When PENGUIN was founded in 1935 with the radical concept of producing inexpensive paperback editions of high quality books, it adopted an equally progressive approach to typography and cover design. Under Jan Tschichold in the 1940s and Germano Facetti in the 1960s, Penguin became an exemplar of book design.
Returning to London from a weekend at the Devon home of the crime writer Agatha Christie in 1934, the publisher Allen Lane scoured Exeter Station for something to read. All he could find were reprints of 19th century novels and Lane decided to found a publishing house to produce good quality paperbacks sold at sixpence each, the same price as a packet of cigarettes.
Lane’s secretary suggested Penguin as a “dignified, but flippant” name for the company and the office junior Edward Young was sent to sketch the penguins at London Zoo as its logotype. Young was then asked to design the covers of the first set of ten paperbacks to be published in summer 1935 including Ariel and A Farewell to Arms. Considering illustrated book covers to be trashy, Lane insisted on his following a simple horizontal grid for Penguin’s jackets in colours that signified the genre of each book: orange for fiction, green for crime, and blue for biography.
The rigorous application of colour, grid and typography in those early paperbacks instilled Penguin with a commitment to design from the start. The company then strengthened its design ethos under the direction of the German typographer Jan Tschichold (1902-1974) during the 1940s and the Italian art director Germano Facetti (1926-) in the 1960s.
The enduring principles of Penguin’s design were defined by Allen Lane when he founded the company in the mid-1930s, but it was not until the late 1940s that it adopted a disciplined and coherent approach to design under Jan Tschichold. Already established as an eminent writer on typography and a famous practitioner by the time he arrived at Penguin in 1946, Tschichold was more assertive at imposing his design philosophy than his predecessors.
Before his arrival the design of individual books had appeared cohesive, at least compared to those of rival publishers, but had varied with the views of the editor and printer. A firm believer in typographic systems, Tschichold designed a template for all Penguin books with designated positions for the title and author’s name with a line between the two. He unified the design of the front, spine and back and redrew Edward Young’s endearingly amateurish Penguin symbol in eight variations. Finally he produced a set of Composition Rules which, he insisted, were to be followed by Penguin’s typographers and printers to ensure that the same style was always applied.
Tschichold was equally rigorous in the design of special sets of books published by Penguin. These included Penguin Modern Painters, introduced in 1944 by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark to popularise modern art to “the wide public outside the art galleries”, and the Penguin Shakespeare Series, which had the same democratising objective for William Shakespeare’s plays. Among Tschichold’s innovations was to persuade Allen Lane to allow Penguin to take advantage of recent advances in printing by using illustration on the jackets of particular sets of books such as the Shakespeare Series.
In 1949 Tschichold returned to Switzerland after three highly productive years in which he had defined an intellectually rigorous and inspiring visual language for Penguin. His successor, the typographer Hans Schmoller (1916-1985) had a rich knowledge of type and unerring eye for detail, but was less radical in his approach and tended to refine Tschichold’s templates rather than inventing his own. Schmoller’s design for the 1950s architectural series, The Buildings of England written by the historian Nikolaus Pevsner, was modelled closely on Tschichold’s templates. However he did change the Penguin grid from horizontal to vertical in 1951. The vertical grid had been devised at Tschichold’s behest by the designer Erik Ellegaard Frederiksen, but was not adopted until Schmoller had modified it. The result was the division of the cover into three vertical stripes, which allowed enough space for illustration while maintaining the tri-partite division and the original 1930s colour coding so strongly associated with Penguin.
By the early 1960s Penguin, once a pioneer in book design, had lost its edge. In 1961 the company appointed the Italian art director Germano Facetti, who had studied architecture in Milan and worked for Domus magazine there before moving to London to design for Olivetti, then renowned for its inventive approach to contemporary design, as its new head of design. In an era when London’s fledgling graphic design scene was invigorated by the emergence of talented Britons like Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Derek Birdsall, and the arrival of the gifted US designers, such as Robert Brownjohn and Bob Gill, Facetti was charged with revitalising Penguin’s design tradition.
One of his most inspiring projects was the redesign of Penguin Crime. In 1962 Facetti commissioned the Polish-born designer Romek Marber, having admired his covers of The Economist, to redesign the series. Green was retained as the defining colour of Penguin Crime, but Marber refreshed it by choosing a brighter shade. The horizontal title band at the top stayed too, as did the hierarchy of information – logo, series and price, then title, followed by the author’s name – with rules dividing each band. Marber then added a visually compelling image, often a staccato photograph or illustration hinting at the drama and tensions of the plot.
The redesign was so successful that Facetti adopted variations of it for other Penguin series. For Penguin Classics, he introduced the use of an historic painting, invariably reflecting the themes of the book, to the covers and for Penguin Modern Poets, he commissioned a series of photograms by Peter Barrett, Roger Mayne and Alan Spain between 1962 and 1965. One of Facetti’s final projects before leaving Penguin in 1972 was to commission Derek Birdsall to redesign its education titles.
In just over a decade at Penguin, Facetti succeeded not only in modernising its approach to design, but doing so in a coherent way across hundreds of titles. At a time when publishers still tended to commission design on a title-by-title basis, described by Facetti as “the arty-crafty approach of the single beautiful achievement”, he had succeeded in establishing consistently high standards of inspiring and often provocative design in a systematic manner appropriate to a modern publisher of mass-market books in the 1960s.
Penguin has since revived its design heritage with particular series, notably the mid-1980s King Penguins collection of contemporary fiction with a cover grid designed by Mike Dempsey and Ken Carroll featuring the work of such illustrators as Andrei Klimowski. In 2004, Penguin published the Great Ideas series of social, political and philosophical tracts in paperback for ￡3.99 each. Penguin’s art director Jim Stoddart asked a junior designer, David Pearson, to develop the design identity of the series which he did by dressing each cover in the lettering or typographic style typical of its time in a rigorous palette of black and burgundy type on creamy white – from the replica of a grimy 18th century theatrical bill for Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, to an Arts and Crafts style bookplate for John Ruskin’s discourse On Art and Life.
When Penguin decided to celebrate its 70th anniversary by publishing a collection of 70 Pocket Penguins paperbacks to sell for ￡1.50 each, the design was entrusted to art directors John Hamilton and Jim Stoddart. As timing was tight, Hamilton hit upon the idea of inviting 70 designers, artists and illustrators to create one cover each. He and Stoddart then resolved that the covers should be designed within seven days for a flat fee of ￡70.
All the designers they approached said ‘yes’. In deference to Penguin’s heritage, each book was the A-format size of its original 1935 paperbacks, and some of the cover designers were Penguin veterans, such as Alan Aldridge, Derek Birdsall and Romek Marber. The finished collection of 70 covers acts as a panorama of contemporary graphic design and illustration: from Peter Saville’s glacial typography for Homer and David Shrigley’s sinister drawing for Freud, to the elaborate sculpture on Julie Verhoeven’s F. Scott Fitzgerald cover.
Visit Penguin's website at penguin.co.uk
1935 Allen Lane launches the first set of twelve Penguin paperback books by contemporary authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. Each book sells for sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes.
1936 Penguin becomes an independent from Lane’s former employer, Bodley Head. It distributes its books from the crypt of the Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road, London where a fairground slide is installed to bring deliveries down from the street.
1937 The first new Penguin imprint is launched when Pelican is founded to publish books on history, sociology, economics and politics.
1946 German typographer Jan Tschichold is appointed head of design and devises rigorous design templates for all Penguin’s books. He persuades Allen Lane to accept illustrated covers for some books.
1949 After Tschichold’s return to Switzerland, the more conservative Hans Schmoller takes charge of design at Penguin.
1951 Introduction of the vertical grid designed by Erik Ellegaard Frederiksen in place of the original horizontal grid refined by Tschichold.
1961 Appointment of the Italian art director Germano Facetti as head of design at Penguin.
1962 Facetti charges Romek Marber with redesigning the Penguin Crime series and commissions striking photogram covers for the Penguin Modern Poets series from Peter Barrett, Roger Mayne and Alan Spain.
1972 Derek Birdsall is commissioned to redesign all Penguin’s education titles, including the University series of books. Facetti leaves Penguin.
1984 Mike Dempsey and Ken Carroll devise a constructivist-inspired grid for the King Penguin series of contemporary fiction with illustrations by Andrzej Klimowski.
2004 The Great Ideas of political, social and philosophical books is designed by David Pearson with art director Jim Stoddart.
2005 The Penguin design team responsible for the Great Ideas series is nominated for the Design Museum's Designer of the Year prize. Launch of the Pocket Penguin 70s series of paperbacks to celebrate Penguin's 70th birthday.
Jack E. Morpurgo, Allen Lane: King Penguin, Hutchison, 1979
Hans Schmoller, Two Titans: Mardersteig and Tschichold: A Study in Contrasts, British Library Publishing Division, 1990
Steven Hare, Penguin Portrait: Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors, 1935-1970, Penguin Books, 1995
Jan Tschichold, The New Typography: A Handbook for Modern Designers, University of California Press, 1928 original, 1998 edition
Jan Tschichold, The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design, Hartley & Marks edition, 1996
Ruari McLaean, Jan Tschichold: a Life in Typography, Princeton Architectural Press, 1997
Alan Fletcher + Germano Facetti, Identity Kits: A Pictorial Survey of Visual Signals, Studio Vista, 1971
Visit the Penguin Books website at penguin.co.uk
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain