To celebrate its 80th birthday, Penguin Books has launched Little Black Classics, a series of 80 titles priced at 80p each. The mini books feature short stories, poetry and dramas drawn from Penguin’s wider Classics list and their sleeves have a distinctive, black-and-white design. We talk to Penguin’s art director Jim Stoddart about how he devised the series’ look…
When putting together this new set of books, publishing director Simon Winder was inspired by Penguin’s series of mini books created for its 60th birthday, which included 60 books at 60p each, and wanted to replicate this for the 80th birthday. For Stoddart, the first challenge was whether he would be able to deliver the low price for this new set of books.
“I was very excited by the 80p price point but it was questionable whether such a low price was even possible,” he says. “I promised we’d find a design that made that budget work. The 1995 series were like mini versions of the regular Penguin Classics at the time and used images on the front covers like the regular editions. But paying picture permissions for our 80 little books was going to break the budget. The covers evolved hand in hand with the idea of the project. As the confinements and ambitions of this project became clear so the design developed to fit.”
The team decided to focus on a text-based cover. “The great thing about working in publishing is that there is always plenty of great copy,” Stoddart continues, “particularly when working with the classics. Simon Winder and the editorial team did a superb job selecting short pieces for this series – some of the books are complete short stories and some are extracts. The extracts had evocative lines pulled from the texts to use as titles so it quickly become apparent that the charismatic titles (and of course amazing roster of authors) carried a lot of appeal for the covers.”
This emphasis on text was carried through to the advertising campaign for the new books, which consists of a series of posters featuring extracts from the titles. Penguin has also launched a website, at littleblackclassics.com, where audiences can browse through the different books in the series by spinning a penguin on a wheel. Again, the design is simple and clean, yet appealing.
Posters advertising the Little Black Classics series
Images from the website to promote the series
In the fonts, and the general look of the covers, Stoddart makes a number of references to Penguin cover designs from the past. “There are some crucial visual references in the design of these Little Black Classics covers,” he says.” “They echo the main Penguin black classics covers in that they are black and use the same fonts, Futura and Mrs Eaves, but here I’ve used upper and lower case which softens the expanse of black, and also allows the occasional use of ligatures.
“Making the white strip wider and in the middle is a nod to the original Penguin tri-band covers,” he continues. “This reference is great for this anniversary moment (without being too literal) but also because these are also purely typographic covers and we can use a language of brand continuity. Simplicity is the absolutely the key, but it’s all in the detail.”