It is far more valuable to see five beautiful pieces and understand how and why their beauty touches you, than it is to see a hundred beautiful things and merely understand that they are beautiful.

Today, I’m going to show you a few pieces of beauty that send shivers of joy through my heart, and how the designer behind them—Jan Tschichold—turned the mundane into the magnificent.

A hand-rendered concept produced by Tschichold while exploring his ideas.

After recently writing an article on how inspiration can provide a journey, I thought a few holiday snaps of an enlightening trip I’ve taken might be of interest.

Earlier this year I explored the tracks laid forth by one of the most renowned graphic designers and typographers in history — Jan Tschichold.

Designing the Beautiful

Tschichold moved to the center stage of graphic design as a major champion of the modern typographic style during its infancy.

But it is his later work—which had moved on from the exclusive use of asymmetrical design and sans serif typefaces, to a classical approach—that caught the eye of Penguin founder Allen Lane during the late 1940s, leading to three years of Tschichold holding the creative reins of the infamous publishing house.

During his brief stint as the head of typography and production, a new era of strict standards and great beauty were introduced. Tschichold’s main goal was the implementation of a consistent look and feel across all Penguin books, no matter the print foundry. Prior to this, different printers would mildly aim to have books they print look akin to the Penguin family.

Tschichold’s Penguin

Up to this point the Penguin covers used a mix of Gill Sans in two weights for all the text, except for the appearance of Bodoni Ultra Bold, only employed for the curved emblem of the top band in which Penguin Books sat proudly.

Typical Penguin covers prior to Tschichold’s guidance
show poorly kerned text and an argumentative hierarchy.

Tschichold saw to simplify the design through the exclusive use of Gill Sans and he also gave more attention and care to the tracking and kerning of all the text. Across the board, the spacing and size of type were refined, with the most beautiful being the generous tracking bestowed upon the heavy capitals of the book titles.

Also worthy of note is the subtle horizontal rule that was introduced, which helps break apart the elements used on each cover – sometimes dividing the title from the author, other times allowing a brief description of the text to be used without feeling as if it were just tucked in as needed.

The changes made weren’t huge. Tschichold knew better than to scrap the well known design altogether, seeing that all that was needed was more care.


It doesn’t take a keen-eye to notice that Tschichold’s design is the superior one.

When reducing the elements to mere blocks, the balance and symmetry that lead to the beauty of the new design can easily be seen.

Overlaying an outline of the new design upon the old design shows the differences were only slight in effort but huge in effect.

Two more concept designs with notes
from Tschichold and his assistant visible.

Tschichold’s Shakespeare

While the well known three bars of orange received the subtle attention that propelled them from pretty to beautiful, the Penguin series of Shakespeare’s plays desperately required an overhaul.

Tschichold’s role was to give them the sense of care that texts that demand such great respect deserve.

With an awkward woodcut framed by a horizontal grid that echoed the majority of the Penguin covers, this design was not what Shakespeare deserves – respect and elegance.

An elegance was given in the arrangement of these new parts — the biggest change was the frame that was cut in wood by Tschichold himself—not only beautifully simple, but an example of Tschichold’s typographic personality.

While the previous design was perhaps adequate for it’s purpose,
the new one is a piece of lasting beauty and elegance.

While the frame may border on being too heavy, the space in which the play’s title, name of the editor and new portrait of Shakespeare sit helps balance it nicely.

The type is light, but the use of italics, the rich red and dynamic rule leaps the words from the cover. The genius of the work comes through when one realises the deliberate use of a cream stock, which was heavier than other Penguin publications, helping to set the elegant tone as soon as the book is handled.

The reversed out serif text becomes almost ornament in nature due to its style and weight in relation to the reversed rules within the heavy darkness.

All of this attention to detail lead to some spectacular work being produced from Penguin well after Tschichold had left — his standard was set and others wished to fall in rank behind him.

A desire to venture back into the woods

This was a journey I am ever happy to have taken. A journey that I found to be exciting, rewarding and engrossing.

I beg you to do the same. I beg you to find the work of a creative that entices you and venture to understand it. To pull it apart and looks for everything that brought the designer to the moment in which they created it, to see the finer detail that only a few will notice.

Not only will it excite you, but you will learn, grow and develop your skills because of the roads you were willing to walk.


Penguin by Design
Penguin by Design offers a fantastic glimpse into the history, process and thought behind the design of Penguin’s offerings.

Jan Tschichold: Master Typographer: His Life, Work and Legacy
This tribute-as-tome to Tschichold’s work puts his work and ideas into an historical perspective, while showcasing his immense talent.

Penguin Paperback Spotters on Flickr
Another fantastic collection of Penguin covers on flickr .

David George Pearson’s photostream on Flickr
David has an amazing collection of Penguin materials including hard to find covers, experimental layouts conceived by Tschichold and others.