1984 since 1954: Orwell covers evolve


The changing cover design of George Orwell’s 1984

How better to explain the difference between American and British paperback publishing? These two books were published in the same year, 1954, one in the US and one in Britain. At that time, America had a more visual culture and needed pictorial expression to get attention, especially on crowded news stands where many paperbacks were sold. In Britain books were sold in bookshops where they did not compete with the visual covers of magazines, newspapers and other packaged products as on news stands.

This is a fair comparison. Signet was the successor to American Penguin, which Allen Lane had sold off in the 1940s. Kurt Enoch, in charge of production, developed a tradition of vivid pictorial covers in all the company imprints. This Signet illustration is lurid and suggestive, selling the novel 1984 as a sex and sadism tale. It’s wrong and you wonder what a reader would make of it if they bought it based on the cover.

As for the Penguin cover, it is set in the revised version of the 1935 typographic grid, a prim, tidy and mute layout, but at least it doesn’t lie about its contents.


Penguin 1963 / Penguin Modern Classics 1971                    

Later Penguin reprints of 1984 show the evolution of design taste. In 1963 the art director Germano Facetti made this collaged artwork for the Marber grid edition, a simple graphic that illustrates the moment of Winston Smith’s torture at the hands of O’Brien. An aggressive cover, it shows Penguin was responding to the increasingly visual culture of Britain in the 1960s.

For the Penguin Modern Classics edition in 1971 a more ‘tasteful’ image was chosen from a picture library, the World War 2 William Roberts’ painting, The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942. It alludes to the sinister bureaucratic control described in the novel, especially the Ministry of Truth where Winston works.


Penguin Essential 1998 / Penguin Essential 2008

These two Penguin Essentials are 10 years apart and they show the evolution of design taste in that decade. On the left is the Grunge interpretation by Darren Haggar and Dominic Bridges. The grainy image and text with the suggestion of surveillance photography give the cover a seedy atmosphere in line with fear and social exhaustion depicted in the novel. 

On the right is a cover by the former street artist Shephard Fairey of Obey the Giant fame. The commission was a clever idea as Fairey’s poster aesthetic is based on Russian Constructivism. The associations of Constructivism, and of Orwell’s novel, with the Stalinist period made Fairey a good choice and his design has a menacing and vaguely communistic flavour.

Penguin 2013

David Pearson’s 2013 design uses the radical idea of blanking out the title and author. It refers to the book’s protagonist Winston Smith, whose job at the Ministry of Truth was to retrospectively censor by deletion every reference in newspaper archives to political figures who had become “unpersons”.

The design and execution of this idea was difficult and required “just the right amount of print obliteration by printing, debossing, and flattening the type. What’s left is less a letter than ‘a dent.'” It’s an example of art room designers working closely with the printers to achieve the desired result. Art direction was by Jim Stoddart and design by David Pearson.

Jim Stoddart: foil & deboss tests


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s