Mount Improbable by Penguin Books

By Creative Review

Best in Book – Craft and technical innovation

Entrant: Penguin Books

A campaign for Penguin’s reissues of Richard Dawkins’ books showed how the traditions of print can go hand-in-hand with tech. Unique covers and a dynamic website were devised by an in-house team, which helped bring Dawkins’ writing to a new audience and, as they tell Mark Sinclair, cement a new digital chapter for the publisher


The Penguin Press art department already has a formidable reputation for its book design, but it is also leading the way in how publishers see printed objects living in the digital world. At the heart of this transformation at Penguin is a multidisciplinary team consisting of designer Matthew Young, creative developer Mathieu Triay and community manager Claudia Toia. “We work with the rest of the division, but we make our own collegial decisions when it comes to working out how best to target an audience and to design and develop something fun and accessible,” they say. Campaigns for Little Black Classics, Pocket Penguins and the reissue of three of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ books exemplify the nature of their approach.

“The product is the content. We strive to dig into it to bring back the best nuggets of gold we can find, something we think will appeal to the wider audience, but most importantly something which feels like the book” Mathieu Triay

For the latter, the team came up with a way of creating a unique cover for every single edition of the reissued titles (three of each shown, right), where each features either a curving shell structure, an insect-like ‘biomorph’, or a set of colour wavelengths. The motifs relate directly to Dawkins’ writings on evolution and make use of versions of several artificial life programs he created 30 years ago and that were re-coded by Triay. An accompanying site, mountimprobable.com, enabled users to generate their own biomorphs and modify them using a series of variables to create new, variant forms – artificial selection in action. Here, we talk to the team about their unique way of working together.

CR: Can you tell us how the team, and this collaborative way of working, came about?

Mathieu Triay: The decision to hire a developer, and subsequently to form a team, came from realising that working with freelancers for long term projects with a high brand quotient is much more painful than working with someone internally who shares the same culture and knowledge of the industry. Claudia and Matt submitted a proposal to hire someone to work with them on digital projects following the birth of the Pelican website, and it was positively received.

CR: Matt, the relaunch of the Pelican range seemed to prove your thinking about how print and digital could come from the same approach. How significant was the Pelican project in terms of showing Penguin’s digital capabilities?

Matthew Young: The Pelican project was the one that kicked everything off – it was the first project that got Penguin noticed for its digital capabilities, and laid solid foundations for the projects to follow. Most importantly, it marked a fundamental shift in thinking as it was the first time we had approached both print and digital as a whole, rather than two separate things. (Frustratingly, this is still a message we have to remind people of fairly frequently.) Pelican was actually the impetus for hiring a developer and setting up the Creative Technology team – to enable us to create this kind of work in-house – and do it better, rather than struggling with freelancers.

Mount improbable covers

CR: Mathieu, you’re a ‘creative technologist’. Can you tell us a bit about what that means and what range of work it covers at Penguin?

MT: ‘Creative technology’ is a broad term, but the way I see it is the intersection of programming, design and a commercial approach. It’s using technology in order to grow ideas which wouldn’t otherwise be able to be expressed, with an understanding of the real world application too. At Penguin, this means looking at books as containers of knowledge and using technology to put content in perspective through interactive websites, in a way the paper – non-interactive – world can’t.

CR: You’re also a developer/software engineer who loves and understands print; Matt, you’re a print designer who can code and understands online. Is that still an appropriate way of describing your work, or are those definitions now much more blurred?

MT: This still works for me. We each have our own area of expertise, but we relish learning about each other’s field, contributing and questioning as we go along. I think the definitions have blurred in the sense that you can’t really afford to be just ‘digital’ or just ‘print’ right now, you have to know both because they’re both here to stay, each with a different set of strengths. The definitions of ‘engineer’ and ‘designer’ are also changing, building on each other’s skillsets, having realised how co-dependent they can be over time.

MY: I think those definitions still work. We each have a different area of technical expertise, but fundamentally we’re all just problem solvers. Knowing the opportunities and limitations of each other’s craft opens up new ways of looking at problems (and makes it a lot easier to work closely together on solutions).

CR: Claudia, when constructing a digital campaign for a new book series or individual title, what considerations came into deciding the audience to target? How did you brief Matt and Mathieu?

Claudia Toia: Penguin Press mainly publishes non-fiction and classics, both of which tend to have a serious image and its books are sometimes associated with highbrow readers. However, a lot of this content is actually relevant to a younger crowd so we strived to show that it is in fact approachable in a way that’s appropriate for the book. Working with the team was a very organic process. We’d start with a book and a goal, we’d pitch in ideas and iterate until we find a concept that we all liked. In the end, the book is the brief.

CR: Mathieu, you’ve said before how the idea for the Dawkins campaign “was all in the book”? Is there something to be said b for going right back to the source for inspiration? Do you think too many digital campaigns feel ‘tagged on’ to the printed object?

MT: I think this is the whole reason why this team was formed initially. Hiring an agency or a freelancer can sometimes lead to something that feels external to the product, something that doesn’t really understand the content or the context because of a lack of time or investment. The product is the content. We strive to dig into it to bring back the best nuggets of gold we can find, something we think is going to be appealing to the wider audience, but most importantly something which feels like the book. In a way we’re working on behalf of the writers. They produced the content, we are trying to show it in the best light possible, in a way the book doesn’t already do.

MY: I absolutely feel that too many digital campaigns are tagged on – they so often feel like an afterthought, a gimmick. Instead of trying to create something new for the sake of creating something new, we always turn to the source – the book! – for our inspiration. We’re lucky to publish some of the best books around, and when an author has written 400-odd pages of brilliance, you don’t need to tack something extra on top of that, you simply need to let the work shine.

CR: Finally, while much of your work uses new tech and lives online, you seem very well connected to Penguin history and its archives. How important is understanding Penguin’s past for you?

Penguin team: Penguin’s legacy is a bottomless source of inspiration in terms of design but also in terms of ethics. That the paperback should be of the highest quality possible but also accessible to everyone is, in a way, something we’re trying to achieve on the web. Yet, we focus on the future – we’re living in a different world, with different technology, design and ecosystems and we can’t afford to look back all the time. We have the history in the rear view mirror and it’s good to glance at it once in a while, but we have to focus on the road ahead.


Credits:

Entrant/Design Studio/Client: Penguin Books. Marketing Manager: Claudia Toia. Creative Developer: Mathieu Triay. Designer: Matthew Young.

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