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  • 28 February
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Penguin Books - Great Ideas

With philosophical ideas that shaped the modern world as the subject matter, the Great Ideas series had a lot to live up to in terms of design. Putting faith in a young team and allowing them the freedom to apply a big idea proved to be an award-winning strategy.

The cheaper the better

Penguin Books was founded by Allen Lane in 1935 with the aim of making great writing affordable to everybody. His first paperbacks, written by Agatha Christie, Andre Maurois and Ernest Hemingway, cost 6d, the same as a packet of cigarettes.

Even in those first books one can detect Lane’s commitment to a design philosophy of colour, grid and typography. Orange was for fiction, green was for crime and blue was for biography.

That philosophy has been maintained and refreshed over the years by, among others, Jan Tschichold in the 1940s, Germano Facetti in the 60s and Jim Stoddart today.

Penguin Classics made their first appearance in 1946 with a translation of The Odyssey and today, including Penguin Modern Classics, there are 1,200 titles in the series. These provided the source material for the Great Ideas selection. 

Penguin was floated in 1961, the offer over-subscribed one hundred and fifty times. In 1970 it was acquired by Pearson, who still own it today. 

The company operates in fifteen countries and has over 5,000 books in print at any one time. Its mantra today is in many ways the same as it was when it was founded, and best summed up by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote to Allen Lane: “If a book is any good, the cheaper the better.”

20 books, ten times the results, one idea

This is the story of how a collection of 20 books exceeded expectations ten times, thanks to one idea. It is the relationship between art and maths writ large, of how outstanding creativity can help companies achieve better numbers.

As an idea itself, Penguin’s phenomenally successful Great Ideas series was born at a small railway station in provincial Italy. Simon Winder, editor of Penguin’s history division, was on - holiday. At a small Tabak, in addition to la Corre and sweets, he noticed there were pocket paperbacks of philosophy for sale. Nothing like a bit of Schopenhauer or Kirkegaard to speed the journey to Milan.

It occurred to him that British book-buyers aren’t less intellectual than their Italian counterparts, they simply aren’t given the opportunity to stretch higher their brows. The writings of history’s great thinkers have been purloined by academia. They are trapped in weighty tomes, heavily annotated, with critical essays fore and aft. They are not very accessible.

Winder had been re-reading Ruskin. One essay in particular struck him as being of very immediate resonance to a modern readership. 

Ruskin had declared that anyone buying glass beads in late Victorian Britain was as guilty of the crime of forced labour as the gang-master himself. Every purchase of a necklace perpetuated the horror just as today every pair of trainers our kids buy will keep a child in a Vietnamese sweat-shop for a fourteen-hour day. 

He began to wonder if there wasn’t an opportunity to re-radicalise British youth. What would happen if they could get their hands on the ideas that have already had an influence on the way the world turns?

The “small” book was not new to Penguin. Ten years ago, Penguin 60s Classics had sought to make Homer, Tacitus, Virgil et al less impenetrable to a wider readership.

Winder himself had produced a scaled down Herodotus on the back of ‘The English Patient’. He had also been behind the centenary reissue of Evelyn Waugh’s novels in a smaller, more pocketable format. He believes that they became funnier because they were smaller and somehow more companionable.

"A collection of just 20 books which exceeded expectations ten times."

So there was a background of taking existing Penguin books and “chipping pieces off.” Partly to try to encourage buyers to go from the chip back to the classic it came from; partly to remain true to the vision of Allen Lane (founder of Penguin Books) that the publisher existed to educate and to popularise.

Winder presented his concept to the Managing Director and Sales Director at one of their regular Monday editorial meetings. His vision was of a series of paperbacks which, through the writings of the past, would address the very contemporary issues of globalisation; the environment; religious intolerance, and so forth.

There was not a little idealism in the concept, he admitted. But idealism has always been a part of the Penguin brand.

A span of centuries

Each book in the series had to be short, but not so short as to be a pamphlet. Also, he envisaged 20 in the series. 

Why 20?

“I wanted the trade to take them seriously. There was a risk that if we produced a smaller number, they could just put them up on a shelf where they wouldn’t be noticed. With 20, they would be forced to display them. And, indeed, after we launched it was good to see elaborate ziggurats of Great Ideas in a couple of the bookshops on Charing Cross Road.”

Fundamental to the idea was that there should be a spread of titles, spanning the centuries as well as spanning a range of ideas, both good and bad. 

“The pleasure in editing the series was in being able to take some really awful ideas, but ideas which had been influential nevertheless. Mao, Hitler, Stalin, these were all avid readers who got hold of ideas and then worked them to their own ends.”

What were the risks?

Well, it was possible the book-buying public would turn out to be resolutely middle-brow after all, despite Winder’s hunch they had simply been denied access to “important” texts. But even if book-buyers ignored all 20 titles, the risks were relatively low-key.

Penguin owned the material already so the only money at stake was in the design and printing costs. No individual book needed to do particularly well. If, all in all, the series achieved sales of 200,000, Penguin would make good money. All that was required to hit that target was some effective marketing. And, fundamental to that, the books would need enticing covers.

D&AD has found, time and again, that dramatically effective communications almost always depend on successful partnerships – between client and agency, between Marketing Director and Creative Director, between brand guardian and designer. In the instance of Penguin and the Great Ideas series, there were two differences to the norm.

Firstly, Winder and the design team of Jim Stoddart and David Pearson work for the same company. Stoddart heads up Penguin’s in-house design group and Pearson was the art director assigned to the Great Ideas brief. This was not a case of two different cultures meeting felicitously to solve a problem.

Secondly, many clients are genuinely creative in as much as they have the strategic nous to be able to draft an insightful brief and the vision to understand the creative leap that can result from that, but few will actually try to steer the creative team in terms of execution.

Not so Winder, who came to the briefing with some very definite ideas of his own. He also came loaded with volumes acquired on a shopping trip to the antiquary booksellers of Dover Street.

“I had this idea that our modern covers should reflect the period of the writing within,” he explains. “Looking at books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, I was taken with the styles they used, the engravings and decorations.”

He points to the tiny engraved portrait of a gentleman, used to brighten up the frontispiece of an ancient tome. “I saw doo-dads like this, I suppose, and thought maybe we could do something similar. But different.”

If this was a very prescriptive brief, Stoddart and Pearson were unruffled. “The trick is to answer the brief but without actually answering it,” Stoddart says. After seven years at Penguin he knew his internal clients well enough to be able to spot exactly when there is an opportunity and when there isn’t. With the Managing Director aware of, but sanguine towards, the financial risks, this was an opportunity.

His take on the brief was that its spirit was clear. The covers should communicate something of the historical context of the text as well as something of its philosophical import. How Pearson chose to interpret that was up to him.

Black and burgundy on creamy white

As is so often the way, a tight brief can give much freedom.

Pearson’s immediate response, naturally, was to do the exact opposite of what he’d been asked to do. Winder had suggested they look at old illustrations but Pearson elected not to use illustration at all. (In fairness, one of Winder’s “doo-dads” did survive to appear on the cover of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’.) Pearson's solution was to make the covers type-only, to take tiny parts of the text and let them speak for the whole.

So, on the cover of Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’, in a classic, almost hand-carved typeface, are the words: “A little flesh, a little breath and a reason to rule all – that is myself.”

On the cover of Montaigne’s essay ‘On Friendship’, in a more baroque design, you read: “For the perfect friendship which I am talking about is indivisible: each gives himself so entirely to his friend that he has nothing left to share with another."

Thomas Paine’s essay on ‘Common Sense’ is encapsulated in the sentences: “When my country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir.”

Pearson worked up five covers to present to his internal clients – comprising the Managing Director of Penguin Books, the Sales Director and, editor of the series, Simon Winder.

Even at this early stage the typefaces were not strictly faithful to the period of each of the Great Ideas, rather a loose interpretation of it. Pearson recognized that the covers had to look modern and fresh if they were to attract attention in the clutter of a contemporary bookshop. Mere pastiche would not do the trick.

Fundamental to his designs was the use of white space. “Whatever they were expecting, this wasn’t it,” Stoddart observes.

All-type covers have become rare in publishing but Pearson was aware that his approach was “on brand.” Allen Lane, who founded Penguin, had, in the early days of the company, favoured distinctively austere, type-only jacket designs. 

When presenting his ideas, Pearson knew it was important his internal clients were able to judge the five designs together, as one. The point he made was that the Great Ideas series was exactly that – a series. 

In advertising and design, more often than not, award-winning ideas, once they have emerged blinking into the light of scrutiny, need protection. The temptation of all clients is to make small changes – partly to acquire some ownership of the idea themselves, partly out of well-intentioned attempts to second-guess the market. This need to make countless small changes has been described as the “halal method” of creative development. Happily, in this instance, the MD of Penguin Books insisted the design team should be left alone to design all 20 covers.

Winder believes this was crucial to the eventual success of the series. Indeed, learning to trust the design team, he suggests, has been one of the more important consequences of the project. He did admit, however, to “leaning over” Pearson’s shoulder “pretty regularly” to watch the whole unfold, not from a desire to exercise control but from excitement.

Rather than take offence at the rejection of his own initial ideas and cues, Winder acknowledges that had his brief been followed slavishly, the project would have “fallen flat on its face.”

Too many names to fit on the pencil

When a client knows his own ideas provide little more than a framework for others, when he is prepared, or even expects, to be surprised by the ideas of others and when he takes pleasure in the craft skills of his creative partners, then that client will be rewarded with the best the team can do.

Pearson is quick to insist that while it is his name engraved on the D&AD pencil, it took a team to win it. While he designed no fewer than 13 of the covers himself, he was able to bring in designers from outside Penguin to work on the other seven.

Briefing Phil Baines, for instance, wasn’t a matter of spreading the workload but bringing a fresh and invigorating perspective to the core idea.

Baines, who had been Pearson's tutor at College only a few years earlier, was commissioned to produce a couple of designs. His starkly classical cover for Seneca’s ‘On the Shortness of Life’ and his attention to detail on Gibbon’s ‘The Christians and the Fall of Rome,’ when he had a calligrapher draw the word Christians, brought a new sense of scale to the series and broadened Pearson’s vision of what was possible.

If a good client is one who is open to ideas, so too is a good designer open to all suggestions for improvement. Pearson showed himself to be still as willing to learn as he was when he was Baines’s student. Finally, after eight weeks of work, came the grand unveiling. The Managing Director and the Sales Director had seen nothing since the initial presentation. All other interested parties had been told to “Back off. Do not tinker, do not interfere.” Only Winder had seen how the idea had been extended to all 20 titles.

Now, thanks to the contributions of the other designers, Pearson had moved the idea on considerably from the “fussier” concepts he had originally shown. While there was a breadth of design approach that mirrored the breadth of the essays, there was also a tautness to the ensemble due entirely to the use of white space with mostly black but occasional red type.

An important new element in the designs was the use of debossing. The type was stamped deep into the soft card of the covers. The indentations were clearly visible and invited the finger to run across them. The effect was unexpected.

“I think everyone was a bit taken aback at first at how austere the covers are but it’s also true to say they loved them.” With approval won from all the major stakeholders within Penguin, the next step for Pearson was to proof up each and all of the covers.

Proofed covers are important aids to the salesforce. The trade will buy into a title if they believe its cover will sell it. These days, the sales team normally show whats new at Penguin on slides off their laptops.

The trouble was, in PowerPoint you can’t feel how tactile the type is in the Great Ideas series. Another characteristic of great ideas is in how they unify opinion rather than divide it. In this instance, the sales force took to the work enthusiastically as the marketers had done. One salesman pretended his computer was broken in order to be able to get the proofs into the hands of his customers.

The trade, especially those bookshops selling to students, thought the series was worth backing. Take-up by the trade was encouraging. Then two large chains expressed their doubts. The whiteness of the covers would soon give over to grubbiness, they said. The series was too Spartan. There was no colour.

“It was a nasty wobble,” admits Winder. “We did have a look at doing a day-glo version but we all believed in what we had and decided to stick to our guns.”

Both Winder and Pearson make the point that because expectations of sales were not high, challenging the chains was not brave. It is easier to have principles when they do not cost you money.

Penguin’s Great Ideas were launched in September 2004. The intelligentsia was up in arms at once. How could Winder have chosen those texts and not these?

Pah! From the TLS to the Review sections of the broadsheet Sundays, critics muttered or sputtered. It seemed Winder had been right. The ideas that changed the world really had been imprisoned in books like bricks, written by academics for other academics with more pages of notes than of text.

Peculiarly, academia seemed resistant to these ideas falling into the hands of lesser mortals. But fall into their hands they did, in tens of thousands.

No-one could have predicted the success of the series. No-one did. Even though there are more people better educated in Britain now than at any time before, Penguin’s Great Ideas was a provocative attempt to see just how much the book-buying public could take.

“Let’s face it,” Winder acknowledges, “there aren’t many laughs in these books.” They are difficult reads about difficult themes. Yet, as it turned out, they were ideally suited to the zeitgeist.

How should we deal with famine in Africa? Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ may provide some suggestions. Thomas Paine’s observations make perfect sense when we consider a Government becoming less democratic month by month.

Want to get ahead in business? Read Machiavelli.

And so on.

The results to date make interesting reading. One and a half million Great Ideas have been sold and 5,000 of them are still selling each week. Half a million are about to be distributed across America and a total sales figure of two and a half million books looks about right.

In addition, a second series has been commissioned, the covers designed, and is about to be launched. Series One had covers of white, black and red. These are white, black and blue. If they go well, and there is no reason to suppose that Francis Bacon on Empire, Sun Tzu on War, David Hume on Suicide or Hannah Arendt on the Holocaust will not be interesting to a new readership, then the numbers will be even greater.

If sales are already ten times the original target of 200,000, they could exceed it twenty times. Proof that sensitive, thoughtful design works.

“If we have learned anything,” says Winder, “it’s that we have some very clever designers and we should give them their heads. This hasn’t always been the case here.”

After winning at D&AD, an all-staff e-mail went out, celebrating the success. The Yellow Pencil (Silver Award) was further evidence to Penguin’s senior managers, were it needed, that their in-house design department is of the highest calibre. If it has helped turn Winder’s concept into a best-seller then it has the talent to be able to do the same again with other projects. Most importantly, it has earned the trust and respect of its clients.

If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.

For more creative inspiration and the opportunity to get up close and personal with the world’s best design and advertising, join us at D&AD Festival.

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