Thursday, 19 March 2009

Penguin: Well-Designed, Gorgeous Bastards

Above: My recent exposure. It will throw
a minor obsession into stark relief.

I know how weird this sounds, but I've always been mildly obsessed with Penguin Books. I had this minor obsession well before I went to the 70 Years of Penguin Design exhibition at the Shipley last week (do go, by the way, it's excellent), but equally my recent exposure to them has thrown it into something of a sharp relief.

But what is this obsession? I hear you cry. Well, fret not, for I will enlighten you.

For anyone who doesn't know, Penguin made their name with a brilliant combination of a wide, literary range (the Shipley exhibit makes a good deal out of Penguin's early decision to commission a new translation of the Odyssey) and beautiful design. They were also, and this is not coincidental to their success, cheap. On the inside cover of all the 70 Years Pocket Penguins in my possession is this proud quote:
'The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them'
I'm fairly sure that I used to have a vintage Penguin paperback that included this particular Orwellism (for it is he) on the front cover, although I can't seem to locate it now for the life of me.

I have in my collection a great number of Penguin books, and a few Pelicans (their factual line) here and there, and I am deeply attached to the design aesthetic, particularly of the older lines, back when it used to be orange for novels, green for crime and blue for non-fiction. I am, let it be said, a sucker for good design, and always have been.
Above: some of my Penguin collection. I am
deeply attached to the design aesthetic.

In fact, looking at my shelves, I would go so far as to say that I have more Penguins in my collection than any other single publisher. Most of them are second-hand though, because Orwell's quote doesn't really work these days.

Maybe it was always thus. My copy of Watership Down retailed at 80p in 1972 (probably about what I paid for it at a school jumble sale in the mid-90s), and according to this, that would equate to roughly £7.80 today. Still, it's an awful lot of money, to me anyway.

And I should add the caveat that Penguin continue to produce good cheap editions of the classics (though Wordsworth's are a whole penny cheaper and printed on better paper) - and of vital importance, the classics are still in the A Format.**

But to return to the design. Initially there was the classic look: black print on a two-tone, simple background. Elegant font, simplicity of design, but there's more than that. For example: here's an early Penguin cover.
Here is a 1930s Government propaganda poster...
Here's a link to some lovely London Underground typefacing.

The point I'm trying to make is that the design isn't simply elegant geometrically, but it's also authoritative. A Penguin edition exudes that notion of being 'official' but in a managerial rather than a dictatorial sense. It calmly states its right to be present by its links with the kind of lettering one would see every day in government and corporate contexts.

I'm not competent to judge the reasons why this particular font was chosen, why it should appear to us as possessing a commanding quality. If I were to make an uneducated guess it would be that it has a simplicity in style stemming from both the way in which the letters are drawn and the reliance on upper case to reduce the actual number of shapes being used. Not to treat you as being any dumber than I'm currently treating myself, but here's what I mean:


The form of the letter is stripped down. There are no extra lines or curves, sans serif and no curlicues. In a way, it is the 'essential' letter.

On top of that, the colours are simple without being harsh. Presence is achieved by the simple two-tone differentiation and large blocks of colour. What I really like though is the variety across the years and across various lines. Take a look at this copy of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle; compare it with this cover of Tony Harrison's Selected Poems, or this lovely piece of Orwell.

There is a small 'however' here though. Here are Penguin books: beautiful cover art, and the logo is usually an indicator of quality. But, to paraphrase The Streets, my gosh don't they know it. I mean, look at this. It's beautiful, but for gods' sake it's just a notebook! The only difference between it and this is the lush cover. And I don't know about you, but if I have a notepad that posh, I'm afraid to write in it, on the grounds that the paper is rougly worth it's actual weight in gold.

Now, here're are some Dover Thrift books. Look at those prices. Look at that cover art. There's the annoyance: great prices, great literature, but not great artworks. There are exceptions - I love my copy of The Golem to pieces (which after all these years is very nearly an accurate description), but they are the exception. Which is a shame.
Above: My copy of
The Golem is not in
as good nick as this.

*I seem to remember back in the early 90s that the Tories rescinded some kind of price controls on books and the cost started to shoot up, roughly in line with the rise of giant chains like Waterstone's. However, a few minutes interrogating my intertube has left me with no sources so I can't back that up unfortunately. If anyone reading this reads this and has any info I'd be grateful. Until then, just assume it's a result of the febrile imaginings of my brainmeats please.

**If I have one genuine gripe with Penguin it is the move away from A format books. Again this is a qualified gripe, since they still publish a lot of work in A format, but it's frequently a bugger to find. Most shops seem to prefer the larger (usually pricier) B formats. But there's a big, big fucking problem with B format: it doesn't fit in your pocket. A format fits in your pocket. So all Penguin books should be A format. There you go, straightforward. Put it in A so I can put it in my coat. Thank you.

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