Brain Pickings

BBC’s The Beauty of Books: Penguin, Orwell, and the Paperback Cover Design Revolution


“The book is still the most intelligent and interactive data retrieval system which has been devised.”

It’s been argued that a new golden age of book design is upon us. But, as iconic graphic designer Massimo Vignelli famously declared, “a designer without a sense of history is worth nothing.” How the history of book design fertilizes its present is precisely what the BBC series The Beauty of Books explores. The fourth episode, Paperback Writer, traces the fascinating story of the paperback revolution, which promised to “turn us all into librarians of our own private collections,” but also transformed books into more of a commodity and elevated the art of the cover into a critical tool for success.

The book is still the most intelligent and interactive data retrieval system which has been devised — and you can take it into the bath. (Author and design critic Stephen Bayley)

The film points to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its plethora of cover designs and over 25 million copies sold, as “the embodiment of how the paperback book changed civilization.” Here are my favorite covers from the history of the iconic novel:

Swedish edition, 1959; design by Olle Eksell

Penguin UK, 2008; design by Shepard Fairey

But perhaps most brilliant of all is David Person‘s cover for the most recent Penguin edition, playing off the cover of Orwell’s Why I Write:

Complement with how Marshall McLuhan, Jerome Agel, and Quentin Fiore created a new visual vernacular for the golden age of the paperback.

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