Penguin books: innovation lessons from 1935

I got a lovely book last week called Penguin by Design, which traces the evolution of the publishing house's famous book covers from 1935-2005. Reading about the launch of the company in 1935 was fascinating.

Penguin invented the paperback book category in the UK , and helped democratise reading good quality books by bringing them to market at a much more accessible price. Here are some of the many lessons from what they did:

1. Be bold and use impactful design to stand out: the simple, bold design with three coloured panels created real impact and stand-out. At the time, book covers were highly decorative and busy, so the Penguin design was really disruptive


2. Use clear brand architecture to help navigation: the upper and lower stripes in the cover were colour coded to help navigation: orange for fiction, green for crime and dar blue for biography. Simple, but highly effective, helping shoppers find the right book, whilst preserving a strong brand identity

3. Seek out new distribution channels: to get the level of sales needed, founder Allen Lane looked to expand distribution beyond the traditional bookshops, selling in places like train stations.

4. Prototype your ideas: the idea of a low priced, paperback book met with some resitance at first and selling the concept to retailers was hard. To help bring the idea to life, Lane had a dummy book made and this helped get the listings they needed

5. Tap your team's creativity: the brand name Penguin, now a true classic, came from a secretary, Joan Coles, after various more "official" options had been rejected. And the logo of the penguin was drawn by an office junior called Edward Young, after a trip to London Zoo. Who needs an expensive brand idenity agency!

6. Refresh your brand: 70 years after the brand was launched, the Penguin brand is still going strong. And the original design has stood the test of time, as the range of books below shows.


The Penguin story is another example that shows how much can be learnt from looking back; "brand archeology" if you like. The trick is to take what made you famous, and keep it fresh and relevant for today.