In 1935, on an otherwise unremarkable day, a 21-year-old called Edward Young visited London Zoo. He was probably one of many visitors that day, and one of millions during the zoo’s lifetime.
But what made Young’s trip significant is that the birds he went to see would become the inspiration for one of the most iconic logos in the world: Young’s drawing of the penguins went on to be the logo for the books company that shares its name with the flightless bird.
Although the Penguin logo has changed slightly since Young’s original – in which the penguin was plumper than it is now and appeared to be in the midst of moving – it has endured for decades. Few publishers' logos are recognised around the world; after all, we’re too busy reading books to be staring at the spine or the imprint page. But the Penguin logo is instantly recognisable, and seeing it readers know exactly what they’re getting: an excellent book from a company that cares about reading.
Hannah Lowery, archivist and special collections manager at the University of Bristol, is in charge of the Penguin Archive. For her, the logo has endured "because it is simple, because it is easy to identify, and as a brand says quality”.
Angus Hyland, who was responsible for redesigning the logo in 2003, says part of the reason the image is so iconic is because “a picture, after all, paints a thousand words”. He says the “quirky” character of the penguin is a quality the company shares, so there’s “potential to establish a brilliant and lasting” brand, fullfilling the hopes of its founder Allen Lane.
The origins of the logo
The story of how Penguin came to be is well known. In 1934 Lane - then the publishing director of The Bodley Head - stopped at a book stall at Exeter St Davids, where he wasn’t impressed with the quality and price of the books. He came up with the idea of “publishing cheap, good-looking reprints of fiction and non-fiction in paperback”, writes Phil Baines in his book Penguin by Design.
Lane and his brothers, Dick and John, proposed the idea to The Bodley Head, but it was rejected until the brothers “suggested marketing the paperbacks as though from The Bodley Head but using their own private capital”, writes Baines. With the risk lower, the board agreed.
For his new paperbacks, Lane needed a name, a logo and a look for his books. According to The Guardian, he was inspired to go with an animal by the publishing house The Albatross Library. The name came from a secretary, Joan Coles, and with his brothers Lane decided the company would be called Penguin Books.
The logo and the distinctive tribune (three horizontal stripes, with the colours changing depending on the genre of the book) were designed by Young, whom Lane had met at The Bodley Head where the young designer had already worked his way up to creating dust jackets, a challenge “for which he showed a natural aptitude,” his obituary in The Guardian said.
"This was remembered by Allen Lane when, in 1935, he resigned as managing director to effectively invent the modern paperback."
At Penguin Books (which was part of The Bodley Head for a year before becoming separate), Young was dispatched to London Zoo; the comment he made on his return is a favourite of Phil Baines, the author of Penguin by Design. "It’s often been quoted [that] Edward Young, after being sent to the zoo, remarked on how much the birds stank – but Allen Lane never seemed have passed up a photo opportunity with them,” says Baines.
Pictures with penguins is not the only business savvy Lane showed. Lowery tells a story that in the early days of Penguin, someone was overheard in a bookshop asking for ‘one of those pelican books’. “So,” says Lowery, "Allen Lane decided to produce Pelicans as well.” Young was responsible for the first iteration of that pelican logo as well, a non-fiction imprint that also survives to this day.
The penguin flies
Young’s penguin logo was redesigned a number of times in the first decade or so after its creation. A version where the penguin looked to the right - in most logos it’s facing left - was designed in 1937. In this version, the penguin was also dancing, giving it a jauntier and more playful edge. A more “serious” version, and one that looks closer to the current logo, was designed in 1939.
In 1946, graphic designer and typographer Jan Tschichold redrew Young’s original logo to create a version of the penguin that was used until 2003. Tschichold worked at Penguin for three years, during which time he came up with a guide of how Penguin books should be set out and designed.
Tschichold’s logo was often described as definitive, and it remained in use until 2003. Then, as Penguin approached its 50th birthday, it asked the world renowned independent Pentagram Design to take a look at its brand identity.
The modern day logo
Hyland, partner at Pentagram Design, says that in looking at Penguin’s branding, it was discovered that "there was not just one but many different versions of the Penguin logo being used around the world”.
And so the logo was redesigned once again. "Our refresh was very much based on the 1946 Jan Tschichold version,” says Hyland. "Through the years this version had clearly been corrupted through bad reproduction, redrawing or early digitisation and probably combination all three. And this inconsistency was across all territories.”
A number of changes were made, some of them very subtle, including placing the penguin’s "feet on the horizon line rather than having his right foot kicking out” and raising his beak “slightly higher making him appear more ‘chipper’”.
But the biggest change was in the size of the penguin. Hyland explained: "The first decision was to slim it down for practical reasons - although I often referred to it as putting the 50-year-old on the treadmill.
"At 15% slimmer it can appear taller on the narrow format of the spine of a paperback. Paperbacks are often no wider than 15mm so functioning at a small scale was an important consideration - especially if you consider that the spine of a book is the most commonly seen application of the brand.”
A lasting legacy
In its first year, Penguin Books published 10 titles; now, it publishes thousands of books a year, many with a descendant of Young’s logo on the side.
It's hard to imagine that Young knew just how much impact the smelly birds he sketched at London Zoo would have. It certainly seems he was self-effacing with regards to his work.
In 1962, Hans Schmoller, then head of typography and design at Penguin Books, wrote to Young. He included a sheet of logos, and asked Young to return it to him “with any notes about their authorship”.
Young annotated the logos with his initials, and wrote on the sheet: “All these are my own humble efforts.”
For millions of readers across the world, the Penguin logo is anything but humble: it is a symbol of adventures about to be taken, worlds to get lost in, and tales to savour.
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