Pelican Flies Again

The story behind the design and relaunch of Penguin Press’s Pelican imprint

This month, after three decades in retirement, Penguin Books has brought back its famous Pelican non-fiction imprint. Relaunched in the digital era, Pelican’s new look acknowledges the company’s rich design heritage and reputation, but embraces the variety of ways that readers now read books: in print, still, but increasingly on screens, e-readers and smartphones.

In this edition of Monograph, Penguin Press’s art department discuss the 2014 relaunch from the design point of view: from creating a new logo and book cover designs, to the role the internet has played in shaping the look of the reborn series. Five new titles have launched this month, as printed and digital editions, with many more planned over the coming years.

Pelican’s story begins in 1936 when, at a bookstall at King’s Cross station, Penguin’s founder Allen Lane overheard a woman asking
for “one of those Pelican books”; a misnomer that would give him the idea for a brand new range of titles. A year later the first Pelican was published in distinctive pale blue – Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism, & Fascism. The new series would remain true to the Penguin ethos of printing accessible and stimulating books at an affordable price.

Geared towards appealing to readers keen on self-education and development, Pelicans tackled serious subjects and made thought-provoking and intelligent writing more widely available to the public. The aim, said Lane, was to establish Pelican as “The true everyman’s library for the twentieth century”. Their early design would also complement the books’ sense of clear expression. Edward Young’s triband cover and Gill Sans were adopted; while Young conceived of a Pelican logo for the front covers (in flight) and spines (standing). His drawings were later refined by William Grimmond, under the direction of the formidable Jan Tschichold; and through the 1960s and into the early 70s, Pelican cover designs developed further under Germano Facetti, as they incorporated more illustration and photography, not to mention becoming more adventurous and colourful overall. Having sold over 250 million titles over nearly 50 years, Pelican was discontinued by Penguin in 1984.

Another 30 years on and intellectual rigour remains key to the texts – relaunch subjects include the human brain, revolutionary Russia and Greek and Roman political ideas. But so, too, does the importance of good design in transmitting these concepts; a Penguin tradition that hasn’t dimmed since the 1930s. And the image
of a bird in flight, a symbol of the free pursuit of knowledge, still manages to capture Pelican’s intentions as well as its rewards.

Mark Sinclair
Creative Review

The design of the relaunched Pelican imprint has been carried out by Penguin Press’ art department, overseen by art director Jim Stoddart. Initial design ideas were by Stoddart, Matthew Young, Richard Green, Coralie Bickford-Smith, Antonio Colaco, Samantha Johnson, Isabelle De Cat, and Becky Stocks.Book design and web design direction: Matthew Young; Logo design: Richard Green; Web development: Fiasco Design; Pelican series editor: Laura Stickney; Marketing: Kalle Matilla. Further details on the new Pelican titles are available from


Extended captions

Pelican’s first flight, 1937

(Images 1-3) Penguin’s design heritage has been well documented, not least by its own employees. A notebook belonging to head of typography and design Hans Schmoller (at the company 1949-76) collects together Penguin’s early logos – shown are four of the pages devoted to the Pelican logo with its first incarnation by Edward Young (1937) and a reworked version by William Grimmond (1947) pasted in. The Pelican logo required two variants; one in flight (for front covers) and one standing (for spines and back covers). This point of difference, which the single iteration Penguin and Puffin logos do not have, continues into the 2014 relaunch of the imprint.

Pelican and the adult intellect

(Image 4) A poster designed in the 1940s for Penguin Books by William Grimmond highlights how the newly-launched Pelican range was advertised as the choice to “suit the adult intellect”.

A selection from the large family of logos designed for Penguin and its Pelican and Puffin imprints since the late 1930s, including a number of special versions. Grimmond’s redrawn Pelican logo of 1947 is shown at centre. (image 5)

“We have so many different imprints, but Pelican is such a recognisable name,” says Penguin designer Matthew Young. “When you think of the originals from the 1930s, to be able to reintroduce Pelican again is amazing. And slightly terrifying because it’s got all that history.”

“Thinking about the covers was the first thing we did,” says Penguin Press art director Jim Stoddart of the relaunch. “I was aware that within the Penguin Press art department we had quite a lot of plugged-in experience of what was needed. And I don’t think you’ll find a better collection of book designers. We needed to look at the brief ourselves to see what we could come up with.”

A legacy: Pelican covers in the 1940s and 50s

(Images 6 and 7) Though Pelican retained its distinctive pale blue colouring, the look of the series changed much during this time thanks in part to the role that designer Jan Tschichold played at the publishers from 1946 until 1949 (when Hans Schmoller took over design at Penguin).

While earlier Pelican covers for The Adventures Of Ideas (1942) and An Introduction to Modern Architecture (1941) used variants of the familiar triband design – both of these are uncredited but are likely to have been created by Edward Young – the cover for The Earth Beneath Us incorporated some of Tschichold’s design changes, such as his blue ‘frame’ design, also featuring an illustration by Victor Reinganum (1958).

Tschichold’s 1949 cover for Peter Heaton’s Sailing brought an illustration into the triband design; while the cover of Film (1944) used a still from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin (again it is uncredited but likely to have been by Young). The elegant cover of CE Hubbard’s Grasses featured an illustration by Joan Sampson (1954).

A legacy: Pelican covers in the 1960s and 70s

(Images 8 and 9) With Germano Facetti’s art direction in the 1960s and early 1970s many Pelican covers took a more conceptual or even abstract turn. A year before his appointment, Pelican covers were already showing signs of change – as in the number puzzle patterning of Riddles in Mathematics, designed by John and Kenneth Astrop, in 1960. Facetti commissioned designers such as Romek Marber (Our Language, 1963) and Derek Birdsall (500 Years of Printing, 1974; possibly Economics, 1974), and also designed many Pelican book covers himself, including Self and Others, 1975, which was based on Martin Bassett’s cover for The Divided Self, 1974. In 1984, after nearly 50 years in print, the Pelican series was discontinued by Penguin.

Pelican is reborn

In 2013 the decision was made to resurrect the Pelican brand, commission a new series of non-fiction titles and, of course, start work on how this new range of books might look.

“When we got into the cover design ideas and looked at the series style, I was more focused on the logo,” says designer Richard Green, whose first sketches for the new-look Pelican are shown here (image 10). “The original Pelicans had two logos, unlike the other imprints – the first cover features it flying and there’s one in a lozenge. Jim was keen that we had two and featured the flying bird on the front, with another on the spine and the back.”

“What’s interesting is that the original flying pelican was quite ungainly,” says Stoddart. “But because of technology there’s now an opportunity for logos to be a lot freer than they have been in recent years. So this was a chance to keep that open – the flying bird is a moment of freedom, it’s liberated.

Shown here (image 11) are ‘pairings’ of logos that Green came up with (the first reworked logos from 1947 are shown top left in both groups). According to the designer, the pelican’s eye was one of the hardest details to get right. Green was also conscious that, stylistically, the new-look Pelican logo would have to work with the Penguin and Puffin, both of which had evolved over the years. Thick lines were used in order to ensure the logo remained well-defined when it was reduced in size on spines.

“Small tweaks make a big difference,” says Green. “Having scaled it down to the spine, it felt like the smaller eye gave the pelican a more serious, but friendly, look.”

Experimenting with cover designs

(Images 12 and 13) “I love the freedom and experimental nature of the ideas [we were coming up with],” says Stoddart of the art department’s initial cover designs. “As you try out designs like this, the brand is evolving in your mind. It can’t be the 1930s or 40s, even 60s or 70s look – it’s a new launch, so it has to be a different thing. The books are new commissions by great contemporary writers, and so it’s much bigger than a retro nod.

“We thought about whether the Pelican logo could be the driving force on the cover,” Stoddart continues, “or even a label? It’s important to go through all these stages – and you can’t predict them – so we could then arrive at the refined, smart look which Matt had been working on. His was a solid, modern approach – and the logo was working really well on it.”

Final logos and cover design

“We were working on cover ideas in parallel,” says Stoddart, “and all of us had suggestions, but we were all using Richard’s new logo. After a few weeks, we’d selected the logo in this cover route by Matt, and it all gelled nicely. The new logo really works with this concept.”

“The logo (image 14) was done early on and I think it informed the cover design process; it influenced how the cover ideas evolved,” adds Young, who conceived the final grid design for the new Pelican covers, shown here (image 15).

“By January we’d figured out what direction we were going in and the manuscripts started to arrive. Everything that I could get involved in, I did – not just the covers, but the insides especially, the typesetting and layout. I was keen to not just do it the way we’ve always done it.

“I felt there was an opportunity to really make them feel like Pelican books inside,” Young continues, “particularly through the typography, as it’s a distinctive part of the brand. The chapter openers are also solid black pages with big white type – and this reminds you every so often that you’re reading a Pelican book.”

Pelican back in print…

One of the most interesting aspects of the Pelican relaunch is the way in which digital has influenced the design of the printed books (images 16 and 17). Before working in print, Young in fact devised a responsive website (where the type adjusts to fit any screen), and loaded up a sample chapter from one of the launch titles. Trying out fonts in this way, his research directly influenced the design direction of the print editions.

“Early on I was playing with Brandon as a display face and Freight as the text font,” says Young of his onscreen work. “They were welcoming, easy to read and fitted with the Pelican ethos. So I was working on the covers, insides and type and, at the same time, thinking about the e-books and the websites. The online work was influencing the paperbacks – and the paperbacks were influencing how the online work was done.”

… and reborn online

(Image 18) “When we got the news Pelican was coming back and had an initial brief, the first thing I did was think about the website,” says Young. “Usually, when we have a new series of books we’ll design the books and then any websites separately. But one of the things in the brief was the target audience; reaching a younger audience and seeing how we engage with them.

“I put a prototype together for how the books could look if they were online. The beauty of it being a website rather than an e-book is that it works on any device. The type adjusts to the size of the screen – the margins and the leading changing depending on how wide your screen is. But at the back of my mind was that this should still look like a Penguin book, not a blog or an article. It had to retain its bookishness.”

The first five Pelican books are out now (£7.99)


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