Monday, January 9, 2012

Design within the lines

I've just finished reading Steve Jobs' biography (more on that later probably) and one of the things that shone about his ideas is that he controlled everything about them from the way his designers worked - he left no stage unloved - to the closed systems he created for the consumers who buy his Macs, iPhones and iPads. Everything is controlled and this offers a more efficient, simple and overall enjoyable experience as Jobs controlled the lines within which his designers and consumers could play between - increasing focus, and therefore creativity.

This idea of playing within a set of rules is no new idea, Jobs just took it to the extreme instead of letting other people have free reign to ruin things (*ahem* Microsoft).

Let me tell you a story… In 1934 publisher Allen Lane was returning from a weekend at the Devon home of Agatha Christie (oh, to have a weekend there) and was looking for something to read whilst waiting at Exeter station as you invariably do. Only finding reprints of 19th Century novels, he decided to right the situation as best he could, he was a publisher after all.

Lane decided to create a series of paperback books that would not only be sold in traditional bookshops, they would also be simple and accessibly designed that they could be picked up easily along with your train tickets, food+drink and cigarettes in railway stations, newsagents and anywhere else that wanted to sell them.

But how to make them simple, sellable and instantly recognisable?

Lane insisted the design of the books followed a simple horizontal grid as he considered the covers of illustrated books at the time to be trashy. This simple grid allocated space for the title, author and logo. The designers could eventually do what they wanted, but within the grid so the books stayed unified and recognisable, defining the brand.

The books became Penguin Books and in 1936, having sold three million copies in 12 months became a separate company to Lane's original publishing house. Some were suspicious of Penguin's success:

"Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them," George Orwell.

The penguin design was further tightened by master typographer and graphic designer Jan Tschichold from 1946 onwards. Read about his developments on the Design Museum's website. I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail about the design of what Penguin became as I just wanted to bring your attention to the idea that a complete end-to-end process can be applied to many things and it always makes things more unified, simpler, better, if you will.

Knowing all this, you can believe that I was very excited to find a box of Penguin Paperback covers from all eras of the company's design history. I found Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box in one of those little shops on the side of Spitalfields Market but I've since found them on Amazon, check them out before they disappear.

I especially like the J.G.Ballard covers below even though they don't really follow the design rules of Tschichold and Lane.

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