Penguin Book Covers (1935)

Edward Young

Penguin’s cover for Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Penguin founded their design ethos of covers in the same fashion as their ethos for the books — make them accessible, and make them cheap. Penguin wanted books to be available to as many people as possible, to let the lesser off share in the wonder that is the written word. To do this they published all their books in paperback, a brand-new format which was far superior to hardback and leather-bound versions. To go along with the paperback, Penguin realised that they would need a distinctive cover design to attract people to their books, but which could be adapted so that their brand would be recognisable to anyone who seen them. A young office Junior, Edward Young, came up with the cover design, featuring two horizontal orange stripes, the company logo and name, and the names of the novel and author. This simple design allowed Penguin to simply change the title and author for each new publication, massively reducing costs of designing and printing.

Penguin Books published through other names such as Pelican, these would also incorporate the distinctive horizontal stripe designs which had become synonymous with the paperback format. Later, some designs became more elaborate, incorporating silhouetted designs, such as these for a series of crime novels.

This format is still used by Penguin in their books today, and many people buy their books to adorn their bookshelves in orange and white flashes — something Penguin have taken to their advantage in their marketing. Many experiments have been taken in the standardised format. For example, a recently released copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Penguins cover for Nineteen Eighty Four

This uses the orange and white regalia, however has incorporated printing techniques which weren’t availiable at the origional time of publshing to communicate the concept of censorship and revisionist history — some of the main themes of the book. There are two black bars, and printed on top of these in a glossed ink are the title of the book and the author. Saul Bass can be quoted saying “I want to set the audience up for what is coming, make them expectant”, this is the sort of simplistic design that can effectively communicate to an audience what they can expect from a book (or movie in Bass’s case) without even opening the page. It’s said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but then, is that not why they are decorated at all?

The covers of the books have remained almost unchanged in their design for decades — they are still typeset in Bodoni Ultra Bold, they still feature a similar logo, and they are still made using the same colour system. Young based the design off an Albatross series from 1932 designed by Hans Mardesteig which used similarly simple typography and colours.

Penguin were exceptionally successful in setting up a system, not only to produce their paperback novels, but also for the design of their covers. I often pass a Penguin book on the shelf of a bookshop and imagine it lying on my own shelf, however I also keep in mind the adage of Mark Twain “A classic is something that everybody says is great, and want to read, but no one actually has” (paraphrasing a bit there, but the message is the same), and that although their books do appeal to me aesthetically, that is often the only reason I would have for buying them — when they all look the same, you only need one anyway. Penguin made a marketable visual style that is instantly recognisable on any bookshelf, whether five books or fifty. and with it have solidified their place in design history.