Penguin Online Re-design

While Penguin produces some of the most inspiring and creative book covers in the world, when I joined it was clear that the brand’s online output felt tired, and lacked confidence, consistency, and direction. There was a tendency to revert to a nostalgic design approach which made the brand look dated and didn’t capture the exciting spirit of the books Penguin publish.

When I joined as Creative Director in 2019, I built a new in-house multidisciplinary team called Penguin Creative. With this new team, I worked on re-designing the Penguin brand's visual direction online. Creative Review interviewed me on this re-design.

Before the re-design: Nostalgic, inconsistent and lacking in design confidence

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The Penguin.co.uk website looked bland and un-confident. The UX design and the article assets didn’t capture the ground-breaking design spirit of Penguin and the amazing books we publish

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Penguin Live's publicity material looked too similar to the book jackets, with no consistent design principles

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Book photography on Instagram was poor in quality

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Penguin’s Twitter and YouTube channel banners looked dated and inconsistent from each other, focusing on Penguin nostalgia

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YouTube videos were poorly shot and edited, with a ‘hard-sell’ approach to the content

The re-design: A new visual style guide

Along with the Brand team, I decided to visit the Penguin Archive in Bristol for research and inspiration. I noted that the design principles of the first Penguin books had distinctive qualities; bold geometric shapes, a very limited colour palette, black sans typography, generous white space. These confident design principles were not being represented in our current online content.

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The first ever Penguin book (1935)

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An original Penguin colour palette

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An early Penguin book pattern

Inspired by what we saw in the Penguin Archive, the Brand team and I created a new visual style guide. These guidelines would inform the Penguin redesign across the multiple areas covered by our digital and video output.

 

I created a new colour pallet, inspired by the one we found at the archive, dividing into primary and secondary colours. We chose Futura Medium as the primary font with a preference to using it in black, on a white/grey background where possible. Futura was used in some of the early Penguin covers as well as the current Penguin Classics' books. We also created a suite of shapes and design flourishes, informed by our discoveries in the archive.

No longer would we:

  • Use curved corners

  • Use more than one colour in an asset/design

  • Use tints, gradients or vignettes

  • Use colour for type (other than orange or white)

  • Use nostalgic images of old Penguin books

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Just one section of Penguin's new visual style guide I created with Will Smith, Penguin's Head of Brand

Penguin.co.uk: UX re-design

Alongside a new editorial direction, me and my UX Designer Natasha Savicheva redesigned Penguin.co.uk to make the site feel less marketing and sales-led. These UX improvements (listed below) were preferred to the old site design by 66% of users when tested.

New homepage

  • New white nav bar with logo placed centrally and 50% larger than before

  • New sub-nav bar displaying our website’s offering

  • New Features sidebar above the fold

  • New article cards with new thumbnail ratio, typography and stand first. All the thumbnail ratios on the homepage are now the same 

  • New video carousel

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New Feature Page ​

  • New full-bleed header component, filling the width of the user’s screen on desktop and mobile

  • New confident article headline typography, including new sub head and stand first design

  • New by-lines with social buttons

  • New drop-cap option

  • Narrower column widths (more white space)

  • New orange pull quotes 

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Author Photography

With the launch of the new Penguin Creative team, we also created a new role of Staff Photographer. This has enabled a dramatic increase in the quality and quantity of author portraits, which has been a huge benefit to our marketing and editorial content on Penguin.co.uk. Our author portraits have also appeared on numerous book jackets.

 

Having this resource in-house has meant huge savings have been made by the publishing divisions, but more importantly, has meant there is a distinct ‘house style’ unique to Penguin. We always try to capture the essence of the author, their story and their message through these portraits.

 

Our authors are often enthralled by their portraits, with Bernardine Evaristo and Owen Jones describing our shots as their ‘favourite ever.’

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Just some of the author portraits taken by Penguin Creative's Staff Photographer, Stuart Simpson

YouTube Channel Relaunch

When relaunching the Penguin Books UK YouTube channel, I decided to change the way we produced the video content, with a new effort to add quality, consistency, and tone of voice to our videos. We have also invested in improving our lighting equipment and editing standards and work hard to make our thumbnails and video titles the most attractive and appealing they can be. All our videos now have an elevated quality, both visually and editorially, which has resonated with our growing YouTube audience.

 

Since relaunching in November 2019, the Penguin Books UK YouTube channel has seen record breaking growth. Our subscribers have grown from 30K to 180K and our monthly views have increased from 175K to 2.5m.

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As well as a new video studio and lighting equipment, we made a new Penguin ident and animated transitions

We created a series of new formats such as Big Questions, which has had over 6 millions views. Indeed, the most viewed pieces of Penguin content are videos on our YouTube channel. Filming and editing by Penguin Creative's Oisin Bickley & John Trevaskis

Editorial Illustration

The in-house Penguin Creative design team also produce illustrations based on the same design principles used to influence all the other areas in this online brand refresh. We also commission some of the best editorial illustrators in the world. Our illustrations have been received incredibly well by the audience, breaking numerous records for Instagram likes and increasing the traffic to Penguin.co.uk by 13%.

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Just some of the editorial illustrations created by the Penguin Creative team for Penguin.co.uk articles. Illustrations by Penguin Creative's Mica Murphy, Ryan MaCeachern & Alicia Fernandes

Book Photography (Instagram)

As well as author photography, Penguin Creative’s Staff Photographer also applied a new book photography style for social media. All books are now shot in a consistent way, on grey and on one Penguin colour. 

 

This fresh approach has resonated with our social audience, particularly on Instagram. The number of image likes in this period have been higher than ever, and the follower growth has been exponential too: growing from 350K to 500K in the space of a year.

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Just some of the book photography taken by Penguin Creative's Stuart Simpson for Penguin UK's Instagram posts

Bringing It All Together

Inspired by our design heritage but refreshed for our current needs, the Penguin online redesign looks fresh, confident and is adaptable for every purpose online and beyond. Despite this versatility, there is now a design consistency in all our visual output online. The new principles capture the vibrant and confident spirit of the first Penguin books and much better represents the values of the most loved book brand in the world: high quality, exciting, bold and accessible.

These design principles have also been applied to the campaigns the Penguin Creative team have completed since 2019. Examples would be Happy Listening, Christmas Begins with a Book, Penguin Pride and It Begins with a Book.

The redesign was also applied to Penguin Live (events), the Penguin Newsletter, Penguin's social banners and various other Penguin websites.

In our first year, the Penguin Creative team won the Design Week Award for Best In-house Design Team. The judges said: "This application shows a humble and respectful recognition of the members of the Penguin Creative team. The team is constantly high-achieving, and its work is always beautifully considered and executed"

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Penguin's new online visual direction took just over a year to achieve