Pocket Penguins – in search of the perfect Classic

In May, Penguin will publish 20 of its Classics titles in a brand new design which evolves the typographic approach of last year’s Little Black Classics, but makes use of an extensive colour palette. We talked to art director Jim Stoddart about the new-look Pocket Penguins.

If Penguin’s Little Black Classics offered an affordable entry point to some of the publishing house’s more esoteric titles, then the Pocket Penguins series looks set to expand upon this tactic of introducing lesser-known or overlooked texts to its audience in a compact, no-fuss format. It’s a formula that works, too. According to Penguin, over 2.2m Little Black Classics have been sold in just one year.

Twenty titles will appear in the first wave of the new Pocket Penguins range – and the most striking thing to note about them is the dominance of a single colour on each cover and lack of imagery (oil paintings have been used on the ‘black’ Classics covers since the 1980s). Replacing the black of the previous design is a palette that differentiates each book by the original language in which it was published: olive green for German; red for Russian; dark blue for French, orange for English, and so on.

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“The colours used for the Pocket Penguins are heavily driven by the colours used for the first Penguin Classics issued back in 1946,” Penguin’s art director Jim Stoddart explains. “Back then all the books in the series were translations from other languages, but now of course the Penguin Classics list rightly also includes books originally written in English, too, so it was a logical step to use ‘Penguin orange’ for these.

“In the process of reappropriating these colours it has been necessary to adjust a couple of the original colours, and there are also new colours for books not in the original list. In the 1940s, there were only just over 100 books in Penguin Classics, where as today the series includes over 1,200 titles, so there needed to be a much broader palette.”

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The Pockets will be published in the ‘A’ format (111mm x 181mm), a decision which again harks back to the Classics that appeared in the mid-1940s. “It’s the size of most paperbacks through the 20th-century and is very close to golden proportions,” says Stoddart. “It’s a great reading format, pocket-sized and affordable. There was a very strong desire to create the perfect Penguin Classic, and the size and format is a key part of that theory.”

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While the Little Black Classics have clearly proved their worth – and Penguin are naturally keen to replicate this – there’s of course a strong sense of lineage at work here. Design elements from the original ‘black’ Penguin Classics fed into the look of the Little Black Classics – the same fonts, Future and Mrs Eaves, and a white branding panel, for example – while the new Pocket range has in turn evolved from the look of the smaller titles.

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DH Lawrence’s Il Duro, published as a Little Black Classic last year
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Lawrence’s The Rainbow over the last two decades – the ‘black’ Classic design in the centre informed the Little Black Classics which, in turn, drove the direction of the Pocket Penguins

“When publishing a new series of books there is never a guarantee they will work, so it was great that people took to the Little Black Classics,” Stoddart explains. “It made sense, we did an awful lot of thinking and planning around the Little Black Classic project and we’ve taken the same effort with the Pocket Penguins. In this way the design of the Little Black Classics is the direct path to the Pocket Penguins.”

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For Stoddart, the new covers offer the chance for the Classics to be reunited as a coherent series again – and represent a faith in the strength of the texts themselves; the author’s name and/or title acting as an invitation, framed by unobtrusive, considered design.

“What the Little Black Classics showed us was that by simply saying what the book is called and who wrote it allows people to browse and decide on simpler terms,” says Stoddart. “It is particularly the case with books already recognised to be classics that the writers have set the standard, therefore inclusion in the series is the only signpost you need to know you’re buying an amazing book.”

The first 20 Pocket Penguins will be published on May 25 (£5.99-£8.99). The initial titles are as follows:

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA Mikhail Bulgakov
MRS DALLOWAY Virginia Woolf
THE SECRET AGENT Joseph Conrad
THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK Jaroslav Hasek
THE LOST ESTATE Alain-Fournier
THE CALL OF CTHULHU H. P. Lovecraft
THE BETROTHED Alessandro Manzoni
METAMORPHOSIS Franz Kafka
THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE Rainer Maria Rilke
THE HOUSE OF ULLOA Emilia Pardo Bazan
FATHERS AND SONS Ivan Turgenev
OUT OF AFRICA Karen Blixen
WALDEN Henry David Thoreau
A PARISIAN AFFAIR Guy de Maupassant
THE BEAST WITHIN Emile Zola
THE COSSACKS and HADJI MURAT Leo Tolstoy
THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO Alfred Russel Wallace
THE RAINBOW D.H. Lawrence
MY CHILDHOOD Maxim Gorky
O PIONEERS! Willa Cather

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