In 1936 a Penguin executive passing a bookstand in Kings Cross station overheard a woman asking for “one of those Pelican books” and so, worried rivals might start imprints named after birds, he moved to snap up the name for his employers. With its distinctive blue covers, Pelican made a name for itself publishing “concise, accessible and intelligent” books which aimed to “capture the current state of knowledge in their ﬁeld.”
Now the range has been relaunched, starting with titles including Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991 and Robin Dumbar’s Human Evolution. We spoke to the in-house designer Matt Young about the new series.
How do you decide which design elements to keep and which to change when approaching a relaunch like this?
It’s not often you get an opportunity to relaunch a brand with such a fantastic design heritage. The Pelican series has worn several different uniforms over the years, from the early tri-band designs of the 1930s and 1940s to the Tschichold blue bordered facade of the 1950s, moving into the Marber grid which allowed for wonderfully graphic, illustrative covers in the 1960s, and then some brilliantly witty, intelligent covers under Derek Birdsall et al. in the 1970s and beyond.
The only elements that have remained (fairly) constant on Pelican covers throughout the decades are the Pelican logo, and the association with the colour blue. I say fairly because actually the logo has been re-drawn several times over the years, and the shade of blue varies dramatically across covers from different eras.
But I think we knew from fairly early on that these two elements would be retained in some way. As it turns out they became the main ingredients of the new covers, but it wasn’t always going to be this way – we explored all sorts of different designs before settling on this very simple pared-back approach.
What we’ve kept really gets back to Pelican’s roots: bold type-only covers, two-colour printing in blue and black, and a very distinctive, recognisable series look.
There are some hefty ideas covered in these first books; how does the design react to that?
The emphasis from the outset was always to make these new Pelicans as accessible as possible. My remit only normally extends to the covers, but for this series we’ve considered every aspect of the new books – the way the text is presented inside, the way the ebooks are formatted, the way the website is presented, and so on, ensuring a cohesive visual language across all things Pelican.
The priority is making these books easy to read and to understand, taking those “hefty ideas” and presenting them in a clear, accessible way. Chapters are clearly signposted, all diagrams, maps, tables, etc. have been redrawn in the Pelican style to ensure they’re consistent and easy to interpret. The index has been rethought from the ground up.
We spent ages trying different page lay-outs to strike the right balance between the number of lines on a page (ensuring comfortable, generous leading, making sure the text doesn’t look too dense) and the number of pages in the book (if you space it too generously you risk ending up with a whopping great big spine that could look equally off-putting).
The typography has been designed to look welcoming and approachable, intelligent but not intimidating. Our main Pelican typeface is a slightly customised version of the wonderful Brandon Text face by Hannes von Döhre and the body text inside is set in Freight Text, again chosen for its large(ish) x-height, clean open characters and great legibility both on and off screen.
These books have always been about accessibility; does this restrict what you can do design wise because of the price point?
Obviously you become more aware of the costs involved in printing etc. as the project progresses, but actually knowing the constraints often opens up new ideas, forces you to be creative in ways that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. For a while we were looking at printing two colours throughout the book for example, but it worked out too expensive, so this forced us to rethink how diagrams and maps and so on are presented using just one colour.
Tell us about the new logo and how that’s evolved?
The Pelican logo is a curious one. When it was first drawn by Edward Young in 1937 there were two different versions – a flying Pelican, which was used prominently on the front covers, and a standing version with his wings tucked, for use on the spines. Over the years the flying variation gradually got dropped from the covers, and I don’t think it’s seen at all from the 1960s onwards.
When we came to relaunch the brand, we had a great opportunity to update the logo for a new era, and to reintroduce the flying bird to the covers. The flying version just felt like such a great fit for what these books are all about – taking an interest in a new subject, taking flight, spreading your wings, etc. It’s got momentum, it’s moving forward.
The two new logos were drawn by Richard Green who works in the Art Department here at Penguin. The big challenge was making sure that the new logo looks at home as part of the Penguin family, alongside the famous Penguin and Puffin logos, whilst also being a recognisable evolution of the Pelican logos that have come before.
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