Little Black Classics.

Up The Book!

It doesn’t take much for a good book to catch my eye and distract me, which is what happened this week. Penguin Books has launched ‘Little Black Classics’, a series of 80 short stories and extracts priced at 80p each, to celebrate their 80th anniversary.

As the confinements and ambitions of this project became clear so the design developed to fit.

The idea was inspired by Penguin’s series of mini books created for its 60th birthday back in 1995, which included 60 books at 60p each.

Now, the use of my historic inflation calculator tells us that these books should in fact be retailing at £1.04 in 2015, so they have done exceptionally well to get them published at 80p each.

And they look great, with an emphasis on text on these purely typographic covers.

The budget restraints almost helped to dictate the classic, black look, without any artwork. As Penguin’s Art Director Jim Stoddart says: “As the confinements and ambitions of this project became clear so the design developed to fit.”

A typeface can really define a brand, and it certainly does with Penguin. Gill Sans was the font they first used back in 1935 for their book covers and jackets, a font that was originally created for the London Underground in the 1920’s. Penguin saw a great opportunity to create an association with a typeface that was featured nearly everywhere in London.

In more recent times, Mrs Eaves font is used for the title, with Futura being used for the author’s name, as evidenced in this collection. They compliment each other exceptionally well.

The numbering of the individual books echoes Chanel No. 5. The whole effect is one of understated class. Classic.

But of course there is more to the publishing of these ickle classics than just making profit from sales. They can be seen almost as taster samples, to get people into Penguin’s more established classics line. Having such good-looking pieces out and about on the trains will serve as great advertising. There are also some lovely looking posters accompanying the campaign on public transport.

There is also an important non-commercial role for Penguin and this collection; that is the preservation and promotion of pieces of literature that are in danger of falling into obscurity. Having somewhat obscure classics so cheaply and readily available is tantamount to a public service.

This campaign is a great example of how really good ideas can still be cost effective, and that good ideas rarely date badly.

We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it - Allen Lane

Yet one unique upgrade from the 1995 campaign is that the collection is now supported by a really effective, imaginative website. The fresh coding gives the website a unique feel, as a roulette wheel gives you a random extract from one of the 80 pieces. The navigation takes a little exploration to work out, but I like that. It’s almost a metaphor for the very nature of getting stuck into a classic book.

To get something of genuine worth for 80p these days is very rare. These books are 10p less than a Greggs sausage roll, a cost of living barometer I often use.

In a world where redundant books are being carved up as the artist’s medium of choice (although this is a great creative use of these books), it’s refreshing to see the physical book thriving in such a manner.

Penguin Books were born out of Allen Lane’s frustration at a lack of quality, affordable reading material available at train stations whilst travelling. It is somewhat poignant that Allen Lane’s vision and ethos, embodied in this collection, will juxtapose strongly with the now extortionate price of train tickets.

"We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it" - Allen Lane

This is still the case today, and after 80 years, Penguin shows no signs of slowing down. I’d quite like to see a black-and-white brand off between Penguin and Guinness. I think Guinness would win, but it would be a good fight.

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