You’ve probably heard that we’re celebrating a rather big birthday this month, but do you know where our famous covers came from? Read an extract from Penguin by Design and discover how the design of our beloved bird, and the iconic triband cover came about 80 years ago. 

The first Penguin book. Ariel – A Shelley Romance by André Maurois (1935)

The first Penguin book. Ariel by André Maurois (1935)

Paperback books did exist before the launch of the first Penguins on Tuesday 30 July 1935. But what their publishers all too often got wrong was the balance of price, convenience of format and excellence of scholarship, the essential elements required of cheap pocket editions ever since the printer and publisher Aldus Manutius pioneered the genre in Venice at the start of the sixteenth century. Penguin perfected the balance, combining design and sound writing to such good effect that after only ten years the name Penguin and the word ‘paperback’ were – much to Lane’s annoyance – virtually synonymous.

A Room of One's Own- Virginia Woolf.

A Room of One’s Own- Virginia Woolf.

With the resonance that the Penguin name rapidly acquired, it is possible to believe that the word itself was a significant element in the success. It was apparently suggested by a secretary – Joan Coles – after various alternatives had been rejected, and Edward Young, then a 21-year-old office junior, was sent to London Zoo to make sketches. He came back with the first version of the logo and the comment, ‘My God, how those birds stink!’

Murder by Burial

Murder by Burial, Stanley Casson.

The first Penguin titles appeared at a time when the various roles of designer, art director and printer were not clearly differentiated. The basic horizontal tripartite division of the covers, as well as the penguin itself, were devised by Edward Young, who became the company’s first Production Manager. The colours used to indicate subject matter – initially just orange for fiction, green for crime, dark blue for biography, cerise for travel & adventure, red for plays – were an aspect of the design which far outlasted the original layout. The design featured typefaces popular at that time. Bodoni Ultra Bold – a faux nineteenth-century revival – was used within the quartic for the publisher’s name, while two weights of the relatively new (1927–8) Gill Sans were used for the remainder of the front cover and spine information. Although the imprint was Penguin Books the publisher was The Bodley Head, whose name remained on the front for eighty titles until Penguin became a separate company. The price was printed not on the cover itself but on the dust jacket, which in all other respects was identical to the cover it protected.

The Compleat Angler

The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton.

The original cover design had a tremendous impact in bookshops, appearing very fresh and modern with its directness. It was an important element in attracting new customers to book-buying and in inspiring confidence in the new publisher. Despite the apparent unity of appearance, during the quarter-century of their use there were as many as twelve main front cover variations and eleven kinds
of back cover. Illustrations appeared on a few titles, almost apologetically in the case of Flying Dutchman, and more positively on The Gun. The only cover in which illustration is both positively
used and successfully integrated into the design is The Compleat Angler. The wood engraving is by Gertrude Hermes, who also worked on Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart in the Illustrated
Classics series of 1938. The Penguin logo was redrawn several times in the first twelve years. Versions included the lifelike but awkward original (pp. 18–19), a dancing penguin (A Room of One’s Own), and the 1939 version (The Gun), which is very close to that used today.

Penguin By DesignExtract taken from Penguin By Design, Phil Baines (Allen Lane). To find out more about Penguin’s iconic design history, pick up a copy and visit the Penguin by Design blog. 

We’re still using the triband design, 80 years on with our Little Black Classics. Why not take a spin to find your next read? 

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. My favourite still remains the orange cover 🙂

  2. I would love to know wich was the first Penguin Jane Austen book cover, because I have blog about Jane in Brazilian Portuguese (
    PS: I’ve bougth the Beautiful Cassandra.


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