Coralie Bickford-Smith on designing the Penguin English Library series

Clothbound Classics designer Coralie Bickford-Smith gives us a heartfelt insight into her design journey of the Penguin English Library.

In 2012 I was asked to design a new style for an old Penguin series. It was a re-design of the Penguin English Library that had first been created in 1963. The brief required me to create a new template with illustrated icons, echoing the asthetic of the clothbound classics. I was given just under a year to devise 100 covers, so it was critical to get the bones right early on, and to commission illustrators to help create the motifs to fit within my grid.

I was daunted by the requirement for Penguin Orange to feature on the spines. Those familiar with my work will know how sacred the spine is to me, so I wrestled with the idea of losing this precious canvas. But, as every designer knows, limitations are often the genesis of the most creative solutions. It was a frantic time, but with the support of my art director, Jim Stoddart, and a talented team of illustrators, we made the deadlines each month.

I thought that the series would always be tinged with sadness, as I had been caring for and had to finally say goodbye to my father in those same 12 months. Six years on, 20 Penguin English Library briefs landed on my desk, and surprisingly it became a celebration rather than a reminder of a difficult time.

 Penguin English Library cover

In those six years I had joined Instagram, where I saw that certain ‘PELs’ were being posted from one collector to another when a spare out-of-print copy had been found. A kindness between people helping each other complete their collections. I learned about a global community of avid readers who collect books and build friendships around their passion. It brought to mind my father’s obsession with community and his love for collaboration, and has cast the series in a new light.

Amongst the 20 new titles are two that I have waited 15 years for the opportunity to design and illustrate, George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. I could not resist putting in a cheeky nod to my dad in one of the patterns. This small abuse of the power available to me would have made his day!

The additional titles are now finished and once again I owe a debt of gratitude to my art director and the two illustrators, David Mackintosh and Despotica, who returned to illustrate for these editions.

And what about my feelings about the orange on the spines? I adore the mass of orange with the assortment of colours sandwiched in-between, a visual celebration of literature and life. I guess what I am saying is that design is not just a job in its own vacuum. As designers, our work becomes woven into the fabric of our lives, and the books we design become inseparable from our own stories.


Coralie Bickford-Smith's picks from the Penguin English Library:

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