What defines good design for book covers? Sam Voulters, the brand director of Penguin Classics, tells us about effective communication through its minimalist covers and the process of making Penguin on Design cohesive.
ESQUIRE: Take us through the Penguin on Design series. Why kick off the series by republishing seminal titles like Bruno Munari’s Design as Art, Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, Susan Sontag’s On Photography and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing?
Sam Voulters: Part of our mission is to find new audiences for books we already publish in Penguin Classics by refreshing their design and presenting them in new ways. These titles were already published in Penguin Modern Classics when our art director Jim Stoddart approached Yes Studio to work on unifying them into a new series called Penguin on Design.
ESQ: What is the process like when curating the titles since the collection consists of a combination of classics and recent writings?
Voulters: Our editorial process always begins with the book. Rather than seek out books specifically for the design series, we consider whether the design series might make a home for books as we acquire them. Like our other series (Black-spine Classics, Modern Classics), the selection is diverse, encompassing design, art, craft and fashion.
ESQ: We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but the minimalist cover designs of the series convey the essence of its respective titles effectively. What’s the approach to designing the covers to complement the series theme?
Voulters: When Yes Studio worked on the initial four books, they were tasked with finding a solution [that’s] both timeless and dignified, while also taking care to complement the integrity of the original texts. For Ways of Seeing, Yes [Studio] attempted to reassert the book’s unconventional format (originally designed in 1972 by Richard Hollis) including his famous cover that featured the first half-page of the book’s text. The series design retains the fundamentals of these texts while creating a package that is both simple and elegant.
ESQ: Describe the effects of using text, illustrations, symbols, colour and photographs when conceptualising the covers.
Voulters: Our picture research team, headed up by Samantha Johnson, spends time with each of the books to establish what the cover artwork needs to convey. Because of the simple, clean template, the image has all the more important [need] to illustrate the author’s ideas.
ESQ: How does Penguin on Design series set itself apart from Penguin Great Ideas?
Voulters: Great Ideas are extracts of non-fiction titles, presented in a typographical series design by David Pearson. The aim of the series is to showcase the diverse thinkers that have shaped our world. The Penguin Design series is home to writing about art, design and visual culture.
ESQ: Do technology and rapid digitisation reduce the intended impact and influence of design?
Voulters: Technology and digitisation are an essential part of modern publishing and Penguin’s intrinsic approach to design is absolutely part of the digital world too. We have also found that the physical world of real books is as strong and important as ever— and this is a place that good design continues to play an essential role.
ESQ: What’s your favourite book you’ve read and worked on from this series?
Voulters: Not necessarily my favourite, but we were amazed by how popular The Beauty of Everyday Things by Soetsu Yanagi became. The book is a love letter to the humble craftsman and a celebration of commonplace objects from the age before mass production in Japan.
The Penguin on Design series is available at Books Kinokuniya.