A classic design for the Classics

The Sorrows of Young Werthe_Goethe

How the Penguin Classics grid was made

Penguin Classics began in 1946 as a result of the massive and unexpected success of their edition of Homer’s Odyssey. EV Rieu’s new translation found a popularity outside of academe that alerted the publisher to a potential market for other antique and hard to find classics. Since then, the Penguin Classics have grown to become a large and profitable part of the company.

The early cover  below left was by Jan Tschichold in 1947-48, a conservative but well-tailored design. On the right is the new design in 1965 by Germano Facetti featuring a historic image, black background and Helvetica type, at the time considered a daring modernisation.

Penguin Classic_Homer Odyssey_1946-51/////photo of ancient Greek carved relief of male figure//

Penguin Classics in 1951 and 1965.

After various intervening cover designs, In 2001, Jim Stoddart launched an overhaul of Classics covers when he commissioned British designer Angus Hyland of Pentagram. It’s quite a story and it demonstrates how collaboration and compromise work at the higher levels of international publishing:

We discussed the need for the new cover design to look ‘classic’ in design terms, yet fresh; they also needed to look high quality; they needed to use black as a grounding colour; and they needed to continue using well researched images relevant to the texts and if possible influenced by the texts.

Hyland presented a series of proposals, featuring non-centred text in Gill Sans. 

We liked these a great deal. Our American counterparts, who are a key consideration for us as they represent a sizeable part of the Penguins worldwide Classics market, felt that the use of Gill Sans was a little too English for the US, and that the ranged-left typography was not classical enough.

After a lot of further discussion, and without Pentagram’s involvement, we were able to agree on this amended layout using Futura, and at the suggestion of the US art dept, italicised Mrs Eaves for the titles, and this is a look that has which has proven successful in both the UK and the US. 

book cover with black area, titles, and dramatic photo of whales fin in the air/////cover design with old engraving of whale breaching the sea

Above left: Angus Hyland proposal from 2001; the Gill Sans text is asymmetrical. Above right: the published version with centred Futura & Mrs Eaves text.

Penguin Classic Balzac Old Man Goriot copy
The complete cover layout: front, spine and back

Above: the front, back and spine of the cover reveals the structure supplied by the grid, the uniform colours and consistent typefaces.

The effect is one of polish and substance. The traditional black instigated in the 1960s by Germano Facetti has been retained for the bottom quarter giving the layout a stability against the colour and movement of the large illustrations above. A horizontal white band contained the series name and Penguin logo, and all text was centred. 

Title author Balzac Goriot
Author in upper case Futura; title in lower case italic Mrs Eaves

Above: Angus Hyland’s proposal of the English font Gill Sans was replaced with the German Futura (1927) used for the title, and the American serif font Mrs Eaves (1995) used for the author. There’s are subtle contrasts here: sans serif vs serif, geometric vs humanist, upper vs lower case, red vs white. Look how fresh it feels.

Facetti had established a programme of carefully selected paintings and artworks for the Classics illustrations, matching them with the period and flavour of each text. This was continued in the new classics with the same flair but with superior printing, making the new products even classier than in the 1960s. In contrast to the text and the grid, the illustrations are lively and often romantic. 

There are some really stunning covers in this new look, and this is due to some very thorough and creative picture research done in-house at Penguin, as well as bold cropping at artwork stage.**

Penguin Classics Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice/////Penguin Classics Henry James The Europeans

Penguin Classics Thomas Hardy The Woodlanders//////Penguin Classics Thomas Hardy Far from Madding Crowd//////

Penguin Classics Thomas Hardy Return of the Native/////Penguin Classics Thomas Hardy Jude the Obscure///

In 2019, the same art director, Jim Stoddart, revised the 2003 grid, changing the title and author to all white caps, and making other changes that create a harsh effect compared to the previous style. Pictured below is the published style guide, taken from his website. It shows what a subtle art graphic design can be.


Penguin Classic Style Guide 2019
Style guide for Jim Stoddart’s 2019 revision of the 2001 Classics layout

* Angus Hyland mockup of Moby Dick is from Penguin Classics, published by the Penguin Collectors Society.

** Jim Stoddart quotes are from Penguin by Designers published by the Penguin Collectors Society.

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