Ben Sauer
“I took my seat in the meeting. People from almost every publishing house and imprint were there, each invested in their set of authors’ brands; representatives of Terry Pratchett, Mary Berry, all the children’s books under Puffin and Ladybird, the classics. I remember feeling that catering for everyone’s needs was going to be quite a task.”

Ben Sauer, User Experience Designer, Project Lead

The challenge for Penguin Random House

As formerly separate companies, Penguin and Random House each had their own websites. Then they merged. Collectively, the two brands managed over 700 other websites, distributed across 6 publishing houses and over 40 imprints. Each website individually focussed on authors, books, series, and characters. Few of those 700 sites had significant levels of traffic, and commissioning new sites and marketing micro-sites with external agencies was getting expensive.

Penguin.co.uk was to become their new consumer-facing brand; it has 100% market recognition and the biggest catalogue in the world. Penguin Random House wanted to expand the brand beyond classics. People also don’t know that it’s related to two other strong brands, Puffin and Ladybird. How could we change the perception of Penguin and its related brands, and bring the brands together without diluting their identities? This brief became one of our biggest, most challenging projects.

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Conducting co-design sessions at PRH, Vauxhaull Bridge

How do you create a single strategy for stakeholders who may also be competitors?

Penguin Random House believed that the new Penguin website could help people discover the book they wanted to read next. At Clearleft, we love a good provocation to get theories and opinions out on the table. So we asked the following question:

What is a publisher’s website for? What value can the organisation offer consumers?

The results of the workshop with all the subsidiary brands of Penguin Random House contradicted what we had initially heard. Staff believed that the site could offer readers unique content, and better access to authors. To get strategic clarity, we worked with stakeholders to identify the top business objectives. Ones they could all get behind. With a bit of help from us, the internal team decided that the web should:

Why would users need Penguin.co.uk over a site like Amazon.co.uk?

When it came to considering user needs, this was one of the fundamental questions. We needed to dive deeper and research user needs and behaviours.

As a starting point, Penguin Random House’s customer intelligence team gave us their latest customer research. With a clear idea of the customer base from them, we invited representative readers into research sessions to see what we could find out. This allowed us to be able to create a catalogue of user needs and a set of personas to design against.

During the research we discovered:

- Wikipedia rules the roost. When asked to find out what an author had written, people ignored the author’s own website (1st result on Google), then headed straight for the author’s Wikipedia entry (2nd).

- There is a seasonality to the purchase of books. Most people didn’t find the idea of using penguin.co.uk to find books compelling. Yet, once there, they liked what they saw. We also saw an uptick in visitors using the site for this purpose at Christmas.

- We also saw users fail to find what they wanted on author websites, and thought there might be a connection.

As a result we discovered that all original and exclusive content should be focussed around the authors and their books. Penguin Random House could do a better job of producing author-related content than other sites, after all, authors are the best content creators on the planet.

I remember being in the middle of a usability test. I was watching a passionate Colm Toibin fan google his favourite author. I expected him to go to the author's website by clicking the first Google result. But he didn't. That's when I saw the opportunity.

Ben Sauer

How do you create a cohesive universe for 100s of diverse authors, publishers, imprints and brands?

The new platform would give internal teams the chance to share marketing capabilities. They could also place content into relevant areas (e.g. an article about an author, a book, and a genre). A design system that meets user needs consistently would avoid the problems of maintaining 700+ websites.

This new consumer-facing website should act as a ‘universe’ of everything that Penguin offers and house all the related brands (e.g. Puffin, Ladybird, authors) in one place, like the BBC does.

Traditionally, digital has been commissioned in silos across the organisation. By hiring Clearleft, we've gained a vision of how we should all work together.

Channel 4 website screen shots
Ben White
Ben White

How do you adapt the brand to digital, remaining faithful to the Penguin brand and sensitive to hundreds of sub-brands?

When it came to the brand, we were pushing Penguin into unchartered waters, places the brand guidelines didn’t cover. The design language would be used to in places where the Penguin is secondary to another brand (e.g. Jamie Oliver, or Puffin).

We agonised over the typography. Although there were brand guidelines, we didn’t feel they had a universal feel. Our choice of Bliss and Fort reflects this idea. We built throwaway HTML responsive prototypes, to see what our suggested design language looked like on a variety of devices.

Fort Book Bliss Bold
Fort Book Bliss Bold

After much experimentation and testing with other brands, the result is the sidebar shown below. It gives some implicit consistency across the Penguin universe, while allowing other brands to express themselves. A user might unconsciously know that the brands were part of a universe, even if the colour and logo were different.

"Traditionally, digital has been commissioned in silos across the organisation. By hiring Clearleft, we've gained a vision of how we should all work together."
Jon Salt, Head of Digital, Penguin.co.uk

The Results

A streamlined digital strategy for 40+ brands

The organisation no longer spends hundreds of thousands of pounds commissioning and maintaining separate authors' websites. Instead their work, their events and activities can be easily curated on Penguin.co.uk without their brand being diluted. Every author's books are now collated, searchable and discoverable, complemented by a marketing strategy which is based on a set of core content principles.

A fresh website with repeatable patterns

Penguin.co.uk is a website that folds the complexity of a vast number of brands into one, flexible and visually appealing universe which accommodates authors, publishing brands such as Penguin Classics, curated marketing campains. The patterns were subsequently used by our team in two other projects: to apply to the re-design of Ladybird and Puffin, two of Penguin Random House's sub-brands.

Strong principles to guide content curation

When bringing together a diverse set of brands under one roof, the risk is that their identities will be diluted. We needed to find a way to create structural integrity and consistency in the content creation to make sure that Penguin.co.uk differentiates from other booksellers and book review sites. We developed a set of seven core principles as a guiding light for the marketing teams and website curators.

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea