Never Judge a Penguin by it’s Cover?

Book covers have been almost as important as what’s inside them for as long as they have existed.

A cover encompasses so much more than a shell to protect the pages inside; they hold all of the information which anyone would need to know about the book at a glance. Beyond this didactic role the jacket or cover of a book fulfils an abstract, yet important need. It is through book covers that publishing businesses build a recognisable brand. It’s about perception; the way in which a reader makes subconscious connections to the world of the book, and so they reflect upon the author as well. In this piece I will be examining the role of cover design in the success of publishing giant Penguin.

Penguin as Innovator

In many ways no other publisher has been so vital within the book industry as Penguin has. Their book covers have had a leading role shaping the brand, and have ensured Penguin’s heritage of good design.

Penguin was formed by Sir Allen Lane and his brothers in July 1935, although the family had already been experienced in running a publishing business. Penguin’s direct ancestor was a firm called The Bodley Head, run by Allen’s uncle John Lane. In its time The Bodley Head was at the forefront of design, employing renowned illustrator Aubrey Beardsley as their art editor.

What set Penguin apart was their vision for inexpensive, mass market publishing. It was necessary that the books should look good; “I have never been able to understand why cheap books should not also be well designed, for good design is no more expensive than bad” said Sir Lane.


The original Penguin book covers featured the most pared back, simple designs imaginable. With a horizontal grid partitioning sections of text; the masthead, the book title and author, printed in the Eric Gill sans serif font and featuring the Penguin icon. They made use of colour coding, for instance using dark blue to denote biographies and orange for fiction.This classic design language would set out the blueprint of the company’s future self.

In the beginning, the roles of production manager and designer were both performed by Edward Young, who hand sketched all of the cover concepts himself along with the original Penguin, Puffin and Pelican logos. The renowned typographer Jan Tschichold took over as designer and gradually refined and built upon Young’s ideas. Tschichold’s main contribution was the so called Penguin Composition Rules, which were “a standardised practice for creating the covers for all of the books produced” distributed as a flyer. This brought an end to the inconsistencies which had occurred in the covers Young had published. Under Tschichold’s design “the standard format was and still is 180 x 111 mm, a golden rectangle” which allowed for greater clarity in dealing with printers.

Originally sold for sixpence each, the books were so affordable that for the first time almost anyone had access to them, a revolutionary idea at the time. A famous dilemma, as referenced in George Orwell’s book title Books v. Cigarettes, was between purchasing a Penguin, or a pack of 10 cigarettes for the same price.

Using Images and Paintings from the Wider World

Penguin grew to a point where it had market dominance, however the brand was not without competition. “Publishers such as Pan and Corgi had a more targeted readership and quite different approaches to marketing their titles” says designer Phil Baines. Therefore Baines argues “Penguin began to realise that the vertical grid, with its.. often old fashioned illustrations, was perhaps too reticent in the face of a competition using full-colour imagery and dynamic lettering” and needed to change something.     

It was under the art direction of Germano Facetti that Penguin developed a strong, modern visual brand. During the 1960’s Facetti updated the graphic themes of each of the Penguin, Puffin and Pelican series. When he brought his visual ideas to the renowned Penguin Classics series, “his crime, in [E.V] Rieu’s eyes, was to replace the spartan jackets with a reproduction of a painting, chosen to reflect the theme of each book”, which caused some internal disagreement. Facetti said that, “in designing for the Classics, it was assumed that the majority of the great works of literature have inspired works of art” and argued, “the provision of a visual frame of reference to the work of literature can be considered an additional service to the reader who is without immediate access to art galleries or museums”, an idea which remains relevant to this day.

This burgeoning connection to the arts was not without precedent. In 1944 the Penguin Modern Painters series was created by Sir Kenneth Clark to give “the wide public outside the art galleries” access to modern art. Penguin’s attempts to bring artistic works to a mass audience with their dedicated artist series and the use of images on their book covers, parallels their founding philosophy of inexpensive books that most people could afford to buy.

The mechanism by which they were able to do all of this, was mastering the craft of creating compelling book series.

“Series design provides a unique opportunity to utilise cumulative effect. For example, key content can be removed from one cover since it can be found on others in the series, which then promotes inquiry from book-to-book” – former Penguin designer Dave Pearson.

Facetti’s action to go pictorial on covers, although controversial at the time, was in keeping with the Penguin brand. It showed that Penguin understood their cultural context and were making efforts to claim a greater stake in it.

In House Design

From the early, production minded minimalists like Edward Young and Jan Tschichold, to the men trained in the visual languages of the modern age, like Phil Baines and Dave Pearson, cover design at Penguin has almost always remained in house.

One rare instance which contradicts this is the Designer Classics books, which marked the 60th anniversary of Penguin. Famous designers from the wider world were invited to create interpretations of classic Penguin titles.

“One might say that this was an attempt to engage with the complex fragmentation of modern visual culture, in which art and design intermix” – author on typography Robin Kinross.

Spanish shoe designer Manola Blahnik styled a cover for Madame Bovary, in a less than understated fashion. Sam Taylor-Johnson posed an image of a male model on the cover of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. Costing £100 per book, and only being produced in limited edition, it seemed that this was a very odd way to celebrate the founding philosophy of Penguin Classics.

Yet, it seems stranger still that “in reality, knowledge of, and pride in the company’s design heritage was not widespread; at least not in-house” according to Dave Pearson, designer of Penguin’s popular Great Ideas series. Perhaps this is because ever since Jan Tschichold created the Penguin Composition Rules, the designers at Penguin have lived in the background.


Penguin has had a number of imprints which operate to differentiate its publication series’. Two of the earliest and most influential of these were Puffin and Pelican.

Puffin was established as a picturebook brand, aimed solely at a young reader. Announced at the outbreak of the second world war, “The worst has happened… but evacuated children are going to need books more than ever… Let us get half a dozen out as soon as we can” said Sir Lane. This illustrates Lanes determination to publish, even if it meant trying new things. A plate based printing process called autolithography played an indispensable role in creating the Puffin series. “If the number of colours was carefully considered, autolithography offered reduced costs and more faithful rendition of an artist’s intent” said printer Geoffrey Smith. The use of these images and the Puffin logo created a distinctive brand, nonetheless recognisable as a Penguin subsidiary. Having cover images also set the Puffin range apart from all other Penguin books, which at the time had horizontal tripartite covers.   

© Purple Camel/Flickr, 2012

Pelican was another brand in the Penguin family, although “from the start there was no rigorous dividing line between Pelican and Penguin subject areas” says Baines. The Pelicans tended to veer towards more serious subject matter in terms of content, and featured a cover design similar to the standard Penguins, except that they made use of a light blue colour for some of the ruled sections, and the Pelican logo. In spite of the seemingly meaningless separation from the rest of Penguin, the brand was very popular; “Who would have imagined… there was a thirsty public anxious to buy thousands of copies of books on science, sociology, economics, archaeology, astrology and other equally serious subjects” said Sir Allen Lane.

In addition to Pelican and Puffin, Penguin tried to establish an academic imprint which they called Peregrine. This was later to become Penguin Education, headed up by Charles Clarke, with Derek Birdsall as consultant art director. The academic series used minimal design, but “the titles were the thing, I decided to exploit the varying widths of the spines typographically” says Birdsall.

Penguin revolutionised the publishing world by implementing its philosophy of book culture, even when to do so meant breaking with tradition. Robin Kinross talks of the way “In the great years of Penguin… the firm had become a British institution that one could seriously compare to the BBC” and it would seem self evident that the design language which they developed on their book covers is central in the company’s success.

By Jonathon Stephenson: Linkedin