A Brief History of Penguin Design: Part One

Guest blog by Scribbly Roo, a freelance Illustrator and Graphic Designer working from her home studio in Norfolk, UK, where she writes and illustrates her own graphic novels and children’s picture books.

As promised in my previous blog on graphic designer David Pearson, this week I’m looking at Penguin Books and their design history. Penguin was founded in 1935 when Allen Lane (then director at publishing house, The Bodley Head) got sick of the meagre selection of affordable books on the market. His dream was to make good quality fiction available to everyone.

After an idea suggested by Lane’s secretary, twenty-one year old Edward Young was sent to London Zoo to sketch penguins in order to create a “dignified but flippant” logo for Lane’s new venture. The original penguin illustration, with slight variations, stayed with the company until 1949 when Jan Tschichold created the “definitive penguin” that we still recognise today. The logo was subtly re-designed by Angus Hyland in 2003 to be a little thinner, with both feet sat on a horizontal line. And in 2007 David Pearson put two penguins side by side, as if they are dancing, for his winning design of the relaunched Popular Classics series. Whatever the variations, the Penguin logo is now iconic and is recognised globally.

Penguin logos


When the first Penguin paperbacks were published in the summer of 1935, the public’s view of books was changed forever. Editions of Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway now cost the same as a cigarette packet, and fitted in your coat pocket. Within a year of becoming independent of Bodley Head, Penguin had sold 3 million paperbacks.

Albatross covers


The early cover designs were heavily influenced by the German publishing house, Albatross. Like Albatross, Penguin colour-coded its books; orange for fiction, blue for biographies, pink for adventure, green for crime and yellow for miscellaneous. This utilitarian style with its simple grid layout and plain sans serif lettering kept printing costs down, ensuring the books remained affordable. The design also complimented the new Modernist movement that was beginning to spread through Britain, made especially popular since the launch of Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground in 1933.

Harry Beck map

In 1937, Penguin expanded its offices and launched its Penguin Shakespeare series, as well as Pelican for contemporary non-fiction. Their popularity soared in the late 30s to early 40s with topical publications on Adolph Hitler and Aircraft Recognition as the threat of war in Europe increased then broke out. Soldiers and civilians alike used such books for vital reference, identifying enemy planes. The small size of the paperbacks meant they could be carried in a soldier’s pocket wherever they went.

War books Penguin

During this time, the cover designs of Penguin books became, in my opinion, a little chaotic. Images were introduced- sometimes photographs, often illustrations -and font sizes varied, stepping away from the uniform uppercase titles of the company’s previous publications. Perhaps this was due to the use of caricatures and dynamic type in wartime propaganda adverts, or the need for more information on the covers so civilians would be drawn to the potentially vital information each the books contained.

Things changed in 1946, when German typography designer Jan Tschichold was brought in to standardise Penguin’s covers and logo. As well as updating the Penguin logo and creating eight official versions of it, he laid down rules for how each book design element should be used, from the font used to the spacing between the letters. He encouraged the editors and printers to follow this new style guide religiously, emphasising that in good design and branding, consistency is everything.

Tschichold covers

Arguably, these are what most people think of as the classic Penguin books. As a graphic designer, I love the simplicity and use of space. However, as a reader, the uniformity gives nothing away about each individual publication. In his three years working for Penguin, Tschihold went as far as using illustrations on the jackets of certain book sets, including the Shakespeare series, but by the end of the fifties his designs were considered outdated. It was time for Penguin to remake itself again for a modern age.

Next time: In part two of this brief history, I’ll be looking at Penguin book cover designs throughout the 60s through to the 90s and up to the present day.


Georgina Parfitt


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