The radical Sixties Specials

Cover in bright red and white with bold headline title and photo of small, worried child looking to the sky
Cover design: Richard Hollis, 1961

Dramatic covers for a radical decade.

In the early 1960s a series of political crises filled the front pages: apartheid outrages in South Africa and the US, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Profumo affair and many others. It was a time of widespread fear of nuclear war at the height of the Cold War. To shed light on these events Penguin revived the topical non-fiction imprint called Penguin Specials which had been so popular on the eve of World War II. Published very quickly while the subject was newsworthy, they had sold in vast quantities and helped Penguin survive the War.

Penguin Special_Stefan Lorant_I Was Hitler's Prisoner/////Penguin Special_S Grant Duff_Europe and the Czechs

Penguin Specials from 1939 and 1938

The 1960s Specials

Penguin Specials covered a range of pressing topics in a spirit of critical enquiry, written by specialists in their subjects and brought into print while the issues were relevant. They ran parallel to the new current affairs television programmes and reflected “the growing social awareness of society as it started to ask difficult questions of its leaders.” (Baines)

To grab attention the Specials were dressed in  eye-catching covers. Bright red was the theme colour and black & white press photos illustrated the content with a sense of urgency.

The bold, sans serif type, usually Helvetica, was placed either asymmetrically, or front and centred like news headlines. Titles or author names are often white reversed out of the red, and photos are sometimes overprinted with red, as can be seen in the titles, Housing and Unions below.

Penguin Special_Hanged by the Neck copy////photo of Sharpeville massacre with streaming blood added

This look was a part of the design regime created by art director Germano Facetti, who instituted a  modernist design strategy at Penguin. Covers on the African Library, Penguin Plays, the FictionCrime and Pelican imprints all shared the the visual language of European modernism: grid layouts, bold sans serif type and the use of informational photos instead of illustrations.

Penguin Special_The General Says No////Penguin Special_Cuba

Penguin Special_Housing////Penguin Special_Unions

Penguin Special_Wilson//.//Penguin Special _The Profumo Affair

Penguin’s leftish traditions are shown in the choice of subject matter and in the visual treatment of the subjects. The rising Labour politician Harold Wilson, soon to become prime minister, is shown  making a point, while the disgraced Conservative politician John Profumo is shown small and isolated.

Penguin Special_persecution 1961_full cover
Complete cover designed by Germano Facetti


This accusatory cover opens out to reveal Ian Berry’s famous press photo of South Africa’s Sharpeville massacre where police shot dead 69 black protestors in cold blood. However the book itself is not quite what the cover implies. Instead of documenting the Sharpeville atrocity it ‘contains nine case studies of persecution, intolerance, and brutality in the divided world of the mid-century’. A stunning cover by Facetti, it is nevertheless false advertising and a crude case of exploiting one issue to promote another.

back cover of paperback with solid red background and type//  /Penguin Special_Unions_back

The back covers, handsome designs in themselves, further reveal elements of a newspaper aesthetic: bold san serif type large enough to assert the message loudly, and anonymous press photos selected at picture agencies.

Design credits:

Germano Facetti – Hanged by the Neck, Persecution 1961

Tasha Kallin – The General says No / Ole Vedel – Cuba

Jane Gate (photo) – Housing  / Bruce Robertson – Unions 

Gerald Cinamon – Wilson / Leif Anisdahl – The Profumo Affair


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