The Story Behind Penguin Books' Beloved Birdby
Last year’s merger of Penguin and Random House sparked speculation about what the new mega-publisher’s logo would look like. A penguin-shaped house? An igloo? Would the beloved bird be jettisoned altogether? The answer arrived yesterday: Both symbols will remain in Penguin Random House’s arsenal of imprints alongside a new, unassuming wordmark spelling out the company’s name.
That’s good news for fans of the penguin, whose image has graced affordable paperbacks for nearly 80 years. If you’ve ever wondered how it got there in the first place, here’s the skinny, courtesy of TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos (Laurence King), a forthcoming book by Mark Sinclair:
Edward Young was 21 when he was dispatched to London Zoo by his employer, the publisher Bodley Head, with orders to make sketches of penguins. In 1935, managing director Allen Lane had hit upon the idea of producing a new range of affordable but good-quality paperback books, apparently inspired by the lack of reading material available while he was waiting on the platform at Exeter station. Lane had decided on the name Penguin Books at the suggestion of his secretary Joan Coles, and when he resigned from his job in order to launch the imprint proper he required a “dignified but flippant” symbol to go with his new venture. He asked Young to go to Regent’s Park and find the penguin pool.
According to designer and writer Phil Baines, Young returned from the zoo with his drawings and the observation “My God, how those birds stink!” But his perseverance paid off. When Lane finally brought his sixpence Penguins into the world (the company became independent of Bodley Head in 1936), they bore a symbol that would last until 1949, when it was refined and redrawn by Jan Tschichold into something that more closely resembles the logo in use today.
The fact that the symbol for Lane’s new publishing concept was a sea-going bird owed much to the contemporary publishing scene on the continent and, in particular, to the German reprint publishing house Albatross, which had been founded by Max Christian Wegner and John Holroyd Reece in Hamburg in 1932. With centered text set above an elegant graphic of an albatross with its wings outstretched, the unfussy covers were designed by Hans Mardersteig, art director of the Mondadori printers in Italy, whose owner had a seat on the Albatross board.
The format of the Albatross paperback adopted the ‘golden ratio’ and various distinctive colorways to indicate the various genres—both techniques that were later picked up by Lane—with yellow for psychological novels and essays, orange for short stories and humorous works, and red for adventure and crime stories. Writing about the German publishers in the 1953 Penrose Annual, Hans Schmoller, who was then head of design at Penguin, declared that ‘to this day it forms perhaps, from the point of view of design, the pinnacle among paper-covered books.’
But Schmoller had already inherited a body of design work that would set Penguin on its course as one of the world’s most influential publishers in terms of what it produced and how it looked. In 1946, Tschichold arrived at Penguin and during his time there cemented the positioning of the author’s name and title on the cover, cleaned up both spine and back cover layouts, and refined Young’s logo (of which there were now several variants), creating eight versions. All this was eventually enshrined in the designer’s ‘composition rules’, which attempted to give Penguin’s printers and typographers a unified approach.
“Tschichold drew the definitive penguin,” says Steve Hare, Penguin historian and secretary of the Penguin Collector Scoiety, “but even that had variations—specifically in looking left or right on the book; or inside an oval; whether the oval was white or orange, etc. My understanding is that the Penguin logo should look ‘into’ the book—i.e., at the title, rather than turning his back on it all. So if ranged right, he should look left, and vice-versa. But if ranged to the bottom of the cover, he doesn’t usually look up.” As Baines showed in his visual history of the company, Penguin by Penguin, the penguin device has gone through a host of slightly different iterations since then, and as a brand was joined along the way by other birds, most famously, the pelican and puffin.
The Penguin logo was extensively, though subtly, redrawn by Angus Hyland at Pentagram in London in 2003. His penguin was 15 percent thinner than its predecessor; it had feet that now sat on a horizon line, and a new and improved beak, neck flash and eyes. Hyland also created a series of accompanying guidelines to enable the consistent use of the symbol across Penguin’s international market. Agency VentureThree has since carried Hyland’s work into the digital age, creating an animated penguin ident along the way—although, famously, the penguin had been made to move in a 1980s TV campaign for British Rail, sliding down the inside of its oval border on a book cover as it relaxed into a train journey.
Young was at Penguin for just four years, and in that time contributed not only the company’s inaugural penguin symbol, but also its famous branded colorways: orange for novels, green for crime, and pale blue for the Pelican educational series. World War II would take him to Russia, the Mediterranean, and Australia on board various Royal Navy submarines (he reached the rank of commander), while in Germany the conflict spelled the end of the Albatross company.
In 1954, Penguin published Young’s wartime memoir One of Our Submarines as its 1,000th paperback. The cover was designed by Young himself and encapsulates his achievements: His military honors are listed underneath his name, while the penguin logo is surrounded by a laurel wreath. It was a fitting tribute to the man who first established Penguin’s distinctive and distinguished character, one which, nearly eight decades on, is recognized the world over.