In-house teams: Penguin Creative on building “design legacy” into its future

As part of our series looking at in-house design teams, we speak to Penguin Creative creative director Tim Lane about keeping the publisher looking and feeling relevant.

“Design is such an integral part of Penguin Books’ DNA,” says Tim Lane. “Our team’s mission is to make our digital and branded output live up to the design legacy of the brand, which up until now has been synonymous with print.”

Lane is creative director at Penguin Creative, the in-house design team that covers Penguin’s creative output across its website, social media and communications.

Founded in 1935, Penguin Books was established with the intention of democratising quality literature. Initially helmed by Sir Allen Lane (no relation), the publisher is credited with starting the “paperback revolution” in the first half of the 20th century. Some 85 years on, Penguin Creative works to ensure the aesthetic relevance of the world-renowned publisher.

It is a relatively young outfit, only established in earnest last year. In that short time, however, Lane and his eight-person team have taken on considerable projects including the redesign of penguin.co.uk and shifting the focus of online content from marketing to editorial. Such work earned the team the accolade of Best In-House Team at this year’s Design Week Awards.

Penguin Creative series of summer illustrations by various artists

How does the team work?

The role of the team is to support Penguin’s presence, both online and beyond. As such, there are four main creative outputs for the team that Lane points to: photography, user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, illustration and graphic design and video production.

When he took over the role of creative director, Lane created a staff photographer role to “improve the quality of our book and author photography”. This position is headed up by Stuart Simpson.The pictures Simpson takes are used across the brand from book jackets, to social media and other communications.

The sharp focus on the authors and books in the photography also influences the team’s work on the publisher’s websites. UX designer Natasha Savicheva is helping in the gradual redesign of all of Penguin’s platforms, like penguin.co.uk and specialist reader sites like deadgoodbooks.com (targeted at fans of crime fiction).

Penguin Creative author shots by Stuart Simpson

The intention here, Lane says, is to move the platforms away from a marketing focus, and towards a more “editorial-led” approach and has so far involved UI design changes to articles and feature pages.

As for the content of the sites themselves, this is where the team’s designers, acting design lead Mica Murphy, design lead Victoria Ibbetson and designer Ryan MacEachern, come into play by commissioning and creating illustrations and graphics for the editorial team. Additionally, these designers work on marketing and publicity material for the wider Penguin Random House brand.

The final arm of the team is video, wherein producers Oisin Bickley and John Trevaskis and production coordinator Zahara Andrews create content about Penguin’s books and authors. Like with the website strategy, Lane explains Penguin Creative has “made a conscious decision to move away from making videos which felt more like marketing material, to videos which our audience wants to watch”.

Penguin Creative Pride poster

What’s the process like?

With so many projects to balance, every day is different, Lane explains.

“A typical day for me will include working on the design of UX component, talking through a video idea, commissioning an illustration and art-directing a photo shoot,” he says, adding that this variety is welcome.

Campaigns are a big part of what the team does, and Lane points out the work they did for Penguin Classics in audio as a particularly good example. The brief was to promote the new range of audio books, so a cross-team effort was made to create photography and animation that did this.

With any project, Lane emphasises the different quality that an in-house team can bring to the table: “Our team can apply an attention to detail you might not get from an external agency”.

Penguin Creative Instagram book shots by Stuart Simpson

What are some highlights?

Having largely created this new direction for the team himself, Lane says one of the biggest highlights is the people he works with: “I’m really proud of the team I’ve built here, all of whom are young and hungry to make Penguin better.”

Additionally, the access the team gets to authors is “fantastic”. During lockdown, for example, Penguin editor-in-chief Sam Parker commissioned 20 essays from some of the world’s most-loved authors, like Malorie Blackman, Nick Hornby and Philip Pullman. The authors were tasked with writing about the coronavirus crisis and how it has changed our society.

The team then turned these words into a free e-book and audiobook and illustrated the series too. In the process, Lane even got to design his first Penguin cover.

Penguin Creative Penguin Perspectives book cover, designed by Tim Lane

What other aspects are there?

As Lane explains, illustration drives a lot of what the team does. On the website, these cover topics as diverse as Brexit, how books can help family arguments at Christmas, and why Anne is the underrated Brontë sister.

While the Penguin Creative is an in-house team, Lane explains that it often commissions and works with illustrators on projects.

“We’ve worked hard on creating a look and feel for this content that is unique to Penguin and are working with some of the best editorial illustrators in the world such as Rob Dobi, Eleanor Shakespeare and Michelle Pereira,” he says.

Penguin Creative Christmas illustration by Design Lad for Penguin

What’s next?

The team might still only be a new one, but there is excitement for what comes next.

“It really does feel like we’re creating something special here,” Lane explains, citing Penguin Creative’s win at the Design Week Awards as a sign they’re on the right track. “I only see the team getting stronger and I’m excited to see what we can achieve in our second year.”


You can find more of our in-house designs features, including teams such as the Royal Mint, LEGO and the BBC, here

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  • mike dempsey August 20, 2020 at 10:52 am

    Just visit any major bookseller and take a good look at the new Penguin non-fiction and fiction paperback covers displayed on the tables and you’ll get a different picture of Penguin’s corporate view that “creativity is at the heart of everything we do.” It’s clearly not. Why can’t they apply the same design sophistication and integrity on new publications as on their backlist and classics?

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