Patterns of African History

Design with four spears meeting at points with grid and type in earth colours and
Cover design by Robert Hollingsworth, 1963

How Penguin designed the African Library

In the 1950s and 60s, oppression by colonial administrations and movements toward independence made the African continent newsworthy. The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, and the successful independence movements in Ghana and Zambia put the African continent on the front page and created a demand for deeper understanding, both locally and in the world outside. 

Penguin had a West African Series during the 1950s but the growing political turbulence created a more urgent and contemporary need. The Penguin African Library was established in 1962, edited by Ronald Segal, an anti-apartheid refugee from South Africa, and it featured topical books by African authors. The series ran until 1975 with 46 titles published and, by 1969, total sales of 750,000 copies.

photo of Kenneth Kaunda giving speech/////abstracted photo of African man with child

photo of two Arab men reading newspaper////abstracted photo of three African men

The graphic design of the covers played its part in the success. When the series was being prepared in 1962, the art director Germano Facetti had recently commissioned the Marber grid and he realised it was an approach that could bind the disparate branches of Penguin in an overall brand image.

Text and image set in a grid that left room for creativity and variety and Facetti adapted that idea to different imprints and series, including the new Penguin African Library.

The African Library used a grid of three equal parts with bold Helvetica type, brand colour-coding of mid-brown, and more or less consistent visual images which were stock photos or geometric patterns. The colour scheme of earth hues seems to say Africa, at least to a European observer. The top panel is kept in brown, with series name, logo and sometimes book title. Over-printing expands the colour palette and depth of the covers. Placed together the African Penguins create a striking pattern of tones and shapes.

Geometric design that features a swastika// //Press photo of Nasser smiling and waving his upraised arm

abstracted contrasty photo of African mask in three-part graphic layoutphoto/ / /penguin-african-library_east-africa

.The design continues across the spine and back to create a unified physical object. The blurb is densely packed in the middle panel, leaving the back cover otherwise open.

Penguin_The Arab Role in Africa_full cover
Complete cover, front, back and spine

back of paperback showing three-part design in earth colours//.//back of paperback showing three-part graphic in earth colours

If you turn the back covers sideways it resembles a flag, such as those of Cameroon or  Guinea which have similar tricolour patterns. This is a suitable reference considering the rising nationalism many of the books describe.


penguin-african-library-back-2-2 copy
The back cover resembles a flag

Designer credits:                                                                                                       

  • Robert Hollingsworth, East Africa: The Search for Unity, 1963                           
  • Camera Press photo, The High Price of Principles, 1973
  • Richard Hollis, Mau Mau Detainee, 1964
  • Massimo Vignelli, The Arab Role in Africa, 1962                                                       
  • Massimo Vignelli, African Profiles, 1962                                                                 
  • Gillian Lewis, The Rise of the South African Reich, 1964     
  • Robert Hollingsworth, Nasser’s Egypt, 1965/69                            
  • Massimo Vignelli, Modern Poetry in Africa, 1963/65
  • Designer unknown, East Africa, 1963/69

Penguin in Africa_Alistair McLeery

Some information in this article comes from the book Penguin in Africa by Alistair McCleery available from the Penguin Collectors Society.

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