The return of Pelican Books

I'm glad to see the return of Pelican Books. Five new Pelicans appeared earlier this month, the first to bear the imprint for some 25 years.

The Pelican range was launched by Penguin in 1937 to offer cutting edge scholarship at an affordable price to a mass audience. The very first publication, George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism set a high standard that was maintained for more than 50 years. Subsequent Pelican authors included Kenneth Clark, GM Trevelyan, Rachel Carson, HG Wells, RH Tawney, Beatrice Webb, Virginia Woolf, JK Galbraith, Noam Chomsky and Che Guevara. In fact almost every significant intellectual of the last century published at least one work under the Pelican label. Millions were sold: you'll see several in the house of every booklover - I've illustrated this post with pics of some of the (earnest) Pelicans I've found on my own shelves - and every second hand bookshop and book fair is awash with Pelican blue.

Pelican spines

Pelicans were celebrated for the quality of their design as well as their content. There were three classic styles. The first was a simple triband design: two blue bars featuring the Pelican label and logo were separated by a white strip displaying the author and title, set in Gill Sans.

An first generation Pelican

Tschichold's revised design

This stark layout followed the modernist graphic design principles that evolved in 1920s Germany, so it was appropriate that a decade or so later Pelican employed Jan Tschichold, author of the seminal Weimar text The New Typography, to take the design forward. Tschichold retained the original blue and the Gill Sans font, but moved away from the triband, choosing instead to foreground the title and author within a central white panel.

It was another 10 years before the next significant redesign during the early 1960s, when illustrations and photographs were introduced for the first time. But the spartan Pelican design ambience was retained. Every cover - whatever the subject of the book - used the same font, Helvetica, which by then had replaced Gill Sans as the quintessential sans-serif modernist typeface, and the imagery drew on a limited palette consisting of simple photographs, often monochrome, and geometric shapes and patterns layered into abstract compositions.

1960s philosophising

1960s abstraction

The rigorous application of this austere visual language to every title in the series remains one of the most effective branding exercises in the history of graphic design. The Pelican identity was crystal clear: serious books, by serious writers, for serious people.

I'm delighted the new Pelican range retains the elegant, spare style of its predecessors. The original blue is back. The Pelican logo has been reworked into a simple vector, and a custom sans-serif takes the place of Helvetica. Pelican have created a clever little animation illustrating the evolution of the brand into its latest iteration:

I already have my eye on at least two in the new series, and I'm looking forward to many more. For more details on Pelican's history, and the brand's revival, see these excellent posts on the Guardian and designboom websites.

A serious book

Seriousness upon seriousness