Penguin Modern Poets returns

Tom Etherington, a Junior Designer at Penguin Press, is behind the look of the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets, a revival of the series that originally ran in the 1960s. Here, he reveals more about the direction for the design of the publisher’s latest poetry collection.

Originally published in the 1960s and 70s, running to 27 editions and including the work of 81 writers, the Penguin Modern Poets collection introduced many readers to contemporary poetry through inexpensive paperback editions.

Its range was vast – from RS Thomas and Peter Porter, through to William Carlos Williams, Charles Bukowski and George Mackay Brown – and its tenth edition, The Mersey Sound, which featured the work of Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, became one of the biggest-selling poetry anthologies of all time.

A second series also appeared in the 1990s and went some way to address the huge gender imbalance of the first. In the series of the mid-1990s, 13 of the 39 writers were women, as opposed to just four of 81 in the 1960s-70s.

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Faced with updating the series to feature the work of three modern day poets over each volume was a daunting task, says Etherington.

“The original series from the 1960s is now iconic with its condensed Univers type grid by Romek Marber and bold photograms and photographs, a lot of which were made by Alan Spain,” he explains.

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“We tried numerous directions for the new series, including illustrative approaches, abstract compositions of shapes, and photography like the original series. But in the end it was decided that the covers should be simple, approachable and timeless, so we headed towards a reductive typographical solution.”

Penguin Press has recently been honing its approach to some of its series covers, seemingly in an attempt to distil just what it is that makes a Penguin book … a Penguin book.

Its new-look Classics series of A-format titles stripped back the covers to simple type and colour combinations, reflecting the international breadth of its titles, while the Little Black Classics series evoked a similarly pared-back style.

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“The idea was to create a distinctly ‘Penguin’ cover design that would appeal to both the seasoned poetry reader and somebody who would like an introduction to contemporary poetry,” says Etherington of his approach to the Modern Poets.

The first volume features work by Canadian poet, Anne Carson, alongside selections from the work of two British writers, Emily Berry and Sophie Collins (whose first collection will be published by Penguin next year).

“The use of bold vertical lines with the title and volume number running vertically is a slight nod to the Tschichold Penguin grids,” adds Etherington. “The three poets’ names are the main focus of the cover, which feels consistent with the Penguin design approach at the moment – like the Pelicans and Pocket Penguins – letting the work speak for itself without excessive ornamentation.”

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The colours used across the covers will gradually evolve throughout the series, Etherington says, so that “the spines blend into a spectrum of colours.

“I tried to use slightly softened primary colours (inspired a little bit by fruit pastels), so that they looked welcoming without being garish. The series is potentially infinite though so eventually the covers will change into all kinds of colours. I’m quite excited about the series possibly evolving into paler colours or even grey tones at some point in the future.”

The first book in the new series of Penguin Modern Poets – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win (Anne Carson, Sophie Collins, Emily Berry) will be published by Penguin Press on July 28; £7.99. See penguin.co.uk

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Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media