Pick up a penguin (and not a calorie in sight)

August 28, 2014

I love Penguin Books. I love their impeccable design. I love the way they can make you feel. I love that they can take you to a different time; a different place. I love that they’re part of our heritage. And I love the story of how they came to be.

Tell me your head's not at 90 degrees?

I’ll bet your head’s now at 90 degrees

I love that they started out as a challenger brand – they shook up the way books were sold in the UK.

“In 1935, if you wanted to read a good book, you needed either a lot of money or a library card. Cheap paperbacks were available, but their poor quality production generally tended to mirror the quality between the covers.

Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, then a director of The Bodley Head. After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

He also wanted a ‘dignified but flippant’ symbol for his new business. His secretary suggested a Penguin and another employee was sent to London Zoo to make some sketches. Seventy years later Penguin is still one of the most recognizable brands in the world.”
Penguin Press Office

They’ve never done things conventionally. They were, initially, viewed with suspicion by the rest of the publishing world and also by retailers. Only Woolworths stocked the books initially. They were sold at a flat price – sixpence. (The same price as a packet of cigarettes.)

This, now seemingly simple business decision, made reading available to a huge number of people.
Within 12 months they had sold 3 million books.
They continued to innovate and look for new ways to bring books to people. In 1937 they launched a book-dispensing machine on Charing Cross Road, called the Penguincubator.

The original Penguincubator in use

The original Penguincubator in use

In 1940 they launched Puffin, a range of books for children. And, in 1946, they launched Penguin Classics.
They continued to push the boundaries and fight for artistic freedom for their authors. In 1988 they published the controversial book, The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. It caused a major global issue, as conservative Muslims accused it of blasphemy and mocking their faith. It resulted in a now infamous fatwa being placed on the author, Salman Rushdie.
In 2002 they published Stupid White Men by Michael Moore in the UK, after attempts to ban it in the US.
They celebrated their 75th birthday in 2010.
I hope they keep on doing what they’ve been doing. They’ve been responsible for some of the most memorable book-jacket designs ever.

And here are some beautiful examples.

Experimental layouts (1948)

Experimental layouts (1948)

Great Ideas Volume IV (2010) Thomas More Utopia

Great Ideas Volume IV (2010)
Thomas More Utopia

Great Ideas Vol IV Arthur Schopenhauer The Horrors and Absurdities of Religion

Great Ideas Vol IV
Arthur Schopenhauer The Horrors and Absurdities of Religion

Great Ideas Vol V Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens

Great Ideas Vol V
Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens

Penguin symbols

Penguin symbols

These images all come from a beautiful Flickr feed, curated by David Pearson.

And you can now get your favourite Penguin book as a bag. Or a mug. Or a notebook. Or a deck chair.

I guess it all goes to show that a beautifully simple design from 1936 can still be relevant, admired and loved almost 80 years later.

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