Cover rebel

When he stepped into the role of Penguin Press art director in 2001, Jim Stoddart joined a publishing house with an illustrious design heritage. Anna Richardson talks to him about his early days – and gets a glimpse of his upcoming projects

What was it like to follow in the footsteps of the big design names, such as Jan Tschichold and Germano Facetti, who had gone before at Penguin?

When I started I was quite rebellious. That’s the case with all supposedly great designers who have worked here: I would suggest they all rebelled against what had gone before. I was thinking, ‘We don’t need to do it like that, we can make it better’. But the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve loved what had gone before again.

Why do you think Penguin is so celebrated for its design at the moment?

There have been periods of complacency in publishing – for example, the 1980s and 1990s, when design was seen more as part of the production process. Ten years ago, Penguin started to realise that creativity helps a product and it’s not something you should cut back on. You can see it across all design: when creativity is allowed to flourish, it tends to be a more exciting period in a company’s history. At the moment, we have a very broadminded and understanding upper management who nurture creativity – and I’m fortunate enough to be here at that point.

What makes a good book cover?

It’s never clear-cut, but if you’ve got integrity in a design it tends to be appreciated. And it’s important not to tweak and tinker too much. As soon as you start to tinker with a design, it can loose a spark. In big companies there is a tendency to worry the •creativity out of something. Any designer can potentially design a book cover – it’s not that hard. But often the designer just looks at the shape of the front cover. Even though it’s flat planes of paper, always remember that a book is an object that people have to hold for quite a few hours.

There don’t seem to be as many big-name designers known for book covers – is it an attractive field to young designers these days?

Music covers used to be the top – if you did design, illustration or photography, you had to do an album cover. That has completely fallen by the wayside. Maybe books are now a preferable media for that design expression. And the more people get back into designing book covers, the more heroes emerge, such as Jon Gray. He’s found a great style and illustrative expression.

Does the Penguin name influence designers?

Designers step up their game a bit, because it’s Penguin. You expect [great design], because Penguin can [push design] without questions and because there’s a cute little bird on the covers – it’s just such a great logo, and it does allow a lot.

What projects are coming up this year?

Last year, we republished all our Modern Classics series, but we held back the George Orwell titles until this year to mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of 1984, as well as 25 years since 1984 itself.

It’s a big thing for Penguin to publish Orwell well. The titles are being designed by Marion Deuchars. There’s a great looseness to her illustrative style; it’s a combination of broad strokes of paint and photography. For his non-fiction titles, we use photography only, and we carry that theme through in his fiction. His biggest novels are 1984 and Animal Farm, which are very hard to represent in real life, so you bring this crazy illustrative element on top of the photographic element. It blends really nicely.

We are also reissuing Vladimir Nabokov’s backlist, for which we have commissioned Angus Hyland from Pentagram, but we will break them out of the [Modern Classics] typographic template. There are 20 titles, and it’s a challenge to carry a theme through so many books without either unravelling or repeating.

With the recent publication of The Language of Things by Deyan Sudjic and four new titles in the Penguin on Design series, is Penguin making an effort to publish more design-related books?

Yes. We’re never going to be a design publisher, we’re not best positioned to do colour insides throughout and so on, but it’s something we can move towards. We’ve got a history of great writing and a history of great design, and we’re looking to bring those together. Our editors are really good at commissioning writers on politics and history, and we can easily do it on art and design too.

What is your take on the rise of digital book readers and the future of the hard-copy book?

It’s a great time to be doing book covers, because there’s an opportunity to create a resurgence in [hard-copy] books. It’s up to us to make books stay alive. The brief at the moment is, ‘How can you present books to make them completely and utterly desirable?’ What a great brief! • Last year, Penguin republished its Modern Classics series, redesigning 500 covers. Jim Stoddart explains the thinking behind the relaunch. ‘When you’ve got 500 books, they’re always going to look like a series, but there’s something about the previous design’s panels which made the books look a bit worthy. The old template works in many ways, because you can express a lot with the images, but the new look is a bit more “now”. Making the titles and authors bigger and punchier means that in a bookshop a casual reader might think less that the book is scary. We experimented with fonts and used Avant Garde. It has an enigmatic style and elegance and is pure in its geometry: round letters are formed from perfect circles and line thicknesses remain consistent. Avant Garde has come of age; it is a font that is finally escaping its shackles. Its qualities can be enjoyed as the timeless face its form deserves, and so it is perfect for Penguin Modern Classics. When redesigning classics, you don’t want to repeat anything that’s been done. In a way, the brief is “go as far away from that as you can”, because otherwise, why are you doing it?’

NEW CLASSICS ON THE BLOCK:

Last year, Penguin republished its Modern Classics series, redesigning 500 covers. Jim Stoddart explains the thinking behind the relaunch. ‘When you’ve got 500 books, they’re always going to look like a series, but there’s something about the previous design’s panels which made the books look a bit worthy. The old template works in many ways, because you can express a lot with the images, but the new look is a bit more “now”. Making the titles and authors bigger and punchier means that in a bookshop a casual reader might think less that the book is scary. We experimented with fonts and used Avant Garde. It has an enigmatic style and elegance and is pure in its geometry: round letters are formed from perfect circles and line thicknesses remain consistent. Avant Garde has come of age; it is a font that is finally escaping its shackles. Its qualities can be enjoyed as the timeless face its form deserves, and so it is perfect for Penguin Modern Classics. When redesigning classics, you don’t want to repeat anything that’s been done. In a way, the brief is “go as far away from that as you can”, because otherwise, why are you doing it?’

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