Tom Etherington designs the covers for Penguin’s series of little books with big ideas on the climate crisis

The London-based designer looked into the “visual language of protest” to inspire the 20 new covers for the Green Ideas series.

12 October 2021


The climate crisis is rightly dominating discourse across the creative industries and beyond. Although it has taken us far too long to reach such a stage, and true sustainability remains a goal we’re yet to reach, we might find some help in the literature of the cause.

But philosophical and theoretical books can admittedly be intimidating, so Tom Etherington, a designer for Penguin, wanted to make these new books more approachable and accessible. He began the task for the series by looking into the visual language of protest, which he felt was relevant for contemporary writers including Naomi Klein and George Monbiot. For the earlier writers, however, the godfathers of what we now call climate literature, Etherington looked into more elegant, minimal design solutions.

“In the past,” Etherington tells It’s Nice that, “Penguin has published series like the Little Black Classics and Mini Modern Classics, which have a strict typographic design that feels part of a Penguin heritage that goes all the way back to the Young/Tschichold triband.” Etherington explains that the designs for these series always feel “quintessentially Penguin” and collectable, which was another important factor to consider when designing each individual book of this latest series – providing a connection to not only the rest of the series, but also the publisher.

Etherington claims that the phrase “the beauty of nature” was discussed when deciding how to design the covers. “This new direction for the covers focusing on the beauty of the natural world felt far more connected to the writing,” the designer says, “and from there, things fell into place fairly quickly.” Etherington therefore only wanted two tones of one colour for each cover, “and nothing man-made. I was inspired by shapes from nature.”

GalleryTom Etherington: Penguin Green Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2021)

The series comes hot on the heels of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, which consisted of 90 books similar in not only size and length but their promise to be radically different and groundbreaking essays, which the publisher felt should be revived into circulation. “There is a new generation of readers who are passionate about the environment. These are canonical writers and it’s important that their ideas are being published and read,” says Etherington.

He also explains to us that the creative challenge for this brief was to keep a consistent look across the cover illustrations, whilst “maintaining enough variety to keep the series interesting”. Etherington aimed to also allow for multiple interpretations of the covers’ illustrations, reflecting the open interpretations available in the pages of a book. The Clan of One-Breasted Women, for example, discusses the impact of nuclear testing and Etherington’s illustration looks like a graphic representation of an explosion. In fact, it was intended to be the tail of a Sage Grouse, an animal that the author Terry Tempest Williams calls “the most powerful individual in the American West right now”.

Although inspiration for the cover illustrations came from the writing in the series, Etherington explains that he’s always inspired by other designers and artists when creating. “Designers from Penguin’s history like Romek Marber and John McConnell are my heroes,” he says. “The Green Ideas covers partly adhere to the Marber grid as a nod to Penguin’s design heritage. The titling is set in Domaine by Klim Type Foundry: it’s a pleasure to work with such a beautiful and timeless typeface.”

You can find out more about each book in the series and buy them in-store and online.

GalleryTom Etherington: Penguin Green Ideas series (Copyright © Penguin, 2021)

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Stuart Simpson, Mica Murphy: Green Ideas series, courtesy of Penguin

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.

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