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Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Popular Classics

Jonathan Gibbs

popular classics frankenste 183x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Popular ClassicsIt may seem a little unfair to return so soon to a designer and publisher that I’ve already covered on this blog, but I was so tickled by this story when I heard it that I couldn’t wait to share it. Last week I went to talk given by one-time Penguin in-house designer, now freelancer, David Pearson, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Entitled ‘Money for Old Rope – A Revivalist Approach to Modern Book Design’, it was really just an illustrated run through of Pearson’s career and the books he loves.

His time at Penguin coincided with a concerted effort at the publisher to make sense of (and, perhaps, make money from) its own design history. Pearson was behind Penguin By Design, the book that tells that design story, did much of the research for Seven Hundred Penguins (a marvelous brick of a book containing nothing but images of book covers) and was in charge of the look of such series as Pocket Penguins and Great Ideas.

What I didn’t know, though, was that he was also responsible for the 2007 redesign of the Penguin Popular Classics series, the cheapo, no-introduction, no-scholarly notes edition originally brought out to counter the threat of Wordsworth Classics. The previous look had been full bleed artwork with a tan-coloured oval title box towards the top. They were, to be charitable, twee in the extreme. To be uncharitable, they were horrid.

popular classics dracula 184x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Popular Classics

Penguin ran an internal competition to come up with a comprehensive overhaul of the series. Five designers submitted, and Pearson won with a super-plain, type-only design featuring modern Gill Sans lettering, a doubled up logo featuring two dancing penguins (to denote, perhaps rather obliquely, the ‘popular’ aspect) and the £2 price tag, prominently, even proudly, displayed. The cover was an equally restrained maroon.

The office was, Pearson says, ecstatic about the design… until someone said, almost wistfully, that they preferred it to the ‘proper’ Penguin Classics. At which point everyone froze.

Why would anyone spend £6.99 on, say, Dracula, not to mention £14.99 for Coralie Bickford-Smith’s lovely cloth-covered hardback – both of which feature the full scholarly treatment of preface, chronology, introduction, further reading, a note on the text, plus 50 pages of appendices and notes, when the £2 version, containing just the novel, looks so good?

The Classics series is obviously where the money is to be made, and the reputation upheld, and that could not be put in jeopardy. Pearson was sent away with the brief – unique in his and probably many a designer’s career – to make the thing look worse.

popular classics Tempest 184x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Penguin Popular Classics

Not wanting to mess with the type, or the layout, he decided on the colour, and after much deliberation settled on the lurid lime green that we have seen splashed across bookshops, a colour so uncommonly disgusting that none of the printer’s standard pigments came near it, and it had to be specially mixed.

There is still a certain purity, even grandeur, about the popular classics – it’s as close to an ebook that you can get in physical form – and it sends a more sophisticated message about the reader than did the old, chocolate boxy one: that you own this book because you want to read the words it contains, and for that reason alone.

  • Junius

    The difference between owning a book in physical form and an ebook is in part tactile and in part aesthetic. That is why typography matters, and why cover design matters. Why hand a p-o-s advantage to the opposition? It is perverse.

    Whatever the content, the lime green cover makes a statement: this book is cheap and nasty. Booklovers will pay a little more for perceived quality. This one does, anyway.

  • VicTheBrit

    So its basically a question of having a library full of beautiful books that people seldom read?

  • shylockcameron

    Your absolutely right. I read books for what they contain – not to sate narcissistic tendencies in front of others.

  • Junius

    No, but faced with books offering the same content, I will buy the book with an attractive, well-designed cover and type that is easy to read rather than one which looks cheap and nasty. So faced with Penguin Popular Classics in a bilious shade of green and the Wordsworth Classics, I unhesitatingly plumped for the Wordsworth.

    You will notice that none of the current Penguin Modern Classics has a cover which sends the ‘more sophisticated message’ that buyers will own the book because they want to read the words it contains, and for that reason alone. Lesson learned, I think.

  • Fool_Brittania

    I remember the old ‘Saint’ paperbacks. Simple yellow background with a matchstick drawing of the Saint or Simon Templar. You were guaranteed a good read.

    These days the cover is often the best part of the book.

  • Bill

    I worked in bookshops as a teenager in the 1970’s. The price of a paperback was between 25p and 50p. anything above that price was expensive. But the covers were great and I loved the varied mix of art and photography used. The cover for the classics were just as good as the new fiction. I fact sometimes better.

  • twistedrama

    ‘These days the cover is often the best part of the book.’

    What were the last four books you read?


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