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History Of Penguin Paperback Books Arts Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4265 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Penguin paperback books have become a constantly evolving part of British culture and design history since 1935 when the company was founded by Allen Lane. Lane came up with the concept of mass-producing inexpensive paperback editions of hardback titles. McLean (1952) mentions that the Penguin book venture is ‘a standing reminder to manufacturers… that the best is not too good for mass consumption’. For the design of the books, Lane wanted to keep a consistent template for all the book covers to follow. He instructed his office Junior, Edward Young to devise a simple horizontal tripartite division of the covers using colours to signify the genre of each book orange for fiction, green for crime, dark blue for biography, cerise for travel and adventure and red for plays (Baines, 2005).

The design featured contemporary typefaces at that time. Bodoni Ultra Bold was used for the publisher’s name ‘Penguin Books’ and two weights of the relatively new (1927-8) Gill Sans Serif for the contents of the book cover and spine information (Baines 2005).

First editions of Penguin paperback books (Adapted from Baines, 2005. p18-19)

The fresh and modern appearance of the Penguin book covers was a major contributor to the commercial success. Other British publishers soon realised that design was an important feature for book covers and the demand for highly skilled designers increased (Doubleday, 2006b). Penguin’s design standards established uniformity and improved the overall aesthetic of books in Britain (Doubleday, 2006b). Despite the unity of their appearance there was twelve main front cover variations with some that contained illustrations.

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Lane’s simple template for the Penguin books is derived to a degree from the Albatross book covers brought about in 1932. These designs were devised by Hans Mardersteig (McLeery, 2006). Lane was often quoted that he was trying to emulate the Albatross collection series which set the standard for early paperback book design (Doubleday, 2006b). Mardersteig designed the covers with the efficient system of colour-coded subject matter. Symmetry and centred sans-serif type placements were a feature. The size chosen for these books were 181 x 112 mm which adhered to the ‘golden section’ of 1.61. Penguin books initially followed this size format which has become one of the two standard sizes within the paperback book industry, known as A and B format (Baines, 2005). The A format gives the reader a good line length for reading and a suitable compactness of the book (McLeery, 2006).

Albatross book cover design series 1932 (Adapted from Genetic Joyce Studies, 2006)

The bird inspired name and colophon, bright, plain coloured covers and focus on contemporary titles provided the influence for Lane a captivating standardised cover. Young, who went on to become the production manager at Penguin Books stated:

‘it was time to get rid of the idea that the only people who wanted cheap editions belonged to a lower order of intelligence and that therefore cheap editions must have gaudy and sensational covers’. (Joicey, 1993, p4)

The classic design and layout of the Penguin books were to undergo a subtle, refined advancement under the direction of Jan Tschichold. Tschichold arrived at penguin in 1946 and asserted a more disciplined approach to the design (British Council Design Museum, 2006). The template for all Penguin books to follow consisted of designated positions for the title and authors name with a line between the two. The most notable change was the replacement of Gill Sans for Bodoni Ultra Bold for the ‘PENGUIN BOOKS’ publisher title. He also drew the penguin symbol in eight variations. The oval or quartic that contains the publisher’s name is subtly more elegant and attractive than Young’s [Do a comparison in illustrator]. Some books included an illustration on the central horizontal band as shown on the Pelican book ‘Sailing’.

Tschichold’s Pelican Books follows the standardised layout with the inclusion of illustration and the blue colour that distinguishes Pelican.

As Tschichold was already distinguished in the field of typography, great care was taken to optically letter-space all text on the covers and inside the book.

Tschichold’s experimental layout,left, and the revised design and layout, right (Adapted from Baines, 2005. p56 & 58)

Tschichold studied a theory which claims to provide the most beautiful and harmonious proportions. It is was first documented in a book by Fra Luca Proportione(1509) and is said to have been the method laid down by Phidias, the architect of the Parthenon. It states clear rules of of the division of space. It is known as the Golden Section.

The Golden Section is described as an aesthetic phenomenon. It is a division of space omnipresent throughout the universe. This division is an irrational ratio of 0.618:1. It represents ‘every line, every surface, every volume whose elements are arranged in conformity with these proportions reflect the idea of Beauty’ (Br…, 19xx). It has even been linked to the scale and proportion of human anatomy. It is all about expressing harmony.

[Golden Section Diagram]

The Golden section had great influence on Tschichold in his search for perfection in design and a greater awareness of proportion. He controlled the placement and size of elements with this ratio. The size of Penguin books were close but not precisely equal to the Golden Rectangle. It can be noted by (Br…, 19xx) that the Golden Ratio can be substituted by another ratio e.g. 3:5, 5:8, 8:1, 13:21 etc. This is because such small differences are not picked up by the eye and can still be perceived as the Golden Ratio.

The Golden section reassures that aesthetics is not subjective. That it is not an individual feeling and more a general taste that can be measured and mapped out.

Tschichold commonly expressed the importance of constant adherence to standardised formats and composition rules. Soon after being offered the job at Penguin, Tschichold produced a set of rules known as the ‘Penguin Composition Rules’ (Doubleday, 2006b) that were to be followed by Penguin’s typographers and printers to ensure the books followed the same style and that there were no variations. These rules, which ran into four pages long, standardized the formats and typographic specifications and unified the design of the book series (Doubleday, 2006a). Tschichold implemented a coherent grid system in conjunction with the Penguin Composition Rules that set the foundation for the trimmed page area, width and height of each book, visual cover size, type area on cover and spine, position and style of the spine label and lettering on labels for all the Penguin series (Doubleday, 2006).

One of Tschichold’s grids to control the design and production of Penguin books with detailed instructions (Adapted from Hurlburt, 1978. p70)

This above illustration shows that Behind the simplest grid there is often a complex process of analysis (Hurlburt, 1978, p71). Hurlburt cites that many publishers treat the book cover design as a separate entity, often using different designers for the book to encourage advertising. But a better looking product will result when the overall design of a book is considered in the early stages. Magazines and newspapers designers always work in the sizes of the established format (Hurlburt, 1978). On the other a book designer may have the responsibility to select the size of shaped and pages. Also, a concern with the weight and thickness of the book will put a three-dimensional edge on the project.

Tschichold identified contrast as the most important important element in all modern design (cited in Hurlburt, 1979, px). Furthermore, Hurlburt (1979) believes that the importance of contrast in the design of layout is very important. He states:

The contrasts of dark against light and large against small, the contrast of mood in subject matter, and the punctuation of space in strong accents all contribute to the dramatic presentation of graphic material. (Hurlburt, 1979, px)

This element of contrast is clearly evident in Tschichold’s work for Penguin books The idea of great literature mass produced and sold cheaply, the famous Penguin slogan Good Books Cheap (Doubleday, (2006b), p24). The brightly coloured contrasts of each genre cover. The separation of the cover into three coloured sections for publisher, book title and author, and logo. The dissimilarity compared to other books on a merchants bookshelf that makes them stand out. The moderate use of then contemporary fonts instead of traditional ones.

Doubleday (2006b) reasons Tschichold’s main objective at Penguin books:

was to synthesize all of the Penguin series with unprecedented quality, distinctiveness, and uniform styling, while at the same time, designating singular individuality and genuine features for each and every book. (Doubleday, 2006b, p45)


Penguin books have been in production for over 70 years and although the cover designs have seen changes from different designers, the Tschichold era remains to be the most studied and the most iconic. Tschichold left a lasting impression on graphic design that few could compete against and undoubtedly set the standard for successful book design.

Tschichold’s design work and principles while at Penguin, inspires a great standard for design, even for contemporary designers.

What was it about the Penguin book covers that made them so successful and in retrospect, a timeless and iconic part of British design history?

The two defining achievements for Tschichold and his time at Penguin are the standard typographic conventions of the Penguin Composition Rules and the rigid grid structure that housed the design.

The following list summarises Tschischold’s achievements while at Penguin:

Develop a grid for rigid and consistent use across all platforms. The grid must have distinct planned placements for the different elements and provide balance and uniformity

Use the Golden Section to influence proportion

Apply typographic standards for continuity

Use legible and contemporary typefaces

Pay close attention to brand loyalty and do not deviate far from it

Use contrast for effective presentation of graphic material and to stand out from competition. Contrasting elements include colour, size and mood.

Over the years, other popular culture mediums take shape that require tactile and original design in order to survive in such a competitive market. Many companies choose to re-brand in order to refresh their image due to decline in sales. In popular culture, it is not uncommon to recycle trends.

Covers of contemporary media such as computer games have some similarities to book cover design after all, computer games are essentially a more interactive version of story-telling. Like book covers, they require the name of the publisher, the game authors, the title, room for illustration and other elements such as age-rating. A continuous grid structure that separates all these elements is used as well as typographic specifications.

This shows a cover for ‘Uncharted’ for the Sony Playstation 3 gaming console. It is a cover for the ‘platinum’ range of Playstation games the games that sell a high amount in their first year. The design differs from the original game covers in order to signify its high acclaim in sales. These games are less than half the price of the original games and stand for good value gaming.

The grid system used for the range of covers is shown below.


The current design of Playstation Platinum covers is hotly debated. They are deemed ineffective, perhaps because of a grid structure that does not allow for a well-proportioned design. To clarify this, a short questionnaire with a series of eight questions was presented to a number of computer-gaming community based forums. The questions were presented through Survey Monkey(http…). The following is a breakdown of the questions with the three most relevant answers contributed.

1.How many hours per day/week do you spend playing computer games?

20 hours a week if I have time

too many…4 hrs per day

20-25 hours per week

2.Are you bothered by a game’s cover design?

I prefer the cover to look nice, but not really no.

A little

Bothered no, but they can & do catch my eye sometimes.

3.Do you think a game’s cover design inspires you to purchase it?

It might make me want to purchase a game I was already interested in a little more.

Impulse buying, Yes

no. the game has to be good for me to purchse it.

4.Do you like to collect your game purchases and keep them in good condition?

Yes. After all, I worked to buy them.

Yes I do like to keep them in good condition.

no. I just toss them in a file cabinet to play later.

5.Do you ever buy from the platinum game range? If no, please specify a reason why…

not for PS3 because of the game covers, but yes for other platforms

Not usually, because I like to keep a well organized collection

No as the boxart looks out of place with my other games

6.What are your views on the platinum game covers?

Plain. Should re-design the covers entirely.

They are fine, and allow one to find the cheaper games faster.

platinum branding ruins the look

7.Would you prefer to see a better cover design for the platinum range?

Possibly modify the colour, reduce the size of the borders.

They shouldn’t be as conspicuous as they are (e.g. not luminous yellow for EU PS3 platinum covers)

yes. Something that shows off the greatness of the game.

8.Would you prefer to see the same cover design for the platinum range but with the price reduction only?

No – Have some distinction it is a platinum title.

yes, however some indication that it’s platinum range would also be good, maybe a sticker or something

id have no covers if it made it cheaper

Considering these comments, create an alternative grid structure that will influence better proportions.


1.Taking an accurate measurement of the physical dimensions and a rough idea of the elements to be included e.g. type size, line-height, image sizes.

2.Thinking about the nature and content of the project. Considering how to best present this and the amount of emphasis each element needs. Emphasis is the contrast between elements size, colour, disposition, placement. Used correctly, it should signify hierarchy.

3.Considering which type of grid best suits the project.


4.Sketching the grid to a closely accurate scale that justifies the division of space and the placement of elements at the co-ordinates.

The following image shows a grid using a series of Golden Sections constructed from the dimensions of the cover. There are six Golden Sections reaching from each side of cover.

Using the co-ordinates of this grid to position elements may seem unorthodox. There is no sense of continuity and unvarying spatial zones. However, the asymmetrical divisions of the Golden Ratio is the concept of its beauty and harmonious proportions.

A Golden Section grid was best suited to this project as it called for irregular proportions and a slightly intuitive placement of the objects. There is a clear hierarchical structure evident in the design. The tripartite division of the cover resembles the Penguin series.

The top horizontal division contains the well known ‘Platinum’ title and is of a modest type size. It casually confirms the highly acclaimed status of the game. The colour choice seemed appropriate to be eponymous to the section.

In the bottom horizontal division is the game title, publisher, game authors and age certificate. This division needed to be the largest to house all the objects. The game title has the largest font size as it is the most important characteristic of the game. It is slightly off centre to the right and does not align with any other element. The unevenness gives the cover an edge and emphasizes each element individually. The choice of colour for the bottom division is reminiscent of the Penguin concept to visually signify the genre. It was decided to use a colour system of green for action and adventure, blue for sports, cerise for strategy, red for combat and orange for racing.

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The font used for the platinum title and game title is ‘ FF Blur medium’ by Neville Brody. Created in 1991, it was chosen for it’s irregular yet legible appearance that gives it a contemporary aesthetic. It’s not too serious and not too playful, which aptly fits the nature of Playstation 3 and the temperament of its users. The font was chosen consistently for the platinum title and game title so that it keeps the range of games on the same level and is clear and lucid to observers on a sales stand.


The middle horizontal division contains the non-translucent part of the game illustration. The illustration shows in-game action, like a snapshot of the game-play that encapsulates the ‘greatness of the game’. The top and bottom divisions are translucent to support a full cover illustration and provide a constant contrast against the text across all game covers. The middle division is structured as a focal point according the Golden Section and acts as a peer into the game-play.

The borders to the left are kept constant with the regular non-platinum game covers. This is to keep an order of continuity in a game-player’s library. Many mentioned in the questionnaire they are put off buying platinum games because the luminous yellow borders hamper their ordered games library.

The overall appearance of the game cover is suggestive of the Penguin covers and what they stand for ‘good games cheap’. This is perhaps overlooked by most gamers, however, the design is not intended to be nostalgic.

When a project is planned like this it leaves little uncertainty for positions, image sizes etc. In a well structured grid, elements fall into place and the design takes shape more easily. Careful planning of this type can be applied to all mediums of graphic design.

Grids for books, posters, magazines, web design etc. call for different grid structures. It depends on the subject matter and how it is to be presented and communicated.

When including photography in any piece of design it is necessary to have good composition. Golden Ratio dimensions can to help compose a photography appropriately to achieve a sense of balance and harmony.

The following page shows photographs that have been positioned appropriately to Golden Sections within a spatial zone. To do this, a program called PhiMatrix can be used as an aid. It displays a completely customisable Golden Rectangle over any program at any time. The three most important customisable features are the size of the rectangle, the amount of divisions within the rectangle and the style of Golden Rectangle. Although this program is useful for quick mock-ups of Golden Rectangles, it restrains the freedom to move in and out of programs when you want the Golden Rectangle to stay positioned where it is. Also, it does not contain the spiral rectangle.

A better solution is to manually draw each type of Golden Rectangle. Begin with a scaled Golden Rectangle by using the Golden Ratio of 1:1.618. If the rectangle is 100mm in height, then it would be 161.8mm in width. To get the first vertical line for the grid do a calculation of 161.8×0.618 which equals 99.99mm. Make a vertical rule division 99.99mm across. To get the first horizontal rule for the grid do a calculation of 100×0.618 which equals 61.8mm. Make a horizontal rule division 61.8mm up. These are the first two lines of the Golden Grid. If you need more lines in the grid for added structural assistance then times 0.618 by the next rule divisions i.e. 99.99mm and 61.8mm. Keeping repeating these steps until there is sufficient spatial zones to work with. For the grid to have a more modular structure, copy and flip the horizontal and vertical lines. For the purpose of positioning photography, four rules should be sufficient as shown.

To draw a spiral Golden Rectangle begin by drawing a square and a horizontal halfway line of the square. Locate the point where the halfway line meets the square’s edge. Draw a circle from this point with the radius of the distance from the point to the opposite top corner of the square. Extend the square up until it meets the tangent point of the circle. Draw another within the new rectangle division and repeat the process three times for the spiral to emerge.

The Golden Ratio is becoming more established as practicable method method in influencing graphic design. It is believed that many logos are influenced by the Golden Section.

A fictional Swedish brand was created to use the Golden Ratio to create a logo. The brand is called Skogsr . The idea of the logo was to use three crowns as it is a national emblem of Sweden, present in the Coat of Arms of the Realm of Sweden. The crowns were created using a total six Golden Rectangles that combine to make up one large Golden rectangle.

The finished logo was wrapped around a 3D-model of two beer cans using 3DS Max. The beer cans were positioned relative to a Golden Ratio grid. The end result is an example.


To achieve a successful design solution, the process can be broken down and simplified by use of a grid. When all the necessary information of words and images are composed in a proportionate manner, the design then takes a dynamic form. This is a fundamental part of what design is elements positioned in a beautiful and harmonious system.

Considering which elements go where when piecing together a work of images and words can be for the most part an unsure process. Experience and perhaps an innate sense of proportion account for most judgements when weighing up proportion.

Essentially, there are two methods in which a designer can take to tackle a design problem using creative intuition about sense of proportion or using a grid for a sense of proportion. Both methods can result in a beautiful and harmonious design solution where all elements have a unique relationship to one another. It may be argued which method is best for the study of graphic design. From the experience gained during the course of this study, it has helped find solutions faster and more efficiently. Evidence shows designing with reference to a planned grid can consistently produce better results (Hurlburt,1978). When an intuitive course of action leads the creative process it could produce sometimes unordered and self-indulgent results. This may hinder the communication purpose of design. On the other hand, a purely pragmatic approach could result in design that lacks originality and flair. Breaking a grid in certain circumstances can be practical but knowing when to do so is important

Education of design does not really call for a rigid use of grids. This is perhaps because people who seek roles in design are people with creative insight and have an innate sense of balance and proportion.

A grid is essentially a combination of horizontal and vertical lines that act as a foundation for the placement of elements. The mind makes these lines when deciding where to place things. A grid can provide these lines and help the mind focus on the objective of communicating design effectively.

Hurlburt(1978) states that many highly educated and and contemporary graphic designers can perform without the use of formal grids. Even so in Switzerland and Germany where it is believed grid systems originated.

Grids provide a solid framework to work with and can be used in all desktop publishing software. Quite often, effective design ideas come as a correspondence in time between thoughts/moods and the design project at hand. There are times when creative ideas come to mind easily and design solutions are apparent. There times when there is a dry-up of creative flow, possibly as a result of outside forces. During these times a solid framework with which to work is the best course of action. It is comforting that a framework that assists the creative process exists, as graphic design is often thought of as a purely creative line of work that combines knowledge in software and not as a subject where rigid structures exist.

Grids provide beautiful harmony and make a design more lucid. It can make a page come alive. They are a guide to, but not a guarantee to effective design and a sensible approach to the design problem.

The design work created has laid the foundations for effective future work


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