of a country blacksmith, to a mournful twilight gate from
Caspar David Friedrich. But usually it worked. You can learn a lot
about book by playing the game of picking an imaginary piece of
Penguin cover art: learn about a painting by deciding what novel it
would be right for.
The classics were reformatted in 1986 and 2003. Later formats
for the classics included more color coding: purple for Latin and
Greek classics, red for British, yellow for continental and green
for books in other languages.
The Classics list grew at Penguin. The inclusions were
surprising and refreshing: my own shelves include Ernst Junger, the
long-lived World War I hero and Nazi apologist, and Charles
Siringo, the cowboy memoirist.
Of late, Penguin designers seem more focused on individual
covers, of which there are some good examples and some merely
competent. To show it still values design, the company offers
special editions and projects. In 2004 art director Jim Stoddart
and junior designer David Pearson came up with the Great Ideas
series, which gave short classics new covers using typography and
graphics of the era of their origins. Recently, the company called
on Pentagram and a team led by Angus Hyland to create a new cover
format, using multiple illustrators, for a
new issue of two-dozen Nabokov titles (alas, they are not sold
in the U.S.) The company has also hired Ruben Toledo and Chris Ware
for covers and gotten attention with its recent tattoo artist
Designer Classics of 2007 included five titles published in
editions of a thousand and created by name designers. Ron Arad's
version of Dostoevsky's The Idiot had no cover but an
acrylic slipcase or box with Fresnel lens and visible glue in the
spine. Manolo Blahnik did Madame Bovary!
Penguin's latest design successes feature unique choices of
cover artists for individual titles or authors. But with such
enterprises, Penguin may have emphasized the individuality of
design too much. Its long-term achievement has been due less to
standout individual efforts than to powerful but flexible formats
and systems. And while these systems go back to Allen Lane and
Edward Young, it would be mistake to read Penguin's lesson as a
triumph of the D.I.Y. amateur that is so often mistakenly offered
up today. It was the superbly experienced, professional art
directors—Tschichold and his successors—who cleaned up, stipulated
and enforced formats. They are the ones we should thank.
Before we judged books by their covers, title pages were the place where design made a splash. Patton wonders what will become of print’s curtain raiser.
Section: Inspiration -
book design, print design, history, Voice
What are the possibilities for books beyond print? Willis explores a new chapter (or six) in web-based publishing.
Digital devices are creating new possibilities for reading, but don’t write off books just yet. Heller argues for the mutability and adaptability of print.
J. D. Salinger wrote vividly, of course, but he also
understood the importance of how words look on a page.
Caplan recalls meeting Holden Caulfield for the first time.
Section: Inspiration -
book design, Voice
AIGA is nearly 100 years old. They say you can’t teach an old dog new
tricks, which might be true. Fortunately, AIGA is a 22,000 person
strong organization, not an aging canine. We’re changing our membership
structure, and we couldn’t be happier about it.
Section: About AIGA -
AIGA chapters, membership
AIGA Design Legends Gala Program
Video: Carin Goldberg receives the 2009 AIGA Medal
RT @hyperakt: .@aigapittsburgh @aigadesign we’ve been holding monthly convos at the studio about race and diversity all year at the studio.…
8 minutes ago
RT @colab_inc: 1st REAL design project/ civil rights photog E. Wither. His work was propaganda then. Today: design. #AIGAtogether https://t…
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RT @AIGACentralPA: @holasmitha @AIGAdesign one of the biggest things we can do is give a voice & use our abilities of visual communication…
BMORE Inspired at Station North Arts District
July 26, 2016
Two AIGA Innovate Awards Granted to AIGA Baltimore
July 22, 2016