Puffin marks 70 years of design
Puffin, Penguin’s children’s imprint, is 70 years old and, as part of the celebrations, we have a history of Puffin book design over the decades, Puffin By Design – essentially a companion to Penguin By Design, which did the same job for Puffin’s big brother five years ago.
It’s a lovely book – and how could it not be, with covers featuring the likes of Edward Ardizzone, Jan Pieńkowski, Shirley Hughes and Pauline Baynes (she of the classic Tolkien and Narnia covers), not to mention such retro icons as the original Fighting Fantasy gamebook The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Patrick Bossert’s You Can Do The Cube.
If the book has a presiding genius, it’s Kaye Webb, who ran Puffin during what were surely its glory years of the 60s and 70s, and gave us the original Puffin Club, with its wonderful – and wonderfully designed – magazine Puffin Post, currently having a second life.
I can’t help feeling, though, that Puffin by Design suffers in comparison to the earlier Penguin book (both written by Phil Baines, Professor of Typography at Central Saint Martins, London) in two ways.
Firstly the history of Puffin covers lacks the dramatic design shifts of Penguin, such as the famous Marber grid that defined the paperbacks’ hip, minimalist look during the 60s. (Think of all those classic crime paperbacks.)
Secondly, and more crucially, it’s difficult to read the book through the foggy blur of your nostalgia goggles. Are children’s book covers really less good than they were 20 or 30 years ago, or does it just seem like it to me? A few thoughts:
- Is Roald Dahl really well served by the blanket smothering of his books in thequirky but over-familiar illustrations of Quentin Blake? Two absolute greats of children’s literature, but surely each of them is great enough on his own not to need propping up by the other?
- Who remembered that Arthur Ransome so disliked the original covers and internal drawings for his Swallows and Amazons series that he took over the job himself? Not me. His black and white illustrations, blocked in with colour in the 60s and 70s, still look remarkably contemporary.
- Part of the problem of marketing books for older children is that the author or series brand is bigger than the imprint’s. The covers of the Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl and Young Bond series are variable in their success (the Percy Jackson ones are awful – busy CGI mish-mashes), but more importantly none of them look like Puffins – and in most cases don’t even have the Puffin colophon on the cover.
Obviously, the place where the publisher gets most holdover the brand in is the realm of the classics. And indeed, Puffin Classics have rarely looked better than in their current bold incarnation. The Modern Classics have been a bit more up and down – seemingly undergoing another redesign to coincide with the anniversary, which puts the cover pictures inside a rather tinny silver frame.
This is a shame as their previous incarnation were particularly striking. They showed off their images to great effect, with the title and author details tucked neatly away in the corner. I can imagine today’s kids holding these up to their grandchildren as much-loved, and hugely inspirational examples of that great, lost thing, the book.books, children's literature, covers, design, penguin, puffin
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