In the U.K., the name Mills & Boon evokes the same emotions as its parent company, Harlequin Enterprises, does in U.S. It’s a pulp fiction line of romantic erotica–essentially a Lifetime movie with explicit sex–aimed at a female reader base who will loyally read several books a month for decades.
Book titles include Stranded with Her Greek Tycoon; One Night with a SEAL: All Out, All In; Becoming the Prince’s Wife; The Witch’s Thirst; Conquering the Cowboy; and my personal favorite, purely for its unabashed fetishistic specificity: Reunited with Her Parisian Surgeon.
But more recently, the brand had gone stale–even as a trashy indulgence. So Mills & Boon surveyed 1,000 young potential readers to find out why. Their response? The sultry content was fine. In the age of 50 Shades of Grey, sex and romance still sell. It was the oft-cheesy covers, featuring the classic man and woman in an embrace, that were unappealing. So Mills & Boon hired Pentagram London to give the brand a makeover.
“Clearly, we wanted to put it into an audience more used to seeing Netflix, who would happily sit down and watch The Crown or Downton Abbey,” says partner Angus Hyland, who led the redesign. “Why should it have to feel like something only a granny would pick up?”
Pentagram made Mills & Boon an updated logo, presenting the brand in a modernist sans serif wordmark. The only nod to romance is subliminal–a heart was used to shape the ampersand’s curves. The even larger job, though, was that Pentagram helped rebrand Mills & Boon’s entire branching line of romantic books–which range in subgenres from Supernatural to Western Romance to something called Cosmos Red Hot Reads. Its most aggressive visual work was on Mills & Boon’s newest, sex-forward sub-brand called Dare.
For Dare, Pentagram abandoned the typical full-color cover, in which a hot guy and a hot girl would either be enraptured or in some very buttoned-up state of sexual repression. The firm instead chose black-and-white photography, and zoomed into the subjects with little respect to the human physique, almost turning the bodies into abstraction. “It’s slightly more dangerous, as it were,” says Hyland, pointing out that the vague figures are “more suggestive than literal.”
Pentagram went so far as to create a design system that blurred stock photography through digital filters, essentially reaffirming the old adage that the difference between pornography and art is just better lighting. By turning off the lights and making the imagery more ambiguous, Hyland wanted to make room for the reader’s own escapism–and provide a book that a young woman, the target demographic, wouldn’t feel embarrassed to grab at a supermarket or read on a train.
To title the book atop the black-and-white image, Pentagram chose the typeface Austin–which itself was first designed for the British style magazine Harpers & Queen as a modernist spin on a popular typeface from the 1800s. Then they rendered the letters in electric colors like hot pink and blue. “They’re a counterpoint to the erotic, with this little bit of pop that offsets [the tone],” says Hyland. “If we’d gone the whole way to erotica, we would have used gold or silver foil, or gloss red.”
The final product knows what it is. Mills & Boon isn’t attempting to package itself as timeless literature that might be reprinted for decades. So its design is not stoic or stately. And there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that just looks a bit off–that purposely tips its hand to being a pulp publication rather than something that might exist on a New York Times bestseller list. Besides, its color palette and typographical choice are both too aggressive to avoid becoming dated sooner as opposed to later.
Of course, this is all by design, to attract a younger consumer toward a product that won’t be on shelves very long before being replaced by the next disposable book. “It’s relevant now, not relevant yesterday or in 10 years’ time,” says Hyland. “It will be published, put on a shelf, sold, and replaced by another series of titles. So it should just feel right for now, because it ain’t gonna hang around.”