Book Cover Design: A Case Study of Penguin Books

Every design project starts with a brief, and when it comes to book cover design, there is no better resource than the book itself.

We’ve all been warned not to judge a book by its cover, but in the world of publishing, this is something that those in the industry not only expect from their readers, but actually rely on.

A lot of the books we read are recommended to us by friends and family, but when walking into a bookshop, or browsing online, there are rows upon rows of books, all silently hoping that you’ll pick them.

A great percentage are Penguin books, so what is it that makes our readers select these books as worthy of their next adventure?

There are many different approaches to book cover design, so let’s start by looking at some original Penguin covers. We’ve also put together some examples of more recent interpretations from the worlds of typography and illustration.

But first, to understand the origin of the Penguin book cover designs, we need to start at the beginning…

Where it all began…

In 1935, Allen Lane founded Penguin Books. At the time, the publication of literature in paperback was largely associated with poor-quality, lurid fiction. However, Lane was determined to bring high-quality paperback fiction and non-fiction to the mass market.

The deliberately low price of sixpence per book (the cost of a pack of cigarettes) made profitability seem unlikely, but, despite this and the resistance from the traditional book trade, Woolworths ordered 63,000 books, revealing that there were in fact large audiences for serious literature.

The original Penguin covers

Design has always been pivotal to the success of the Penguin brand. When setting up the company, Lane was on the lookout for a symbol that was both “dignified but flippant” to represent his ethos.

Lane’s secretary suggested a penguin and so the office junior, Edward Young, was sent to visit London Zoo. The sketches from his outing formed the first version of the Penguin logo.

The logo has been through several iterations since, but the little penguin we know and love remains to this day.

The initial Penguin cover designs opted for simplicity, with Lane himself resisting a move towards cover images for several years. The design featured three simple, horizontal bands: the top and bottom bands were colour-coded representing the series to which the title belonged:

Orange for general fiction, green for crime fiction, cerise for travel and adventure, red for plays, dark blue for biographies and yellow for miscellaneous. Less common were violet for essays and grey for world affairs.

Then, in 1947, German typographer Jan Tschichold joined the Penguin family and refined the simplistic design further…

Jan Tschichold
Jan Tschichold’s Penguin logo development

He could not have been more suited to the task at hand. In 1923, Tschichold had converted to Modernist design principles after visiting the Bauhaus. Founded by Walter Gropius in 1913, the Bauhaus’s ideology called for design to be deconstructed into radically simplified forms with a focus on rationality and functionality.

Tschichold released his typography manifesto, Die Neue Typographie in 1927, in which he condemned all typefaces but sans-serif (known as Grotesk in Germany):

Serif (left) vs. sans-serif (right)

Within his manifesto, Tschichold also insisted on the intentional and deliberate use of white space.

The original book cover design (left) compared to Tschichold’s tightened up version (right)

Tschichold laid out many other Modernist design rules such as the use of structured typographical hierarchy – most notably the use of different sizes and weights of type to quickly and easily convey information.

Penguin covers before and after Tschichold’s subtle yet effective tweaks

Clearly Tschichold’s own design preferences aligned with those of Penguin. During his time with the company, Tschichold further refined the cover designs – redesigning more than 500 Penguin books.

His legacy at Penguin extended beyond his tenure, as he left the company with a set of comprehensive design principles. These were brought together as the Penguin Composition Rules, a four-page booklet of typographic instructions for editors and compositors.

Penguin Classics

In 1946, Penguin launched the Penguin Classics series with Emile Victor Rieu’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, making classic texts available to everyone. Last year, the most recent re-publication of 20 Penguin Classics featured coloured jackets echoing Penguin’s original covers:

Penguin Classics 2016

When asked, “What makes a Classic?”, vice president and publisher for Penguin Classics, Elda Rotor, replied:

“(The) generations of readers who have come to the same work and found something very, very special in that work… we’re putting a book out there… and we’re saying to you that there is a readership for this, but we guarantee that there will be a readership for this in the future. And that’s really where our investment is: the generations of readers going forward.” – Elda Rotor

70th Anniversary of Penguin Classics

Illustration: America embraces orange

In Britain, the iconic orange and white tri-band from 1935 is not only synonymous with Penguin, but with retro book cover design in general. Believe it or not, this design hadn’t been used in the United States until just last year.

For the 70th anniversary of Penguin Classics, Penguin Random House released a limited-run series of 12 influential American literary classics. However, instead of just copying the original orange tri-band design completely, the series offers a modern take on the iconic Penguin paperback:

Creative director Paul Buckley was faced with the task of taking the iconic cover design and shaking it up while ensuring the brand was still recognisable, and without losing the integrity of the original designs that had stood the test of time.

Having seen the work of illustrator Eric Nyquist, Buckley knew that applying his 3D, textured designs to the Penguin Classics would lift and enhance the previously flat design, rather than change it entirely:

Penguin Orange collection featuring metallic foil-printed illustrations by illustrator Eric Nyquist.

Buckley added his own twist as well, subtly changing the logo:

“The only thing I really changed… I sort of liberated the penguin from the oval that it used to live in, turned it sideways and lifted it up there… it’s a little piece of deconstruction that I enjoy.” Paul Buckley

Subtle changes and subversions to branding add to the process of design evolution. When done well, it doesn’t detract from the original design, but instead adds a patina of layers and textures. Often these changes are subtle, but sometimes they can be dazzlingly different…

Illustration: Pelican Shakespeare

Penguin has published Shakespeare since the inception of the company. The Penguin Shakespeare series launched in the UK in 1937, and the Pelican* Shakespeare series first launched in the US in 1956.

*Pelican was an imprint of Penguin, and now of Penguin Random House

The original Penguin Shakespeare series (UK, 1937) was designed in the simple brand orange featuring an illustrative woodcarving of Shakespeare by Robert Gibbings. The first Pelican Shakespeare series (US, 1956) featured an illustration by C. Walter Hodges. The illustration depicts an amphitheatre – most likely the Globe theatre, London, where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.

For the Pelican Shakespeare series 2016 – marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death – Paul Buckley brought in Indianapolis-based illustrator Manuja Waldia to reinvigorate the series with her strikingly fresh illustrations:

The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III.

“We used a modern linear and geometric style to approach these classics in a contemporary manner, categorized as Tragedies (black), Comedies (light blue) and Histories (maroon.)”Manuja Waldia

The series won a Gold Medal at the SOI Annual Exhibition (Book category).

Waldia’s challenge was to take the theme of each play and represent it in just a single image per volume. As you can see, she has very skilfully intertwined symbolic elements from each plot to create stunningly simple yet incredibly detailed illustrations:

“The Tempest: From his island, the wizard Prospero raises a magical Tempest to rock his nemeses’ boat. The back cover shows Ariel tied to a tree by Prospero’s magic

“Hamlet: The ghost of the dead King Hamlet appears and orders Hamlet to seek revenge (notice the double-edged sword) on the man who usurped his throne.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Features Greek pottery, as the play is set in ancient Greece. Demetrius is chasing Hermia in the enchanted forest.

“Romeo and Juliet: Two coffins show the instruments of death for the star-crossed lovers. Other symbolic elements include roses, a dagger and poison.”

Typography: Penguin Drop Caps

Penguin Drop Caps is a series of 26 collectible hardcover editions of fine works of literature, each featuring on its cover a specially commissioned illustrated letter of the alphabet by type designer Jessica Hische.

A drop cap is a large, traditionally decorative, capital letter at the beginning of a block of text that descends to the depth of two or more lines. They increase usability by marking important passages and guiding readers through the text.

The origins of drop caps date back to the 9th century, when they were used in religious books. They were richly illustrated, painted in bright colours and gilded, usually after the body of the text had been printed.

Printed Latin Bible. An artisan added various initials after the book was printed. Venice, 1480. (Image: University of Glasgow, Special Collections)

A collaboration between Jessica Hische and Penguin Art Director Paul Buckley, the Penguin Drop Cap series features a rainbow-hued spectrum across the 26 books.

“It’s not just a drop cap, it’s an illustrative drop cap crafted to the story.” Paul Buckley

Each letter represents the surname of the books author. For example, ‘A’ for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, ‘B’ for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and ‘C’ for Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, and so on:

Penguin Drop Cap series 2016

“Each letter is really explored based on the narrative of the story… we really try and capture the idea of the book, the tone of the book, the characters involved but in a way that’s a lot more subtle than something that would be highly illustrated.” Jessica Hische

Typography can convey so much, not only in the words it spells out, but also in the aesthetic qualities of the individual letters.

For example, a wide, heavy letter may seem stable and reliable in comparison to a tall, spindly letter, which seems more flimsy or vulnerable. A swirly letter dripping in ornaments could be described as grand or pompous, whereas a simple, geometric letter is likely to suggest simplicity, class, or restraint.

Typography: The Penguin Galaxy

“What we’ve done over the last several years is actually bring (Penguin’s excellent reputation) and the high quality of publishing to many, many different fields, many different categories.” Elda Rotor

The Penguin Galaxy is a sci-fi fantasy series featuring incredible cult classics that have never been in a Penguin Classics series before. As a starting point for the project, Buckley looked at the genre’s traditional illustrations:

Penguin Science Fiction Postcard Box (available for purchase)

“There’s an amazing, unique world inside those pages so everyone says ‘let’s illustrate that’… The wonderful thing with the Classics is, most people who are looking for a specific title already have a sense of what the book is; the books have been around for a long time. We don’t have to come at it in a literal way… let the titles do the heavy lifting.” Paul Buckley

Much like the original Penguin classics, the titles and integrity of the texts speak for themselves. However, Buckley did not only mean ‘let the titles do the heavy lifting’ in a literary sense, but also visually.

Buckley hired typographer Alex Trochut to transform the characters of the titles to convey the essence of the works, relying solely on typography:

The limited edition (500) box set packaged in a futuristic Lucite/acrylic box. The books are also available to buy individually.

“They sort of look like the past and future all at one time. Dune might be my favourite… I love how these have this hieroglyphic feel. They’re not entirely readable, I sort of like that too.” Paul Buckley

The fact that the titles aren’t entirely legible adds to the genuine feel of these covers – as if dug up from a pile of space sand, a warning from the future of what’s to come.

There is a real sense of discovery and dystopia within these covers that truly reflects the otherworldly uneasiness and off-key brilliance of their contents.

Summary: It’s only just the beginning…

Over the years, the Penguin logo and cover designs have seen much iteration, some have rebelled, while others have stayed true to the simplicity of the original designs.

The format of the books has never really changed; they are still the accessible, affordable, high-quality paperbacks Allan Lane first envisaged. What’s exciting is what goes on within the pages and, of course, those front covers that grab us and lure us in.

With the world of literature and design constantly changing, you can be sure that there will be plenty more literary and visual delights to come…

Further examples of subverting the classic cover design/logo
The Nineteen Eighty-Four 2013 edition is designed in the original Penguin orange tri-band, but the title has been censored to cleverly echo the themes of the novel
The first publication of The Collected Poems of Adrian Mole, to mark the author’s 50th birthday. ‘Mole Press – a brand new imprint of Penguin Books’. Published 16th March 2017 in memory of the author Sue Townsend, 2 April 1946 – 10 April 2014
Penguin Random House The Writers’ Academy: Writing 101 eBook Series. For our free creative writing resources we’ve used an adapted form of the tri-band design with added graphics.

Further Reading

If you’re looking to learn more about book cover design, I’d recommend checking out some of these:

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What are some of your own favourite book covers? Thinking of trying your hand at book cover design?  Let us know in the comments below!

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12 thoughts on “Book Cover Design: A Case Study of Penguin Books

  1. Fascinating article. I’m looking at designing a cover for my next book and have a vivid idea of how it should appear. Wouldn’t it be great if we could take a photo of the image in our minds, and just transfer it straight to the laptop. 😉

    1. Hi Val, thanks for your comment 🙂 translating an idea into a visual is an extremely difficult but rewarding process! Having a look at examples of book cover design is a great place to start. Try and analyse as many book covers as you can, but when it comes to putting together your own just watch not to try and cram every single idea into the one design. Simple is often best, especially if design is something new to you.

      Jocasta (publishing director at Hutchinson) touches briefly on book cover design in our Editor Q&A webinar:

      It’s brave of you to tackle this yourself – good luck, and we’d love to see the end result!

      – Molly

  2. Hi, I’m researching John Heartfield’s time in London, and have found various referencesto him designing covers for Penguin sometime between 1939 and 1950, but can’t find any examples. can you give me any ideas where to look, or who to ask? I’ve tried the British library catalogue with no sucess.

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