Winter 2004

‘Type-only Penguins sell a million’ shock [EXTRACT

Penguin uses design to revitalise its back catalogue with Great Ideas and a revived Reference Library

Since its innovative start nearly 70 years ago, the design of Penguin books has had a rollercoaster ride. Crudely speaking, its design history runs something like this: 1935: gatecrashed publishing in a riot of colour and Gill Sans. Late 1950s: bowed with extreme reluctance to the inevitable and introduced illustrative elements. 1961: introduces Romek Marber’s grid. Mid-1960s: embraced the image wholeheartedly (and occasionally at the expense of good taste and loyal authors). 1970s on: largely lost its way and ultimately its identity. 2000 on: begins to re-emerge as a strong and identifiable brand. And while design for fiction more or less disappeared – its covers camouflaged in a sea of brash mediocrity – Penguin always remained distinctive and brand-conscious in discrete series; backlist staples including Poetry, Reference and the Classics never strayed too far from the ideals, if not the actual look, established by such as Tschichold, Schmoller and Germano Facetti.

In the best Penguin design there has always been a strand of continuity, a family tree that traces its roots back to great or significant ancestors. And it is largely this continuity and kinship that makes two new ventures stand out so clearly: the rebranded Reference Library; and the occasionally controversial Great Ideas series – twenty books by radical thinkers throughout history that are supposed to have changed the world.

Under the art direction of Jim Stoddart, David Pearson was the in-house designer responsible for both. He came up with an original yet familiar look for the Reference Library, but pulled out all the stops on Great Ideas, producing thirteen of the covers himself, with the others delegated to a fellow ex-student, Alistair Hall, and Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, their former tutors at Central St Martins. With the covers largely relying on type, clear family ties can be traced both to Nicolete Gray – a major point of reference for Baines and Dixon (see ‘Letter Rich Lisbon’, pp.26-33) – and to Penguin’s A-format origins of 1935.

‘We were really trying not to be retro,’ Stoddart stresses, with regard to the Reference look. ‘We don’t want to hark back to what was modern then; we’ve always got to be modern now. It’s meant to feel fresh – not that they’re old books.’

The Great Ideas covers are strikingly different from pretty well anything else in bookshops today. So much white cannot fail to catch the eye: they look like books with their covers missing. Black and red debossed type on plain uncoated white gives them an extraordinarily tactile feel, like Letterpress gone berserk. Assailing more than one sense is a sure way to engage emotional involvement. (In the 1960s it was seriously proposed to add a garlic aroma to Len Deighton’s Penguin cookery titles.) They may get grubby quickly, but the designers neither mind nor care: they will look well used and by implication pronounce favourably on their owners – of whom there are plenty. It appears that a million Great Ideas titles have been sold already.

‘I’ve felt for years,’ says series editor Simon Winder, ‘that there are frustrating limits on what it’s possible to sell in Classics and that we could make other kinds of books out of what we already have.’ Rebutting well reported accusations of timidity and cynical marketing, Winder believes the titles have an internal consistency and continuity of their own: ‘These are twenty major works and they all, in effect, talk to each other: later writers revered – or reviled – the earlier writers in interesting ways. We were very keen to make sure they did not for a moment look like a new "Classics" range, that they should look sufficiently "all over the place" and informal.’ Jim Stoddart’s direction was consequently deliberately limited: each cover should contain title, author name and a key quote from the texts. ‘He stressed that the covers could be very much design led,’ Pearson explains.

‘It seemed obvious to go straight to the text for inspiration and let the flavour of the writing directly influence the look of the cover.’ The designs bring the insides of the book, the unashamedly decorative or ornate nature of a title page, to the outside. And Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, with their extensive knowledge of the history of the printed word, and experience in designing books as well as covers, were a natural choice for Pearson.

The designers simply used styling contemporary to the texts – but only as a starting point. Great Ideas could easily have turned into a visual history lesson but Pearson found that half the fun was finding more abstract links to the subject matter. Phil Baines’s take on Roman inscriptions with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a confident masterclass on the history and use of type: ‘Breaking the author’s, and Penguin’s, name over two lines,’ notes an admiring Pearson. ‘I don’t think anyone else could get away with it!’

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