The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Penguin 75: Q & A with Paul Buckley and Christopher Brand


Launched with 10 titles by Allen Lane in 1935, Penguin Books turns 75 this year. To commemorate the anniversary, Executive VP Creative Director Paul Buckley has compiled Penguin 75, a collection of 75 book covers from the Penguin US archive.

Penguin 75 is an inside look at the Penguin design process with candid and irreverent commentary from authors, designers, editors and artists as well as Penguin Art Directors Darren Haggar and Roseanne Serra and Buckley himself. Filled with the kind of distinctive illustrative covers that are now associated with Penguin US, the book is wonderful slice of American book cover design. As Karen Horton recently noted in her interview with Buckley for design:related:

Penguin 75… is less about the history of the old orange-spined paperbacks and more about the relationships Creative Director Paul Buckley helped to facilitate in the last decade between publisher, editor, author, and designer.”

I was lucky enough to talk to Paul and the book’s designer Christopher Brand about Penguin 75 last week.

How did Penguin 75 come about?

PB: I’ve always had a mix of fascination, disdain, and understanding, for what my staff and I go through in trying to get our work approved, as well as what the editors and publishers are dealing with on their end. Of course all people whose work is subjective go through some sort of approval process — and it’s not easy for the folks on the other end of the situation either; the ones saying “this is just not right”. As it’s something we do not hear much about (other than at some industry function), I thought it would be interesting to put some of these stories together in book form.

And how did you get involved in the project, Chris?

CB: I was working on staff at Penguin at the time. I let Paul know that I would be interested in working on it when he first mentioned the project to everyone. I mostly work on covers but I’ve had the chance to work on a few interiors before this one.

What criteria did you use to choose the covers?

PB: There were different sets of criteria; the most obvious being that they had to be Penguin paperbacks, as we had decided to use this project in conjunction with our 75th Penguin imprint anniversary. Another criteria was that I wanted to show recent Penguin work, so nothing older than 10 years or so. Then it came down to a combination of which covers look great and also have an interesting story associated with them, as well as trying to get a mix of intriguing authors and designers in there — not just your obvious fiction darlings, but a true microcosm of the publishing world and art world.

The covers are very different from the iconic Penguin paperback covers. Do you think the book shows a different side to Penguin’s design history?

PB: Of course. Penguin UK does a gorgeous job of tapping into the Penguin archive and history, and while I like to go there from time to time, I’m very interested in Penguin’s future in a different sort of way. The beautiful Penguin by Design is just not who I am, and if I tried to do a version of that, two things would happen — I’d fail as my heart would not be in it, and no one would buy it as it’s already out there in a few books. This is not to say that I’m not a huge fan of Penguin’s design history — I am, but I see it as a place to tap into occasionally, while still moving the brand forward — as nothing creative can remain as it was, nor should it if it wants to stat vital in it’s own day. But we do maintain Penguin’s age old love of illustrated and well crafted covers.

Do you have a sense that Penguin US has a design sensibility that is separate from the Penguin UK tradition?

PB: Whether you’re UK or US, it’s still Penguin tradition, so I don’t define it as you do. Both sides are very proud of Penguin, it’s history, it’s cache, it’s values — and both sides have built Penguin into what it is today, and what it stands for. So while we are separate entities that bring different things to the table, the overall strive to keep the quality bar set very high is paramount to either side.

Was it hard to choose just 75 covers?

PB: Unbelievably hard. That ate up the first month or so, just getting it down to 75, who was left in, who was left out, who on staff has five covers in, while another has only one or two, is it a good mix visually and editorially of this and that, etc etc.

Chris, did you have a say in any of the selections?

CB: Paul did an initial edit and went through tons of the books. Once he narrowed it down I helped a little bit with figuring out what we should put in, but mostly I would come to Paul later on when were trying to lay out the book. If we couldn’t get enough content for one of the books then we would have to find another one to put in. Or, if Paul wanted to add more books toward the end then we had to figure out what to subtract. I was more involved when it affected the design.

Were there any covers or comps that you wanted to include but couldn’t?

PB: By the nature of only utilizing 75 covers / series, things have to be left out. So yes, but only for that reason.

Penguin 75 includes contributions from authors and editors as well as designers, but I notice you left out Sales & Marketing!

PB: I did not leave out sales and marketing any more than I left out elves and leprechauns… I simply did not have any real sales and marketing stories. The Penguin marketing director, John Fagan, is hands down the best marketing director in the universe — we all know the horror stereotype stories of the marketing director killing this and that just to hear their own voices in the room, but John is so much an integral part of our team and loves what we are doing with our packaging; so unless he really thinks we’re missing something, he’s incredibly supportive; and when he does have something to say, he still manages to do it in a kind and intelligent way. Our sales team also leaves that stereotype behind. Trust me, you see in the book that I’m not pulling any punches and I made sure no one else in the book did either — so if I had great Penguin sales and marketing stories, you’d be reading them.

As a designer, were you surprised by any of the  comments from authors and editors about the cover designs, Chris?

CB: The range of comments from the authors was pretty surprising. Some were very thoughtful and you could tell they appreciate and understand book cover design. Other authors weren’t very happy with their covers and they made that pretty clear.

Was it fun to design a book about book design?

CB: More than anything, it was just fun for me to be working on the interior of a book instead of just the cover. It was a nice change.

Were there any unique challenges?

CB: The biggest challenge was that Paul and I were working on this book, but at the same time we both had full time jobs at Penguin. Paul tried to clear my plate for me a bit, but we both still had a lot of other responsibilities to deal with. Another thing that was hard was that we were sort of doing this whole thing on the fly. We were responsible for not just designing the book but gathering all of the content and all of the things that we needed to design the book (the comments, the hi-res art, etc.). We had to get everything together as we went and this stuff trickled in throughout the process.

On a design level, there was a lot of information to organize. It was challenging to come up with a system for everything. We had comments from that authors and designers, then there were comments from the art directors that we created another system for, all of the credit information for each book, we were showing alternative designs for some covers. There was a lot to think about.

Did you try to take account of Penguin’s design history while working on your design?

CB: I did take Penguin’s history into account at the beginning when we were figuring out what the layout should look like. I used Gill Sans throughout the book, but it’s pretty small and doesn’t feel overwhelmingly “Penguin”. I tried some things that were more in the style of older Penguin covers, but in the end we went with something more modern.

Was it strange to design a book that includes some of your own work?

CB: It was a little strange at first, but many of the covers in the book were designed by my co-workers so a lot of the work was very familiar to me.

So, did the book make you reconsider any of your own designs, or your design process?

PB: I’d love to sound thoughtful and say “yes” and expound on some brilliant new design wisdom — but the answer is “no”. All of the entries in this book are well known to me, and most have been for years. Putting them all down in one place just made me feel proud of what my department does — but I’ve always been incredibly proud of my team. If anything, it made me reconsider what it takes to put a book together, and see editors and authors in a more favorable light.

And, Chris, I have to ask… How does it feel to be immortalized on the cover of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón?

CB: It was an amazing opportunity. I think this only the beginning of my modeling career.

Thanks Paul and Chris!


  1. Penguin 75 cover, design by Paul Buckley
  2. Penguin “Graphic Classics”:
    The Dharma Bums | Art Director: Paul Buckley |  Illustrator/Designer: Jason
    The Portable Dorothy Parker | Art Director: Paul Buckley | Illustrator/Designer: Seth
  3. Graham Greene Backlist | Designer/Art Director: Paul Buckley | Illustrator Brian Cronin
  4. Don Delillo Backlist:
    | Designer/Art Director: Paul Buckley | Photos: Jeff Brouws
    White Noise | Designer/Art Director: Paul Buckley | Photos: Jason Fulford
    Great Jones Street | Designer/Art Director: Paul Buckley | Photos: Hugues Colson (top), Tom Zimberzoff (bottom)
  5. Emporium and unused image | Designer/Art Director: Paul Buckley | Illustrator: Viktor Koen
  6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics | Designer/Art Director: Paul Buckley
  7. Pages 220 – 223  Penguin 75 | Designer: Christopher Brand
  8. Pages 244 – 247 Penguin 75 | Designer: Christopher Brand
  9. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby | Designer: Christopher Brand | Illustrator: Sam Weber | Art Director: Roseanne Serra
  10. The Jewish Messiah | Designer: Christopher Brand art Rodrigo Corral Design | Art Director: Darren Haggar
  11. The Shadow of the Wind | Designer: Tal Goretsky | Art Directors: Darren Haggar and Paul Buckley

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  1. Amazing how articulate and funny book designers are. (Loved Ben Wiseman’s Cheap commentary) Must be all those great books they read on the job.

  2. Hi Joanna. It is a really interesting read. There’s some very candid stuff in it!

  3. awesome. Now to get the book and steal ideas. Onward and upward!

  4. LOL. I’m not sure that’s what Paul had in mind Ian! ;-)

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