March Of The Penguins

The legendary British publisher has in recent years undergone a resurgence led by smart design and an inspired in-house team.

The book in my hands isn’t easy to place. The typography has an antiquated air, but that doesn’t stop the cover from looking utterly contemporary. There’s a stylized engraving of a cabin by a pond in the woods. “Rather than love, than money, than fame,” a quote at the top reads, “give me truth.” It’s a line from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and the book—a selection from Walden—is in the second series of Penguin’s hugely popular set of Great Ideas. The letterforms pressed deep into the creamy white cover feel so good that it’s hard to leave them alone. Everything about the slender volume is irresistible.

Penguin paperbacks look bolder, more creative, and more relevant than they have in years. The books seem to radiate the publisher’s essence again, though this is a new kind of Penguin, fully plugged into the times. Design is a key part of the revival; and the editors and designers at Penguin Press in London, who polish the publisher’s crown jewels—its backlist of classics—can take much of the credit.

“There is a sense of trying to continue the tradition,” says Adam Freudenheim, a publisher at Penguin Press, “as well as a sense that this is commercially the best thing for us to be doing.” Freudenheim, an American, joined the publisher in March 2004 to oversee the black Penguin Classics and silver Modern Classics, after spells at Yale University Press in London and Granta.

“We’re all receptive to having things be design led and letting the art department loose on things,” he says, “because often the best designs come from designers working out a solution to a problem rather than being directed in a micromanagerial way by the editors and managers.” That simple but often unheeded insight—allow designers to give their best—does much to explain Penguin’s hugely boosted bookshop presence and dramatic turnaround in the past five or six years.

To grasp the significance of this change, you have to remember that the publisher once held a place right at the heart of British cultural life. For decades Penguin was virtually synonymous with paperback. This national institution was founded in 1935 with the aim of bringing significant writing to the widest audience at the lowest cost. It has educated, enlightened, and provided pleasure to millions of readers who revered the Penguin logo with a loyalty and affection unequalled by any other publisher. But by the 1980s Penguin was drifting. Other publishers had introduced more inventive ways of spotlighting the paperback. Penguin’s cover designs were often ordinary and sometimes crudely commercial. The long-running series looked tired, and it seemed that the great years were over.

Jim Stoddart, art director of Penguin Press, has led the design revival. Deceptively soft-spoken, the 34-year-old juggles the demands of a hectic department located on the eighth floor of the former Shell-Mex House, an 1886 London landmark with a 1930s Deco facade overlooking the Thames. Stoddart liaises with editors and salespeople about every facet of a book’s presentation, commissioning his in-house team and freelance designers while somehow finding time to keep his hand in as a designer. His cover for Michael Moore’s best-selling Stupid White Men invented a style that has become generic for this kind of political rant.

“Jim sees the whole picture,” Freudenheim says. “Although he’s obviously incredibly design aware, he also understands the needs and demands of the publisher and selling books. Even if he hasn’t read the book, he wants to understand what it’s really about and have an image that’s true to the spirit of the book.”

Stoddart is assisted by designers David Pearson, Antonio Colaco, and Coralie Bickford-Smith; full-time picture researcher Samantha Johnson; and one part-time picture researcher. Freudenheim and Stoddart encourage them to pursue the unexpected. No other British publisher uses photographs with Penguin’s brilliant consistency. “It’s a key part of our design heritage,” Stoddart says. “But we need to justify it. Almost every book uses a huge amount of picture research.”

In 2000 Stoddart’s predecessor, Pascal Hutton, oversaw the redesign of the company’s Modern Classics, a concerted attempt to appeal to a new generation of readers. The series had been retitled “Twentieth-Century Classics” in the 1990s; it now became simply “Modern Classics.” The covers were a stunning return to form. The picture took up most of the space, while the title and author’s name, plus the Penguin logo, were tucked away on a narrow silver panel at the bottom—and the spines and back covers were also silver.

The designers commissioned many of the images, which were often arrestingly oblique. “We still get feedback from members of the public who long for the previous eau du Nil spine,” Stoddart says. “But you have to reinvent it. These have to sit next to modern fiction in bookshops, and feel confident and attractive. The commissioning of photography was a key part of that.”

The black Penguin Classics covers, redesigned in 2003, presented Stoddart with a similar challenge. As British designer Phil Baines observes in Penguin by Design (March 2006), a survey of 70 years of Penguin covers, the previous series style, introduced in 1985, had “none of the tension between old and new which characterized the previous ‘black’ design,” by Germano Facetti in 1963. The type was traditional-looking Sabon spaced too tightly and trapped within a box rule.

Penguin Classics are also published in the United States, and the new design had to satisfy the New York office. Here too the centered typography—a combination of Modernist Futura and Mrs Eaves, designed by Zuzana Licko—is placed at the bottom, allowing the image to dominate the cover. The white band reading “Penguin Classics” was so effective as branding that it is being applied to the Modern Classics. Again the designers use a mixture of existing art and carefully art-directed commissions. The new H. G. Wells series, featuring vibrant screen prints by Kate Gibb, pulls off the tricky task of making an out-of-fashion author look compellingly up-to-date. (The simultaneous arrival of Spielberg’s film of The War of the Worlds also helped.)

You might view all this as no more than a smart publisher ought to do to tempt a reluctant new generation of readers away from their PlayStations and iPods. With the Great Ideas series Penguin has pushed out into fresh territory. The set of 20 titles, launched last year, offers hugely influential texts by some of the world’s great writers and thinkers—Seneca, Montaigne, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Engels—for half the price of an ordinary paperback. “Their original audiences plunged into these books and came out feeling different—inspired, sharpened, moved, infuriated, distressed, beaten down,” says editorial director Simon Winder, who conceived the series.

Stoddart gave the task of designing Great Ideas to Pearson, who buried himself in the St. Bride Library—one of the world’s great resources on printing—studying examples of typography from the periods in which the books were published. He also brought in Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, typographic designers and type historians, and Alastair Hall, a former classmate of Pearson’s, to design several of the covers and act as unofficial “quality control.” Although Pearson’s proposals didn’t entirely meet the brief that the books should look contemporary, the editors reacted positively when he showed them at an early meeting.

“You need a commitment from management,” Pearson says. “We got that from our managing director, who stuck his neck out and said, ‘Let’s just go with the idea.’ He didn’t even have a problem with the lack of a logo on the cover—simple things like that, which could have changed the whole feel.”

The Great Ideas volumes are the size of the original Penguin paperbacks and resemble pamphlets. All the covers feature an excerpt from the text, and the designers have handled the typographic interpretations with great aplomb. Many look like title pages; some are lavishly ornamented. Jonathan Swift’s satirical fable A Tale of a Tub has the raw jumbled letterforms of an eighteenth-century handbill. Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto is set in an austere sans serif, signaling the political revolutions that the book helped to precipitate. The covers are printed in black and red on white uncoated board. “We liked the idea of them getting dirty after you buy them,” Stoddart notes. And the typographic elements are debossed, making the books a pleasure to touch.

The 20 titles have sold 2.5 million copies to date. Penguin was short-listed for Designer of the Year for Great Ideas by the Design Museum, London, and the books won a silver award from the design organization D&AD. The first series was published in the United States in September, and a new set of 20 has just appeared in the United Kingdom, using blue as the second color, with texts by Confucius, Plato, Voltaire, and Camus.

It is Penguin’s habit to celebrate its anniversary every ten years and remind readers of its unique status—this time around with Baines’s book, a biography of founder Allen Lane, and an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Penguin’s 70th birthday was also an opportunity to sell books. The Pocket Penguins, conceived for the occasion, are a set of 70 slim paperbacks showcasing short works and extracts by classic and contemporary authors such as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi, Zadie Smith, and Jonathan Safran Foer. Stoddart and John Hamilton—art director of the Penguin General division, which publishes more commercial titles—came up with the idea of asking 70 people to design a cover in just seven days for £70. They each supervised 35 titles, swapping authors between them from the Penguin Press and Penguin General lists. (All 70 titles can be viewed here.)

In return for the modest fee, Penguin offered the chance to produce a personal response to the texts, with none of the publisher’s usual marketing and design input. “The only thing we told them was to make sure that the author’s name and title were legible,” Stoddart says. The Pocket Penguins offer a fascinating informal survey of graphic-design trends and tastes in Britain today. The art directors brought in regular Penguin collaborators such as Jamie Keenan and gray318, design legends Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver, and a trio of distinguished 1960s cover designers, Romek Marber, Derek Birdsall, and Alan Aldridge. Taken as a set—it’s possible to buy all 70 in a box—the covers jump with graphic energy. An unpredictable eclecticism rules the day.

“We’re having a very good time,” Stoddart says. “There’s a lot of focus on Penguin design and lots of exposure. It gives us more influence. People trust you and your decision-making a little bit more. Design is not necessarily just another ingredient that goes into making things sell. It can be the main ingredient.”

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