Create a new universe.

How do you bring thousands of authors, publishing brands, imprints and marketing teams together into one website? This is the story of how we led Penguin Random House through digital transformation.
Graham Smith
We’re in the news room, in the centre of all the activity, watching the team capture, edit, and share events from all over the world. It’s fast-moving, exciting, and iterative. In that moment, I realised that we could also design in a way that harnesses that same excitement.

James Box, UX Director, Team 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.

Go straight to results ↓
Channel 4 Team
conducting co-design sessions at prh, vauxhaul 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; during one of our early workshops we asked a question of the stakeholders:

I remember a really good sense of collaboration. There were a lot of moving parts—us at Clearleft, the team at Channel 4, but also the team at ITN. I think we had a really good working relationship between all of those people.
James Bates
James Bates

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:

During the research we discovered:

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."
James Bates Jon Salt, Head of Digital, Penguin.co.uk

The Results

Work on products & services

Radically improve existing products and services, or create them from scratch. Optimise a key interaction to get big results, give your website a new lease of life, or work with the team to conceive, create and build on an entirely new idea.

Get clear on your strategy

You might need a targeted intervention, to unpick a thorny problem, or a fresh perspective on your process. Our strategists work with you to research and develop an appropriate digital strategy that integrates with your organisation.

Transform your digital culture

Upskill your team, develop your processes, integrate design thinking and introduce new habits. By working closely with the Clearleft team as part of your in-house process, or in a bespoke workshop setting, you get an external perspective that’s directly relevant to your needs.

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