Pelican Books: an unrivalled online reading experience

The relaunch of Pelican books in May was a two-fold operation. Alongside the new-look editions, the publishers were working in tandem on a bespoke in-browser reading experience that would, they hoped, truly echo the books in print. Is this finally the digital version of the book we’ve been waiting for?

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The relaunch of Pelican books in May was a two-fold operation. Alongside the new-look editions, the publishers were working in tandem on a bespoke in-browser reading experience that would, they hoped, truly echo the books in print. Is this finally the digital version of the book we’ve been waiting for?

One of the most interesting aspects to the Pelican relaunch, which we covered in detail in the CR June Monograph, was that on-screen development had influenced the design of the printed editions, and vice-versa.

While the rich heritage of the imprint could have weighed down on the shoulders of the design team – Penguin’s non-fiction brand originally ran from 1937 to 1984 and spawned a multitude of great cover design – it was in fact the digital era that influenced its new direction in 2014.

Perhaps even more unusual was that the idea for how the online versions of the books might work came out of Penguin’s art department and its work on the new Pelican range, rather than from any editorial or marketing directive.

Indeed, the new digital direction via (Pelican editions are resolutely not an ebook or an app), was led by one of Penguin’s book designers, Matt Young; the team working with Bristol-based Fiasco Design to build the final website.

One of the first Pelican releases, as displayed on an iPhone

In March 2013, art director Jim Stoddart first briefed his design team on the relaunch of the Pelican series. “The brief was to make these books accessible and distinctive,” says Young, “and I suggested that we could make them available to read online – not just buy online, but to actually read online. That was a big part of this project right from the start.”

Young was already frustrated with the reading experience offered by most ebooks (see two examples below) and thought Penguin could do better.

One week later he had built a prototype responsive webpage (showed below), which offered a clean, comfortable and enjoyable reading experience at any screen size, and pitched the idea to his colleagues in the art department. Later that day he was making the same pitch to Penguin’s managing director.

Ebook problems: bad spacing and text flow

Young’s first prototype for the Pelican Books website


The text was the starting point for the Pelican redesign. “We chose typefaces that render well both in print and online,” Young says. “Freight Text for body copy and [a custom version of] Brandon for headlines. Although the layout of the online books is flexible and responds to the screen size, the proportions and the spacing are consistent across both formats.”

How the new books’ covers would look was also an early consideration, with Young attempting to find an approach that would be flexible enough to work onscreen at any size or shape. This saw him “exploring pattern and abstract geometric shapes that work regardless of how they’re cropped, combined with big, welcoming, distinctive type for the title and author.”

Early cover experiments by Young. Pelican logo by Richard Green

Cover of Orlando Figes’ book from the relaunch series


“When reading a book in print, we interact with the cover every time we open and close the book – we see it all the time, it reinforces our perception of the book in our minds,” Young explains.

“Whereas when reading an ebook, the cover often has a much smaller role to play – reduced to a thumbnail, and sometimes never seen again once the book has been purchased. With Pelican, the cover is echoed throughout the entire book: each chapter begins with a full-page/full-screen chapter opener, acting as an important visual signpost and echoing the cover, reinforcing the brand and the series style.”

The books’ chapters share the same design idea, in print and online

For Young, a big limitation of ebooks is how they handle non-text information – everything from detailed diagrams and maps, to charts and tables. Essential information for many non-fiction titles.

“At best you have to click/pinch/zoom/pan your way around, and at worst they’re just completely illegible,” he says. “And ebooks are usually converted directly from the print files – so even if you’re reading on a tablet with a high-definition screen capable of accurately rendering millions of colours, you still get the same black and white map that was optimised for print and used in the paperback edition.”

All maps and diagrams which appear in the Pelican launch series have been re-drawn for the screen and optimised to work at any size.

“If an author references a video we can actually embed the video right there in the text, rather than just showing a screenshot or a film still,” Young adds. “If a diagram communicates more effectively with the aid of movement or animation, we can do that too through video or animated gifs.”

Map as shown on an iPhone (animation)

Tables are also displayed clearly on a laptop screen


Animated diagram


Another difference from the traditional ebook format is how the Pelican editions deal with footnotes. “[In ebooks] instead of being positioned at the foot of the page, they’re housed in a separate chapter tacked onto the end of the book, more like endnotes than footnotes,” Young explains.

Normally, he says, clicking on an asterisk or number in the main text takes the reader to a new chapter where they then have to find the relevant note amongst many others; then click a link to take them back to where they originally were in the text.

Footnotes from a Pelican book as displayed on an iPhone


“It’s disruptive to the reading experience, you’re jumping back and forth, interrupting the flow of the book,” Young says. “For our online books we asked: how should footnotes be handled on the web? Our solution was for footnotes to be positioned – as you might expect – at the foot of the page. [See animation, above]

“If you want to read the author’s note you click the asterisk or number – it has a wide target area, so is easy to hit even with stumpy fingers on small screens – and the note slides in seamlessly from the foot of the page. You can still read and refer back to the main text at the same time as it’s still on screen; and you can dismiss the note when you’re done with a simple swipe or click.”

The design of the onscreen Pelican experience allows readers to easily highlight and share text


Having already got a few ‘pages’ into Human Evolution by Robin Dunbar, it’s clear that the reading experience is just about as good as you can get online. The bespoke nature of the design works extremely well; the books feel individually crafted yet part of an identifiable Pelican collection, while the mechanics of reading – accessing the contents, scrolling, even highlighting text – is a joy.

“Essentially we’re just trying to provide the best possible reading experience for these books,” says Young. “Our design approach has been extremely unified and holistic, allowing us to play to the strengths of each format whilst making the books very distinctively, recognisably ‘Pelican’ inside and out.”

Pelican Books can be bought (and read) online via Matt Young’s site is; Fiasco Design are at

  • James

    Great article although you neglected to mention the involvement of design agency Fiasco Design, who were an integral part of the design and build process:

  • @James Thanks for the comment. Apologies for that – I have now referenced the studio’s work in the text.

  • Fascinating design. I think it’s bold. I’ll take a closer look, thanks.

    I’m a bookseller-come-web editor and developer myself and would love to see more of this from publishers. The technologies are freely available although naturally it’s more about gathering the right people and therefore only an option for modern teams.

    What’s most pleasing is that it’s genuine digital content that is purposely built and native to digital. I absolutely agree that most eBooks are frustrating. That’s why I would never be willing to pay more than £2 for them (and I’d rarely even pay that when I could own the physical book.

    It’d be interesting to hear from Jim or Matt about what his team intend to do next.

  • Jason Card

    I think the main functionality of the site is innovative and simple. Well done Fiasco! I heard this was developed and designed by just one person in the team? Thats fantastic work considering the enormity of the project!