Penguin launches Little Black Classics series

To celebrate its 80th birthday, Penguin Books has launched Little Black Classics, a series of 80 titles priced at 80p each. The mini books feature short stories, poetry and dramas drawn from Penguin’s wider Classics list and their sleeves have a distinctive, black-and-white design. We talk to Penguin’s art director Jim Stoddart about how he devised the series’ look…

To celebrate its 80th birthday, Penguin Books has launched Little Black Classics, a series of 80 titles priced at 80p each. The mini books feature short stories, poetry and dramas drawn from Penguin’s wider Classics list and their sleeves have a distinctive, black-and-white design. We talk to Penguin’s art director Jim Stoddart about how he devised the series’ look…


When putting together this new set of books, publishing director Simon Winder was inspired by Penguin’s series of mini books created for its 60th birthday, which included 60 books at 60p each, and wanted to replicate this for the 80th birthday. For Stoddart, the first challenge was whether he would be able to deliver the low price for this new set of books.

“I was very excited by the 80p price point but it was questionable whether such a low price was even possible,” he says. “I promised we’d find a design that made that budget work. The 1995 series were like mini versions of the regular Penguin Classics at the time and used images on the front covers like the regular editions. But paying picture permissions for our 80 little books was going to break the budget. The covers evolved hand in hand with the idea of the project. As the confinements and ambitions of this project became clear so the design developed to fit.”


The team decided to focus on a text-based cover. “The great thing about working in publishing is that there is always plenty of great copy,” Stoddart continues, “particularly when working with the classics. Simon Winder and the editorial team did a superb job selecting short pieces for this series – some of the books are complete short stories and some are extracts. The extracts had evocative lines pulled from the texts to use as titles so it quickly become apparent that the charismatic titles (and of course amazing roster of authors) carried a lot of appeal for the covers.”

This emphasis on text was carried through to the advertising campaign for the new books, which consists of a series of posters featuring extracts from the titles. Penguin has also launched a website, at, where audiences can browse through the different books in the series by spinning a penguin on a wheel. Again, the design is simple and clean, yet appealing.

Posters advertising the Little Black Classics series

Images from the website to promote the series

In the fonts, and the general look of the covers, Stoddart makes a number of references to Penguin cover designs from the past. “There are some crucial visual references in the design of these Little Black Classics covers,” he says.” “They echo the main Penguin black classics covers in that they are black and use the same fonts, Futura and Mrs Eaves, but here I’ve used upper and lower case which softens the expanse of black, and also allows the occasional use of ligatures.

“Making the white strip wider and in the middle is a nod to the original Penguin tri-band covers,” he continues. “This reference is great for this anniversary moment (without being too literal) but also because these are also purely typographic covers and we can use a language of brand continuity. Simplicity is the absolutely the key, but it’s all in the detail.”

  • Char

    The book covers are lovely and simple. My opinion is that the ads are too simple and basic and the website is very poor. The website is a bit of a confusing mess with a really odd spinning device set around a school circular protractor, for some reason. It’s a real shame they used the lovely little penguin to spin around as the ‘needle’.

    Maybe should have sought help from an outside agency?

    I know this sounds terribly negative, sorry.

  • Rob

    I think they look great and it’s amazing they can make this price point profitable, or at least not loss making. Presumably all the books are out of copyright, but there’s still printing, transport, marketing costs etc.

    From a marketing perspective, it may help sales in that a lot of people will probably want to buy at least a few books so that they look good when stacked next to each other on their bookshelves.

  • Rob

    In response to Char, I like the website, although it did take a little bit of playing around with to understand exactly what you are supposed to do and, therefore, there is a risk that some visitors to the site will give up in frustration if they don’t figure it out immediately or just want to see a list of titles all at once.

  • The website is certainly not traditional, but maybe it doesn’t need to be. Whilst adhering to sophisticated simplicity, often steeped in their history, Penguin also challenges and explores different ways of doing things, so I understand why they used an unusual format for the site. I think it would have been disappointing if it had been a standardised website or the seemingly common format for responsive websites that for me are all starting to look the same. Well done Penguin.

  • Luke K

    While I fully respect @Char’s comments, I do very much disagree.

    I saw the posters coming off the tube, and they instantly caught my eye. They encapsulate everything the written word celebrates – Imagination. What more does it need? The website is exactly what the digital world needs – experimentation. Yes, the controls aren’t obvious at first, but this is clearly aimed at a curious audience. Also made me fall in love with Futura all over again. Beautiful typography.

    Top marks to the creative behind this, and Penguin for embracing!

  • Love the idea of the books, hopefully they’ll encourage people to go back and read some of the classics and I like the minimal covers. The website is perhaps a bit annoying – as a customer I’d like to see a list of the books with the links to the suppliers. It could still be inventive, or simply modern in a tile format, but I can see how it could put users off with the mystery navigation.

  • wow, these look great, classy and simple :)

    agree with the comments about responsive sites, they are become too formulaic, websites that are coded fresh are really starting to stand out more now, question is, are users now getting used to the experience of responsive sites, anything different you run the risk of alienating people and making it more difficult for people on the move

  • Hana

    I have never heard of the Penguin Books before, but this book they made had definitively left me a deep impression. I personally like those books with strong and powerful quotes in it, they always give me a peaceful mood and make me easier to concentrate. As for the book itself, seemed like what they want to approach is a pure typographical layout, there is some little things to be noticed.

    1. proper type size. For me, the type sizes are bit too large, I guess they are 72pt or so, try to reduce to 48pt, so that they have a little bit more elegant feeling.
    2. the rag. Be sure to hire a graphic designer who’s good at typography at this point.
    3. alignments. In order to pursue the consistency, I would make it left aligned or center aligned for both content and taglines.

    However, the book now is good enough to fresh your eyes and clear your mind. I do love how the website was made, totally interactive and fun to read through.

  • Bob loves P-p-p-penguin!

    Hmmmn, *new* penguin designs (rubs legs ‘Vic Reeves’ style). What’s not to like!?
    @Steve put it best “[…] sophisticated simplicity, often steeped in their history […]”

  • Susanne

    Out of 80 authors, only 10 are female. Not good enough in 2015, Penguin!

  • Karl


    Get over it!

  • You can see the originals from 1946 onwards on the website here at
    Front cover design and typography is important – but Penguin only changed the principle of the design to the ‘Black Classics’,in 1963 after over 120 titles had already been produced and this was introduced by Germano Facetti, their Art Director.

  • Anybody can please specify which is the font used for the quotations in the poster and web advertising?

  • Kim

    Visiting London, visiting Foyles, Penguin books all the way up on the ledge as you walk up the stairs, yes I picked a title, I like the noir, simplistic appeal. Lined up like that, you want to pick ea one up and be delighted,shocked,surprised by the snippet. Well done Penguin I’m well pleased.