Penguin Inked

This month Penguin launches a redesigned series of six classic titles, called Penguin Ink. But the ‘ink’ is not printers ink, but that of a more visceral kind.

Notes on a Scandal
Notes on a Scandal

Instead of commissioning illustrators to reimagine the covers, spines and flaps of these well-loved titles,  the design team enlisted the help of six tattoo artists to put their stamp, or needle, on each of the books.

The Rotters Club
The Rotters Club

Will Self’s The Book of Dave, Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal have all been ‘inked’, and given a very different feel by international tattooists Duncan X, Han van de Sluys, Judd Ripley, Lynn Akura, Russ Abbott and Valerie Vargas.

White Teeth
White Teeth

Design Week caught up with Penguin General designer Richard Bravery to get under the skin of the new series and ask him some questions about each of the designs.

Design Week: What was the thinking behind creating a series of tattoo-inspired covers?  

Richard Bravery: The tattoo world has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Gone are the visions of seedy backstreet parlours, old  sailors and bikers, many tattooist today are art school graduates. But  despite this transformation some people still view tattoo art as underground  and one-dimensional. We wanted to showcase the diversity and talent that exists within the tattoo world.

DW: How did you choose which tattoo artists to commission?  

Bravery: We started the process with around 50 or 60 possible artists, selected from around the world, and from there started to pair  artists with books. In some cases the association was there instantly, where the feel of the artwork matched that of the book. But what was important for  us was to select six different artists with different styles and more importantly styles not commonly associated with tattoo art again to emphasise the diversity and talent within the tattoo  world.

DW: What sort of brief did you give the artists  and how would that differ from commissioning illustrators or designers?   

Bravery: A big misconception is that tattooists lack vision and only do what is asked of them. All the artists were given open briefs,  and from there it was a creative process of bouncing around workable concepts. Ultimately we didn’t want the designs to turn out looking like  ‘glorified illustrated book covers’  – they still needed to retain their integrity. It was important for us to listen to the artists, and allow  the designs to develop naturally with as little interference from as  possible.

DW: I particularly like the artist self-portraits in the back inside cover, what was  the thinking behind those?

Bravery: The back flap is usually the domain of the author and the artist generally gets a small credit somewhere on the back of the  cover, but with this being a artist led series we really wanted to change that. I think most of us can imagine how and where most artists work, but as we hadn’t worked with any tattooists before, the more we found out  about what makes them tick and how they worked, the more we wanted to  feature them on the cover. We also wanted to give the reader a little insight into the eclectic mix of artists.  

DW: Who designed the special Penguin Ink logo?  

Bravery: We didn’t want to give the logo to one particular tattooist from the series and instead of brining a different tattooist on board we decided to design the logo ourselves. The initial idea was to have just the anchor on the arm but the temptation was too great and we ended up adding many others. It was just a bit of fun really, we went through a lot of different tattoos before we came to the ones that we felt best matched the spirit that the little penguin embodies. Which I guess means we saw him as an old sea dog.

DW: Why do publishing houses bring out themed ranges like this  one?

Bravery: For me I think that backlist is increasingly being seen as a place to innovate within a difficult and increasingly cautious  market place. A good backlist book already has recognition factor, an immediate link with the customer, which is a big advantage as you aren’t  just a nameless face within a crowded bookshelf, and as such you can be  braver with the design and push for new audiences, the backlist is a place  where progressive design is thriving.


The Book of Dave
The Book of Dave
Hide Comments (3)Show Comments (3)
  • Michael Dougherty November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Actually Penguin USA put out the series Penguin Ink. Seeing the success they had under that team, Penguin UK jumped on the bandwagon. It’s quite telling how Richard’s omissions so deftly dance around the decency of giving credit where credit is due.

  • Ingsu Liu November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It is quite curious that not only the interviewer – but also Mr. Bravery of Penguin UK did not once mentioned in this interview that Penguin USA started the Penguin Ink series 3 years ago. The Ink series began of Paul Buckley, the Creative Director of Penguin USA, researching out a tattoo of his own, thinking the industry should be tapping into these very talented artists, in more commerical venues. His book Penguin 75, has a lengthy intro to the series and how it came about that sounds a bit like this interview. The UK publisher took notice and asked their art department to add to his series for the UK market; why Mr. Bravery choose not to mentioned any bit of this history is up to the reader to decide.

    See the original Penguin Ink series for yourself here:

  • Richard November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hello anonymous and Ingsu, no great conspiracy I’m afraid, Penguin U.S and U.K frequently cross projects, both commercially and creatively, the Penguin U.S design book Ingsu mentions in the post being another example.

    As you both rightly mention the Penguin Ink series was first published by Penguin U.S and Penguin U.K spoke to Paul Buckley before the series went live wishing him well. No intention of limelight theft, the ‘Penguin Ink’ series name was retained so that it would be clear that this was a U.K edition of the successful U.S series.

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