Romek Marber – Penguin illustrator

book cover of silhouetted man on beach

Romek Marber’s collage and experimental photography

In 1961, Romek Marber was chosen as the designer of a new cover grid for Penguin’s Crime books. He had already completed two cover designs for Pelican (non-fiction) titles and was becoming established in London’s design circles. Upon acceptance of his “Marber grid” he was invited to design a series of cover illustrations as well.

To launch the new Crime series I was asked to do twenty titles. The month was June and the books had to be on display in October. Doing the Crime covers was exciting and it was fun. I tried to make each picture mysterious and intriguing. I didn’t always succeed.”

Having already booked a holiday in Italy with his wife, Marber had to work very fast to produce the artwork in time. Several of those covers are shown here and they demonstrate his expedient studio process and modernist outlook. The illustrations were made by collage, photomontage, photogram and manipulated photographs, the toolkit of high modernist photo practice since the Bauhaus era. Producing twenty original artworks for a highly conspicuous re-launch of the Penguin Crime brand, completing them in less than a month, was a high-pressure situation for a freelance artist.

The way I create pictures is time-consuming and is too personal to delegate. Usually I did them in batches. I had to take a photograph then manipulate the picture either in processing or printing. To achieve a required result I would rephotograph the print, sometimes several times, or use it in a collage. It was experimental and challenging.

Two men in silhouette
collage of black arrows and figures
silhouette of rearing horse

The grid was important as the rational element of control. The consistency of the pictures contributed, as much as the grid, to the unity of the covers, and the dark shadowy photography gave the covers a feel of crime. The grid and the rather dark visual images, suggestive of crime, had an immediate impact. The launch was successful and Penguin went ahead changing all the covers on the Crime list to the new design.

drawing of small figure casting shadow
photo of typewriter with letter
skyscraper with running figure

“Father Brown gets straight to the nub of the case and always gets his man. I used a combination of photography, a model of a maze made from paper, and a length of thread to put across Father Brown’s unlimited powers of detection.

drawing of stylish woman
drawing of maze and Father Brown

Penguin decided that books by authors who have many titles on the Penguin booklist should have individual pictorial identification. I had almost finished doing the covers for Dorothy L Sayers novels when I had a phone call informing me about the new policy. I modified the artwork and added a small white figure, which appears in a different posture on each cover, and it worked.”

small white figure
small white figure
face with small white figure in eye

For Death of a Stray Cat the picture is of a figure cut out from black paper and a charcoal rubbing taken from a wooden plank. When combined they give the feeling of the sea, shore and mystery. For the Case of the Caretaker’s Cat the black photos of catsand the hand with a dribble of black ink give the image an ominous rather creepy feeling.

silhouette of figure on beach
two cats and hand
large X and Y

Quototations by Romek Marber from:

Penguin by Illustrators, Penguin Collectors Society, 2007.

Penguin by Design, Penguin Collectors Society, 2005. Out of print.

How the Marber grid was made

Shows how the Marber grid applies to a real Penguin cover

The construction of the Marber grid

The Marber grid – this is so wonderful I don’t even know how to talk about it. David Pearson, Penguin designer, 2012.

The famous Marber grid is one of the foundation stones of Penguin mythology, a design so clever that it is still studied more than half a century after it was made.

Romek Marber was a Polish emigré designer working in London. He had done two covers for Penguin when in 1961 the new art director Germano Facetti invited him and two other Penguin illustrators (John Sewell and Derek Birdsall) to propose a design grid for the crime imprint. Marber’s design was chosen. His approach was methodical, reflecting his interest in analysis and structure in design, influenced by the Swiss Typographic movement.

To retain the unity of the series, the freedom of where to place the title, the logotype and price and in what colour, is controlled by the grid, and routine readers of crime fiction will be able to pinpoint without difficulty the title and author’s name. – Romek Marber

Complete Marber grid design showing how it works
The Marber grid, 1961

This is the design Marber presented to Penguin editors in 1961. He based its development on the Golden Section, the ancient formula for well-proportioned design. Since the standard A-format paperback is itself in the Golden Section proportions (1 : 1.618) it was a logical starting point. Note below how Marber used as his starting point the main horizontal line which divides the rectangle.

The Golden Section compared to the first step in building the Marber grid

But how did he develop it? The following panels show my analysis of the steps that Marber apparently took in developing his grid.

Designs showing the first and second steps in building the Marber grid

1.  Using the Golden Section division, diagonal lines are drawn to the top midpoint and corner.
2.  Corner-to-corner diagonals and vertical centre line are added.

Designs showing the third and fourth steps in building the Marber grid

3 & 4. Where lines Intersect (shown with red circles) Marber drew two horizontal lines.

Designs showing the fifth and sixth steps in building the Marber grid

5 and 6. A further diagonal from the top left corner is drawn to the lower horizontal line at right. This creates another intersection near the top, so a third horizontal line is drawn through that.

Designs showing the seventh and eighth steps in building the Marber grid

7 and 8. The final intersections help to create three vertical lines. These will provide alignments foe the Penguin logo and the justifying lines for the title and author text; the Marber grid text is justified left, not centred.

Designs showing two versions of the completed Marber grid

9 and 10. On the left the basic design. On the right the explanatory design submitted to Penguin.

Each horizontal segment has a purpose. Starting from the top segment: the logo, brand name and price. Then below that the title of the book, and below that the author’s name. Finally, the largest space is reserved for the illustration. The vertical lines provide a space for the logo and justifying lines for the text – the Marber grid is left-aligned, not centred. This was the purpose of developing a new layout for Penguin, to introduce a more visual aesthetic to the company’s products, while retaining some echo of the previous typographic cover layouts at Penguin. The cover is organised by separating typographic information from visual “entertainment”.

In his proposal, Marber retained the “branded” colours for the different categories: orange for general fiction and green for crime, which he lightened. The typeface was Intertype Standard, a version of Akzidenz Grotesk, which he preferred to Helvetica. The use of lowercase type for titles, as in ‘The glass village’ below, was unusual, but gave the covers a more informal mood. The grid was an expression of Swiss Typographic Style which was at that time fresh and contemporary.

two 1960s Penguins showing application of Marber grid

These examples from the early 1960s show Marber’s grid applied to the categories of General Fiction (orange) and Crime (green).

The Marber grid covers successfully modernized the Penguin design culture, leaving behind the old-fashioned 1935 and 1949 typographic grids shown above. The Marber grid was applied first to Crime, then to General Fiction, Science Fiction, and Non-Fiction categories. Penguin became a colourful, artistically innovative publisher embracing the new visual culture of the 1960s with its television, colour magazines and Technicolor movies.

Above: Penguin before Marber: the horizontal and vertical grids first used in 1935 and 1949. Both of these copies were published in the late 1950s, just before the Marber grid.

Erwin Fabian, Penguin Illustrator

abstracted drawing by Erwin Fabian as cover illustration for Kafka's The Castle in Penguin Modern Classics series

Artist’s long life included illustrating Penguin covers

In January this year the Melbourne artist Erwin Fabian died at the great age of 105. Sculptor, printmaker and Penguin book illustrator, Fabian had an eventful life. 

Born in Germany during World War 1, he was the son of a painter, Max Fabian. After studying drawing in Berlin he fled to England in 1938 to escape the Nazi persecution of jews. In London he again studied art and even designed some book covers before being interned as an enemy alien. He was sent to Australia on board the notorious Dunera ship, along with numerous other European artists, musicians, doctors and judges, detained like him in England. Sent to detention camps in Hay, Orange and Tatura in Victoria, he was released after two years, ironically on condition of joining the army.

After the war he worked as a commercial artist in Melbourne, again designing some book covers but returned to London in 1950. Fabian found work designing for advertising agencies, producing graphics for such clients as P&O and Shell, and also Penguin, where he designed a number of notable book covers. His graphic and printmaking skills suited the visual style at Penguin which in the later 1950s was edging away from the traditional typographic covers and towards some reconciliation with the growing visual culture in British publishing.

////drawing of falling bomb with men's faces inside for CP Snow book The New Men                                                      silhouette of human figure with computer punch tape for cover of book on management///Atomic bomb cloud with rockets as illustration for book about nuclear war

These four books from the 1950s show that evolution. The top two were made for Hans Schmoller’s typographic templates which use the images as embellishments to the grid. The bottom two were made for art director John Curtis and show the artist in charge of almost the whole design, type included, and present a cohesive visual message.

Three editions of one book show how an artist’s work might be seen by the public over time. Fabian’s eerie, abstract illustration for Kafka’s The Castle are shown from 1957, 1961 and 1964, for both the Penguin main series and for the evolving Modern Classics imprint. “Hans Schmoller told me later that this was the first time in publishing that a monoprint had been used for a cover.” Presumably, the artist was paid only once. The rate (in 1964) was £15.


Two editions of William H Whyte’s The Organization Man from 1960 and c1963 show the fate that could befall an illustrator’s work. Phil Baines writes that “despite the awkwardness of the type and the position of the logo, the cover worked amazingly well. But when the illustrative element was re-used on reprinting the title as a Pelican in the Marber grid the idea of the of the individual as separate from the crowd was lost.” (Penguin Collector 71, 2008)


Fabian was among a select group of artists to provide illustrations for the new series of full-colour covers in 1957-58. This was the first time Penguin had tried to compete with the more commercial paperback publishers such as Pan Books. Abram Games, then Britain’s leading graphic designer was art directing the project of the covers and assigned Fabian to an Erle Stanley Gardner cover. “Allen Lane introduced Penguin’s change to pictorial covers at a tea party at Abram Games’ house – he wanted us to hear why he saw the need to change from the customary typographical covers and most of those present later designed covers for Penguin.” (Penguin by Illustrators, 2009)

His illustration for Games, a collage of photo and gouache, predicted the future style of Romek Marber’s illustrations in the 1962 Crime imprint and was even adapted to the new Marber grid in a monochrome version that same year. 

cover illustration for Erle Stanley Gardner novel with legs, eyes and hook////

Erwin Fabian returned to live in Melbourne with his family in 1962 but his focus shifted away from commercial art. He became a leading Australian abstract sculptor, working in scrap metal and discarded machinery parts. He worked up to the end.

For a detailed biography and interview by Jana Wendt see Erwin’s Century.

Günter Grass, author and artist

gold book cover with large Bodoni type and drawing of a snail, for Gunter Grass nover, From the Diary of a Snail.

During the 1970s Penguin published five books by the esteemed German author Günter Grass. These books were produced during the reign of art director David Pelham, and they share the class and polish of so many Penguins of that period.

Günter Grass was a popular literary novelist who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his “frolicsome black fables that portray the forgotten face of history.” His most famous novel was The Tin Drum, published in 1959 and made into an Oscar-winning film in 1979. Like other Grass novels it covers the Nazi era and how ordinary Germans dealt with it.

The first thing you notice with these Penguins is the burnished gold background which gives the books a feeling of prestige and physical presence, especially when the book is held in the hand. It was a suitable gesture by Penguin for the future Nobel laureate. They are like the gold Benson & Hedges cigarette packets from that time which marketed values of wealth and class.  

The titles are set in large Bodoni, and contrary to standard procedure for capitals they are packed together, “close but not touching”. The effect is classical and contemporary at the same time. No cover designer is credited so we can’t be sure who set the type and chose the background colour (Grass himself or David Pelham?) but the small illustrations were made by the author. They are taken from the jacket designs he had done for earlier editions of his books (see below). 

Penguin paperback cover of Gunter Grass novel The Tin Drum with large Bodoni type and drawing of boy and drum by Gunter Grass////                                               //////\

Günter Grass was an accomplished visual artist as well as being a major author. Following the Second World War he had begun training as a stonemason and studied graphics and sculpture at the famed Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. For a time he worked as a graphic designer. Grass kept up his art practice and held exhibitions through the years. He developed his own iconography, often based on motifs from his own literature. He said, “I often turn to drawing to recover from the writing.” You can see his work from the 1970s, the decade of these Penguins, at the Steven Kasher Gallery website.

cover of early german edition of Katz und Maus by Gunter Grass with drawing of cat by the author//// Günter Grass illustration for his novel Die Blechtrommel, showing boy with drum

Günter Grass illustrations for early editions of his novels.

Günter Grass artwork called The Flounder, showing fish and human ear.

Günter Grass, The Flounder, 1977

Günter Grass at work on the lithograph stone.


Joanna and the Modern Classics

Cover of Brighton Rock with drawing by Graham Byfield of worried man near Brighton Pier

“In those days, any self-respecting teenage bookworm went to school with a Penguin Modern Classic tucked in a blazer pocket” (Rick Poyner, on the 1970s)

Penguin Modern Classics was started in 1961 as a way of packaging 20th literature in new covers. It was so successful it continues to this day, six decades later. 

The covers were mild and well-proportioned. The typeface chosen was Joanna, described by its designer Eric Gill as “a book face free from all fancy business.” Released in 1931 it was based on the traditional “old-style” serifs of the Renaissance but with a 20th century feel. It gave the covers a pleasing literary style, especially when combined with the the often delicate line illustrations and the subtle brand colour, eau de nil (water of the Nile).

Germano Facetti, the recently appointed art director, argued with Hans Schmoller over the typeface, describing Joanna as “scarcely apt for incisive display”. Schmoller, a master typographer and a traditionalist, was uncomfortable with the gradual move to a more contemporary aesthetic on the covers. As head of production at Penguin and recently appointed to its board, he had a lot of influence. Facetti wanted a bolder, more commercial impact, which he later achieved with Helvetica and large, full-colour illustrations (see below).

The difference between the two attitudes is illuminating. Facetti, an Italian, wanted Helvetica, a Swiss typeface, to achieve an internationalist effect. Schmoller, though German, was adept at conveying the Englishness of Penguin using English typefaces and a well-mannered aesthetic. The “Joanna period” seems tasteful and reticent today and reminds us that even though Penguin at that time was a giant commercial empire, it was still in the hands of bookish gentlemen.

Penguin cover illustration by Georg Grosz for Berthold Brecht's The Threepenny Novel//////Book cover of Andre Gide La Symphonie Pastorale with illustration by Giovanni Thermes////F Scott Fitzgerald cover with Cubist-style drawing by John SewellBook cover design by Erwin Fabian for Kafka's The Castle////book cover for Ranz Kafka The Trial with illustration by

Below are three editions of Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull. On the left, the 1962 cover by Hans Schmoller with the template from the John Curtis era of the late 1950s, and an illustration by Virgil Burnett

On the right is the 1965 compromise layout between Schmoller and Facetti, using an adaptation of the Marber grid. Although the title, still in Joanna, is broken up, the overall effect is less fussy.

////Penguin Modern Classic cover with layout by Hans Schmoller and Germano Facetti

Finally, by the later 1960s, Facetti got his way. The redesign of the Modern Classics gained a black background (in the face of furious protests), Joanna was replaced by Helvetica bold and the cover image ceased to be a commissioned illustration. Instead, artworks were carefully selected from picture agencies to match the content of each volume. Facetti’s special knowledge of fine art history and his experience as co-founder of Snark International picture agency gave him a special talent for inspired matching of text and picture.

The new, contemporary look was presumably better able to compete in the visual marketplace of colour magazines, billboards and television. This poster-style approach became the brand image for the Modern Classics for years to come.

Penguin Modern Classic new cover design by Germano Facetti////Penguin Modern Classic_Nineteen Eighty Four_Orwell                                  Cover artworks by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and William Roberts.

Illustration credits:

Brighton Rock, Graham Byfield

Threepenny Novel, Georg Grosz

Confessions of Felix Krull, Virgil Burnett

La Symphonie Pastorale, Giovanni Thermes

Tender is the Night, John Sewell

The Castle, Erwin Fabian

The Trial, André François


Confessions of Felix Krull


Milton Glaser has died


Milton Glaser, influential star of design and illustration and co-founder of New York’s famous Push Pin Studios in 1954, has died at age 91. 

Glaser mastered every branch of the design profession including advertising, graphic design and illustration, and held fine art exhibitions of his own work. He had a prominent public persona as teacher and communicator about design matters, on an international level. He is probably best known to the general public for his 1966 Bob Dylan poster, and for his 1970s I ❤ NY logo. In more recent years, his psychedelic posters for the final season of Mad Men plastered New York bus stops when I last visited in 2014. 

Glaser was a prolific designer of book covers through much of his career, most memorably in his long series of pen and ink Shakespeare covers for Signet (see below). He illustrated for many book publishers, including Penguin which commissioned a small number of covers in the 1960s. Their rate was £15 per cover (according to Ivan Chermayeff) which doesn’t sound like much but in today’s money equal to £300 and worth taking on as part of the flow of a busy studio. 

“It was always thrilling to get an assignment from Penguin because you knew they stood for an idea of quality that seemed to go beyond the issues of simple commerce.”

Glaser’s Penguin designs are varied in technique, including line drawings and watercolours, and they have a bold visual impact in the confined space of a book cover. They are amongst the best covers of the whole Marber grid period. These examples of Glaser’s Penguin are from the mid-1960s.

//./          ….….

 Glaser’s long-running series of Shakespeare covers:         



R.I.P Romek Marber

portrait of designer Romek Marber in circa late 1960s

On March 30, Romek Marber died at the great age of 94. He had a long and admired career in the graphic arts and his influence on the design culture at Penguin, starting in 1961, is incalculable.

Marber was born in Poland in 1925 and after surviving the War (just), arrived in Britain in 1946. He studied art at St Martins and the Royal College of Art in the early 1950s and, after a period as assistant to Herbert Spencer, editor of Typographica magazine, eventually established himself as a successful designer and illustrator in London. 

In 1961 Marber was invited by art director Germano Facetti to design a cover for the author Simeon Potter. His design, on the left,  for Language in the Modern World was a formalist composition with sans serif type and geometric elements combined with an abstracted portrait in printers dots. On the right is a later design, from 1965 and for a different publisher, which shows the same toolkit of geometry and abstracted face.     

book cover with geometric shapes and abstracted photo of talking man///cover design with geometric layout, abstracted face and red love heart

In 1962 Penguin decided to try again with visual covers, to replace the dated typographic covers of the 1950s. Facetti invited three designers to propose a grid to give structure to the cover designs and Marber’s plan won with this explanatory design. You can see my analysis of the grid here.

The Marber Grid, as it is called, was tested on a series of crime novels with Marber himself commissioned to supply the illustrations for twenty titles. Having already booked an overseas holiday with his wife he had only a few weeks to complete the job. The assignment came in June and publication – printed books on bookshop shelves – was in October, an extremely close publishing date. Apart from reading the books to get an understanding of their content, Marber needed to build a streamlined studio process to get the work done. This involved drawings, collages, photography and re-photography and other processes. He always worked from home …

“… a table to work on; pencil and pens and brushes…I used a camera in my work, and an enlarger, but I didn’t have a darkroom. I used to wait until it got dark and the kitchen wasn’t in use, quite late at night. I had a screen to cover the window …What I very often found was that clients who came the first time quite liked the slightly primitive way that I worked. It was a surprise to them.”  (Eye magazine interview)

Penguin Books 1962 crime novel with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber ////Penguin Books 1962 crime novel with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber//////Penguin Books 1962 crime novel with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber//// Penguin Books 1962 crime novel with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber

The result of those few weeks was a body of work that has survived the intervening 60 years as a case study in the application of modernist design principles. Marber had achieved a synthesis of creative artwork, much of it with a Surrealist flavour, and Swiss Typographic ideas in the text design and layout, in a branding exercise that preserved Penguin’s design heritage in an updated form.Those first twenty titles proved a success, increasing sales by a significant margin. Soon the Marber grid was applied across the whole Crime series, and soon after to Fiction, Modern Classics, Pelican and other Penguin imprints. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Marber’s layout gave much of the vast Penguin range its brand image.  

watercolour drawing of man leaning over reclining woman///drawing of shapely woman with background of postage stamps

Marber was a freelance designer. He designed covers for The Economist, New Society and other magazines and produced corporate work for many clients. But that’s another story.



1984 since 1954: Orwell covers evolve


The changing cover design of George Orwell’s 1984

How better to explain the difference between American and British paperback publishing? These two books were published in the same year, 1954, one in the US and one in Britain. At that time, America had a more visual culture and needed pictorial expression to get attention, especially on crowded news stands where many paperbacks were sold. In Britain books were sold in bookshops where they did not compete with the visual covers of magazines, newspapers and other packaged products as on news stands.

This is a fair comparison. Signet was the successor to American Penguin, which Allen Lane had sold off in the 1940s. Kurt Enoch, in charge of production, developed a tradition of vivid pictorial covers in all the company imprints. This Signet illustration is lurid and suggestive, selling the novel 1984 as a sex and sadism tale. It’s wrong and you wonder what a reader would make of it if they bought it based on the cover.

As for the Penguin cover, it is set in the revised version of the 1935 typographic grid, a prim, tidy and mute layout, but at least it doesn’t lie about its contents.


Penguin 1963 / Penguin Modern Classics 1971                    

Later Penguin reprints of 1984 show the evolution of design taste. In 1963 the art director Germano Facetti made this collaged artwork for the Marber grid edition, a simple graphic that illustrates the moment of Winston Smith’s torture at the hands of O’Brien. An aggressive cover, it shows Penguin was responding to the increasingly visual culture of Britain in the 1960s.

For the Penguin Modern Classics edition in 1971 a more ‘tasteful’ image was chosen from a picture library, the World War 2 William Roberts’ painting, The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942. It alludes to the sinister bureaucratic control described in the novel, especially the Ministry of Truth where Winston works.

// ///

Penguin Essential 1998 / Penguin Essential 2008

These two Penguin Essentials are 10 years apart and they show the evolution of design taste in that decade. On the left is the Grunge interpretation by Darren Haggar and Dominic Bridges. The grainy image and text with the suggestion of surveillance photography give the cover a seedy atmosphere in line with fear and social exhaustion depicted in the novel. 

On the right is a cover by the former street artist Shephard Fairey of Obey the Giant fame. The commission was a clever idea as Fairey’s poster aesthetic is based on Russian Constructivism. The associations of Constructivism, and of Orwell’s novel, with the Stalinist period made Fairey a good choice and his design has a menacing and vaguely communistic flavour.

Penguin 2013

David Pearson’s 2013 design uses the radical idea of blanking out the title and author. It refers to the book’s protagonist Winston Smith, whose job at the Ministry of Truth was to retrospectively censor by deletion every reference in newspaper archives to political figures who had become “unpersons”.

The design and execution of this idea was difficult and required “just the right amount of print obliteration by printing, debossing, and flattening the type. What’s left is less a letter than ‘a dent.'” It’s an example of art room designers working closely with the printers to achieve the desired result. Art direction was by Jim Stoddart and design by David Pearson.

Jim Stoddart: foil & deboss tests


Three lettered covers


Illustrative lettering used instead of images

The art of illustration flourished at Penguin during the 1960s and 70s under a series of art directors whose tastes in cover design were more graphic than typographic. And lettering, the illustrator’s answer to type, was sometimes used instead of pictures. 

The writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote to Penguin that he wanted no more pictorial covers insisting on typographic cover designs in future. Art director David Pelham recalled that “for added gravitas, he signed this dictum in a large hand, his signature heavily underlined with a flourish, seemingly to show that he meant business”.

What was to be done? Pelham showed the letter to the designer John Gorham who requested the assignment to do all the Nabokovs on the list. “I later realised that John wanted to design them because he had seen a beauty in the style of the signature.” The cover layout shown above was used on all the Nabokov series with the grand signature contrasted with the humble title in the corner. 

Nabokov approved the new design that solved his austere demand and “simultaneously conveyed a mood of warmth and humanity quite befitting the elegance of the prose.”*

To Kill a Mockingbird, one of Penguin’s big hits, was designed by Derek Birdsall using the blurb that would normally be seen on the back cover. In itself this was a radical idea. But Birdsall took it further by having it written out in crayon in a childlike hand. He recalled that “I tried to get my son to do it, but he failed miserably”. Christopher Birdsall was then aged ten, a similar age to Scout, the narrator of the story. In the end, Birdsall senior who was a talented letter artist, probably wrote it out himself.

Penguin_JP Donleavy_Meet they Maker_Alan Aldridge designer

The mercurial Alan Aldridge modernised the image of Penguin in the mid-1960s and dragged it into Swinging London. He was an inventive letterer and did several cover designs with words rather than pictures. This design, from a series of JP Donleavy lettered covers, certainly “swings”, it has a flavour of psychedelia, the illustrative style that Aldridge helped create. It was published in 1967 and designed during Aldridge’s reign as fiction art director at Penguin.

It was probably executed to his design by his associate Harry Willock, the technical expert in the art room who had a long partnership with Aldridge. In his excellent design blog Graphic Journey, Mike Dempsey gives a fascinating outline of Willock’s career. He explains how the great beauty and wonder of Aldridge’s work owed much to the precision and polish that Willock brought to the work, including the Beatles Illustrated Lyrics and other famous productions.

* Quotations from David Pelham are from Penguin by Designers, 2005, published by The Penguin Collectors Society.

Penguin’s Grunge Essentials

In 1998, Penguin awoke from decades of slumber to regain its reputation for good cover design. One of its first projects was a series of modern classics packaged as Penguin Essentials, under the General Art Director John Hamilton. 

According to designer Phil Baines “Hamilton commissioned leading illustrators and design groups to produce all-over designs. There is no obvious unity to these covers except the boldness of their execution, and the use of prominent designers and illustrators helped to achieve that goal.”

I remember discovering these new books when they first appeared and thinking, at last Penguin is back. Now with two decades of hindsight, you can see the strong influence of Grunge aesthetics and of David Carson in particular. The scratched, rubbed and blurred fragmentation of Grunge was all the rage in the 1990s, with designers like Carson in the US and Vaughn Oliver in the UK becoming stars of the design world. 

The Penguin Essentials series was aimed at a young market, “new buyers whose disposable income was being spent on music and clothing.” The designers Hamilton invited, including Banksy and Tomato, were not book cover designers as such, so the series avoided the trade look that Penguin as a brand had slumped into. It worked, the series was successful and helped set up the company for a new era of leadership in style, exemplified by the arrival of Jim Stoddart, Coralie Bickford-Smith, David Pearson and others in the coming years.

The Penguin Essentials series is still running on a much expanded list but still with its vibrant contemporary cover designs by innovative designers. 


The full covers show how the designers have treated the front, spine and back as the canvas, not just the front cover.


Junky – Chris Ashworth + A. Sissons

Riddle of the Sands – Paul Cohen

A Clockwork Orange – Dirk van Dooren

1984 photographs – Darren Haggar and Dominic Bridges

Ballad of the Sad Café photographs – Scott Wishart  

Louisa Hare’s Shakespeare covers


The Penguin Shakespeare covers of the mid-1990s had an appealing restraint and simplicity. They were based on the First Folio of 1623 titled, “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Original Copies.”

The designer was Louisa Hare who had acquired a Heidelberg printing press along with a collection of metal type. She set up a studio near Stratford-upon-Avon, called it First Folio Cards and started producing small gift cards. The Penguin covers successfully adapted the visual idea of the cards onto book design; the series lasted over a decade and became the official edition of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

/ /////////…////./

Louisa Hare’s cards feature a short quote from Shakespeare taken from the Folio, along with a contemporary illustration.


Every card is printed using traditional letterpress methods from blocks on finest quality textured card using hand mixed inks. The use of blocks gives the added dimension of impression into the card offering texture and character. The cards are not glossy but tactile – the method of their manufacture differing little in principle from that used in Shakespeare`s own time. To date there are over 130 original designs. The text used is facsimile of the 1623 First Folio editions of Shakespeare`s works. Each extract is either colourfully decorated, or more usually illustrated.

Hare sold the cards through the The Globe Theatre, RSC, Stratford and similar outlets. They seem to be no longer available. Click here to watch a video of Louisa Hare printing the cards.

For a further article about Penguin Shakespeare’s, go to The Partial View: Shakespeare Series.


Petra Börner’s Selected Poems

Penguin’s Selected Poems is a short series from 2006 on modern poets. The cover images feature the work of Petra Börner, a Swedish designer living in London. She divides her time between commercial assignments and personal artistic work.


Börner’s distinctive designs are made with cut paper, starting from colour studies and pattern designs for textiles and fashion, then cut using a scalpel. “Infused with warmth and bold character, her artful handcrafts and paper-cut creations exude a modernist charm.”

I work manually, though the final artwork is often digitized. Repetition is key to defining my interpretation of a theme or subject within a specific composition or pattern, so the process usually starts with series of sketches from objects, collages of images or photographs. I sketch with marker pens, collage, pencils or brush and ink and later I might finalize the artwork as a more structured collage cut in paper, a painting or a drawing or sometimes as an embroidered piece. – from an interview with Illustrator’s Lounge


Petra Börner’s prints are for sale on her website Hher designs have also been adapted to fashion and furniture – see the website of her New York agents Hugo & Marie.

Penguin Plays with grids


In 1963, the dowdy layout of Penguin Plays, shown on the left, was replaced by a fresh colourful grid designed by Denise York, shown on the right.

The new designs have a modular format with three horizontal sections that naturally echo 1930s Penguin covers. They express the Swiss Typographic Style, especially the theatre posters of Josef Müller-Brockmann.


Above: Josef Müller-Brockmann posters from the 1960s. (

The sections are strongly coloured with either two or three colours that cleverly generate further hues through overprinting. The series title, Penguin Plays, is set in large dotted type suggesting theatre lights, while the titles and authors are in neatly arranged Helvetica. The backs continue the grid with author portraits taking up two bands, but otherwise maintaining the simplicity and functional order of the front.


These components were the typical qualities of Swiss design thinking that flourished at Penguin in the 1960s. The Marber grid, the African Library grid and the Penguin Specials all reflect this same approach in different applications.

The modularity of the Swiss method was particularly suited to book series where individual illustrated covers could not be justified. A grid could supply a recognisable format while allowing variations through colour or photography. You can see how bold and energised they look when placed together, as they were in bookshops. And in the context of 1960s Britain, they would have looked as contemporary as the original Penguins looked in 1935. 



David Pelham at Studio International


Pelham before Penguin

Five years before he became art director at Penguin in 1968, David Pelham was art editor of a British art magazine, Studio International.

“Studio was one of the most successful fine art periodicals in the English-speaking world. In the post-war years, the magazine was redesigned by David Pelham and its title was changed to Studio International to reflect its increasing overseas influence.”

The David Pelham era was the golden age of Penguin cover design. He raised the overall visual standard of the fiction department through a policy of intelligent and sophisticated cover designs using some of the best illustrators and designers available. As he said, “I always liked a bit of polish.”

studio-pelham-9 …….studio-pelham-13…….studio-pelham-11…….studio-pelham-12…………… 

I bought these copies for $2 each in a dusty secondhand bookshop; my eye was attracted by the modern cover art. Bold colours, simple forms and clean Helvetica type is a classic combination. These copies are from 1962-63 and as you can see, they still seem very contemporary. In contrast, the interior articles look very old – there is nothing so dated as an old art magazine.

Pelham was art editor for Studio International in the early 1960s before moving to Harpers Bazaar and later to Penguin in 1968.



Facetti the printmaker

facetti-pelican-6                                                           Germano Facetti was the art director who helped turn around Penguin’s fortunes in the early 1960s when he commissioned illustrated covers across the brand. He was a talented visual artist who could design, illustrate and art direct a team of researchers and cover designers

When he arrived in Britain in 1950, Facetti was not a graphic designer. His career had been more in the spirit of the Bauhaus, with a basis in architecture. He was a non-specialist. (


Facetti’s art direction is well known but he also made many individual covers himself. Some of his best work appeared on the Pelican imprint, which he described as “the layman’s non-academic university.” Among these covers are some that use antique engravings and woodcuts in a kind of printmaking aesthetic.

Offset printing, the industrial technology used for printing large volumes such as Pelican books, is itself a variant of lithography. That branch of printmaking enables layers in different designs or colours to be over-printed onto a single substrate. Facetti used the offset machines to create these layered artworks on the covers. Design is art for the masses.



Penguin’s wartime advertisements


During World War II, it was a challenge for businesses not directly involved in the war to stay afloat. Penguin was doing much better than its competitors but it did require some innovations. Following a 50% rise in the cost of paper in 1937, it was decided to permit advertising in the popular paperbacks.

The calculations are interesting. Allen Lane said that “a comparatively successful” Penguin would sell 150,000 copies and a bestseller 350,000. The charge to the advertiser was five shillings per thousand copies for a full-page black & white ad or back cover and there might be five pages of ads. In this case the best seller would cost each advertiser £87 and bring in a total of £435, a nice little earner for Penguin. In 1944 it brought in £20,000, or about £1,000,000 in today’s terms.

To put it into perspective, an industrial worker then earned only £180 per year, so £87 was a good sum.

The advertisements covered a range of products, most of them now extinct. Sometimes the juxtapositions are amusing.



Penguin_backcover advertisement 1///Penguin_backcover advertisement 2



(Some of the financial information is taken from the book Fifty Penguin Years, published in 1985)

The Art of Plain Speaking


Covers keep it simple

For almost thirty years, Penguin cover designs were typographic, with occasional small illustrations creeping in over time. After the introduction of pictorial covers in the early 1960s, there were still occasions when they returned to typographic designs. But instead of just communicating verbal information as before, they now used type as a pictorial idea with the letters forming an expressive image. Here is a selection from the 1960s and 70s.

The Complete Plain Words was designed by David Pelham in plain type, taking the title of the book literally. The extreme simplicity is offset by the droll gesture of leaving so much ‘plain’ space before you arrive at the author’s name.

Knots, designed by Jutta Wener, is set in Futura, the least likely typeface to suggest knots. Its strict geometric clarity presents the title and author without illustrative fuss, but the close letter-spacing over a gloomy black gives the cover a certain tension, hinting at the message of the book, by the psychiatrist RD Laing


Face to Face is the autobiography of a young Indian, blind from childhood. The cover design, by Grant Grimbly, uses a black void with tiny white letters.

Writers at Work is a collection of interviews with writers. The simple typesetting uses a typewriter font.


Jonathan Cape, Publisher uses the simple bibliographic trick of making the cover look like the title page inside. It’s a nod to the contents of the book, the biography of the book publisher.

Anti-Memoirs has a stark, factual cover with sharp sans type. It’s blunt effect seems to state “there is nothing more to say.”


Hard Edge Penguins

   .. . self-and-others        Cover designs by Martin Bassett, 1973, and Germano Facetti, 1972

Hard Edge Abstraction was a movement of international contemporary art that developed during the 1960s. It typically involved large geometric forms in flat colours.

Putting it on Pelican covers was part of a tendency at the publisher from the late 1960s towards abstract cover designs. It branded the book as contemporary and stylish and must have adapted well to face-forward bookshop display.

children-learn //….how-children        These two covers from 1976 and 1978 are by Eugenio Carmi, a renowned Italian artist whose style in the 1970s had swung around to this form of cool geometric abstraction. The images below are paintings from that period.

…….    Eugenio Carmi : Counterspace, Counterimage 40, both 1974


Op Art Penguins

img774..///. sanirty-madness-family

Following the fusty conservatism of Pelican cover design in the 1950s, the Facetti and Pelham eras of art direction of the 1960s and 70s saw the brand push to the front of contemporary ideas of art and design.

One of these new ideas was Op Art, an international movement that explored optical illusions in abstract paintings and sculptures. The striking covers above are by Italian artists Marina Apollonio and Enzo Ragazzini. Apollonio’s cover on the left is from 1966 when Op Art was at its height – think of the space age fashions of Pierre Cardin and Mary Quant.


Invitation to Sociology shows Research for a Modifiable Structure, by the artist Kiky Vices Vinci. Politics and Social Science was designed by Keith Potts.

Note how very similar paintings are used to illustrate very different subjects – Op Art designs were adaptable because they display optical phenomena, but contain no semantic meaning.

At the same time, they were attractive in bookshop display and marked Pelican as a contemporary brand.

Art and the Modern Classics

Penguin Modern Classic_Nineteen Eighty Four_Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

In the 1960s, Penguin art director Germano Facetti revised the cover design for Penguin Modern Classics. He wanted a bold, impactful look, with large full-colour images and sans serif headings to match. His new layout used existing artworks instead of commissioned illustrations as before. The images were from the history of art and were carefully matched to the contents of the book, they were chosen for their thematic aptness and were from the same period as the book.

The selection of image depended on Facetti’s understanding of the text. His knowledge of what cultures produced what kind of imagery at a given moment is prodigious, backed by a visual memory and a systematic storing of reference. (

Facetti’s method is shown in these covers for the three key dystopian novels of the the twentieth century, Nineteen Eighty-Four, We and Brave New World. Note how well each painting reflects the content of the book, as summarised in their backcover blurbs:

William-Roberts_The Control Room
William Roberts, The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942

1984 presents a nightmarish regime of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of all persons and behaviours within society. The Ministry of Truth deals with propaganda, the authorities keeping a check on every action, word, gesture or thought. The painting on the cover is by the English artist William Roberts and shows the workings of a wartime department.

Abstract geometric shapes in different colours used to illustrate novel's idealistic dystopia//////Suprematist_Composition_Malevich

Penguin book: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1921
Painting: Suprematist Composition by Kasimir Malevich, 1916

We “tells the story of persons known as numbers living in the One State. All numbers live by a rigid timetable, performing exactly the same motions in time with one another.” Suprematism was a Russian avant-garde movement at the forefront of the new abstract art. It concentrated on purity of form and reduction to elemental shapes.

Fernand Leger painting of abstracted mechanical shapes as metaphor for futuristic society .//…

Penguin book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932                   PaintingMechanical Elements, Fernand Léger, 1924

Brave New World satirises the idea of progress put forward by the scientists and philosophers.” Léger’s paintings at this time were inspired by his wartime experiences, the excitement of industrial technology in conflict: “I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal.” 


Birdsall’s typographic covers


“Now here’s an anecdote,” Derek Birdsall begins his story about his designs for Penguin’s Graham Greene covers in 1973 …

Greene was one of the most successful authors in the world and had decided he was so well known that his books no longer needed illustrated covers – lettering should be enough.

He may have been influenced in this by the author JD Salinger who had a ban on illustrated covers for his books. And perhaps Greene was influenced by a spat over low-class photographic covers that were art directed by Alan Aldridge in 1966.

Derek Birdsall, a frequent designer for Penguin, was asked to talk Greene out of this decision because typographic covers were a commercial risk in the new visual environment of modern bookshops. But during his phone conversation with Greene (“he had a lovely, soft, slightly lispy voice”) the author persuaded Birdsall of his point of view. The designer would use only author and title in an elegant serif type with minimalist space around.

“Now it has to be said that the pictures on his books were fantastic illustrations by the great Paul Hogarth so I knew I was up against it … I did these tarty bits of type, very elegant, almost putting it in your face that there’s no illustration.”   

The printing went ahead with the plain covers but things did not turn as planned; Greene and Birdsall were proved wrong …“This was nearly the end of the affair with me and Penguins because the sales went down by half I think. Even the great and good Grahame Greene agreed to put the drawings back.” *


Birdsall had liked the plain typographic cover in his design for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Words which had come out the year before the Greenes, in 1972.

This is my favourite of all the covers I ever did for Penguins. Why? Because it’s the definition of a cover that doesn’t need a picture. It’s called Words and the first sentence says it all. And the whole idea is expressed in the graphic and in the typography.”

/////.//                Then in 2005, he recycled the idea again for the Pocket Penguins series that celebrated 70 years of Penguin Books. Birdsall said, “I thought, why shouldn’t I celebrate my own Penguin days with a reflection of the same cover.”

Tony Meeuwissen’s elegant covers

Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing monkey holding dynamite

Playful, decorative covers a highlight of the Pelham era

Tony Meeuwissen has been one of England’s foremost illustrators since the 1960s. He began working as a freelance illustrator in 1968 and soon did work for Penguin, designing thirty covers between 1970 and 1977. The beautiful designs shown here were made for an edition of Paul Gallico novels in the 1970s. 

Penguin art director David Pelham recalls commissioning Meeuwissen for numerous covers:  “I found Tony’s approach to illustration particularly suited to the size limitations imposed by a Penguin cover ... ­he was a keen reader with a sharp insight, able to absorb the essence of a book and to consequently define it with a strong and relevant image.” (

The decorative design in the background gives the covers a feeling of ‘body’ like a physical package – a wrapped present. It gives a brand image to the Gallico series and provides a support for the finely painted illustrations and the tightly spaced lettering.

Meeuwissen (pronounced Maywissen) is known for his elaborate and detailed style. “His work demonstrates an extraordinary level of craftsmanship. It is produced by hand, without the aid of technology. But the very nature of his pictures means that what might take an illustrator with a loose, immediate style two hours to produce could take Meeuwissen two weeks.”  (

Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing cow and pattern …… Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing lady and flowers…….Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing ships funnel and waves…….Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing pattern and travel designs

Spain and McBain

Cover of Ed McBain crime novel showing syringe suspended over New York                                                             .

Modernist collages for Penguin Crime novels

Ed McBain was one of the pseudonyms of prolific author Salvatore Lombino, best known as Evan Hunter, screenwriter of Hitchcock’s The Birds. As Ed McBain he wrote over fifty police-procedural novels set in New York’s fictional 87th precinct.

Alan Spain worked at Penguin for almost two decades and was assistant to art director Germano Facetti, later becoming non-fiction art director during the 1970s. He designed the smart covers you see here in 1963-4 and they are the essence of European modernism in Penguin’s Marber-grid period. They stand alongside Romek Marber’s own Crime series collages and photographs from 1962 for sheer experimental freedom and energy.

The series is both varied and unified. Spain’s inventiveness gives the offbeat layouts plenty of differences but he locks them into a single identity. He uses black & white photos for documentary effect then contrasts them with the smaller figures in popping red and green. They have an effect of immediacy, like a newspaper article or police report.

Romek Marber‘s 1961 grid holds Spain’s lively illustrations in place. The McBain series was one of the best uses of the grid. Note how visual elements in the illustrations align with the text: the red needle in The Pusher, the wedge-shaped panel in Killer’s Wedge. Alignments tie things together in a unity.

As a series these paperbacks are still collectable but unfortunately they were read so much it’s now rare to find one in really good condition.

spain-mcbain-10///////spain-mcbain-1spain-mcbain-6 ///.///spain-mcbain-4spain-mcbain-8///////spain-mcbain-3////spain-mcbain-2///////spain-mcbain-11

Posters on the back covers


One of the pleasures of collecting Penguin from the 1960s is discovering beautiful back covers. Normally the back was just a functional part of a cover design, a blurb in small print, but in the mid-1960s with Alan Adridge as art director, this area was given an overhaul. These examples were published in 1965-66.

Aldridge was a reformer who wanted to shake up what he saw as a stuffy brand image. Front covers were redesigned like posters, many of them were vivid and bold, but his influence was also felt on the back covers. Instead of the serviceable but quietly voiced text in small print, the back covers themselves became like posters, announcing the contents in full voice.

The examples here show sophisticated composition of type in the manner of the Swiss Typographic Style. They are similar to the work of maestro Josef Müller-Brockmann like these 1960s Opernhaus Zürich concert posters:

/////04bf2163e0c69e69cbfa9bf0cdeb3c87                                             Josef Müller-Brockmann, Opernhaus Zürich posters, 1960s

No individual designer is recorded for the backs, but they demonstrate much skill in type design – there are only one or two typefaces and no images or decorative borders. The work of entertaining the eye is done purely through type design, colour and scale. They have a boldness and showmanship that must have echoed the mood beyond the studio, out in Swinging London.

img788…..england-half-englishmarried-bliss…..lou-klein deaths-head ….no-signpost

Pentagram’s photographic covers


Michael Innes was not an idle man. He was the pseudonym of J.I.M. Stewart, an Oxford professor and author who wrote in three distinct genres: critical biographies, literary novels and popular crime novels. Under both the Innes and Stewart names he published a total of 86 books, 50 of which were the crime novels by Michael Innes. He was a man who liked to keep busy.

Penguin Books published the Innes novels over many decades and in various covers. In the 1970s, the new design studio Pentagram produced a series of photographic covers. The personnel of Pentagram included Colin Forbes and Alan Fletcher legendary names in British design who had a long connection with Penguin. In 2003 the studio was commissioned to create a new grid format for Penguin Classics which, slightly adjusted, is the one you see in every bookshop today.


Photographic still life book covers became a thing in the 1960s and 70s, especially on crime and spy novels such as those by Len Deighton.

But despite first appearances these Michael Innes covers are not still life photographs but individual objects photographed separately and composited afterwards. Crammed together in different scales, they are presented as a series of clues or items of court evidence. Along with the headings, they have a peculiar frontal effect.

The photographs are matched by the Futura type, a geometric typeface known for its machine-like perfection and clarity; it’s a sort of analogy for the photographs, presenting the same message of factuality. And the large, extra bold letters have enough weight to balance the mass of the objects in the photos.


The Case of the Coppola Covers

. //,,,img957Gianetta Coppola, original artwork and published Penguin cover, 1966

Gianetta Coppola was an Italian illustrator who worked in London for two decades. In the 1960s he did several stylish covers for Penguin during the short period when Alan Aldridge was art director. Some of his artworks, the original paste-ups used for printing the Penguin covers, can be seen at London’s Lever Gallery.

Original artworks by commercial illustrators, those sent to the publisher for repro and printing, are extremely rare. They were not considered to be “art” and were often discarded or lost along the way. Illustrators themselves frequently did not want them back to clutter up precious studio space, it was the finished product that mattered. These two examples, and many more you can see on the Lever Gallery website, are a welcome treat and they help you understand the process involved in commercial illustration.

coppola-2……/…..img955Gianetta Coppola, original artwork and published Penguin cover, 1966?

Coppola (1928-2015) had a long and varied career, working in book cover design (for Penguin, Pan, Corgi and Granada), illustrating comics, working for ad agencies and also for newspapers such as the The Sunday Times. He even contributed to Playboy and Penthouse.

His work for Penguin is a little unusual for that publisher. It has the polish of mainstream magazine or advertising illustration and thus it has a hint of soap opera in the presentation of characters. But it combines that quality with the look of British Pop Art by painters in the 1960s such as David Hockney or Michael Andrews. So it seems that Gianetta Coppola was a modern artist working in a commercial realm.

 img958 …………..img956

Charles Raymond covers

img837                                                          Charles Raymond made these cover illustrations in 1962-65, the period of the Marber grid in Penguin fiction. Raymond was a very competent illustrator and they are good examples of the rather middle-of-the-road style of that period. But as covers they demonstrate some of the disadvantages of the Marber system.

Orange was the brand colour for general fiction at Penguin, going back to the first ten Penguins of 1935. When pictorial covers arrived with the Marber grid in 1962, a problem arose when the top section, reserved for the typographic information, was filled with the orange. This made the cover top heavy and over-coloured. Illustrations fought for attention with the dominant warm  hue.


In this selection you can see Raymond trying different variations to solve this problem. Three of these covers use a full orange background to make a continuous colour theme, but the result, though unified, is heavy. Two retain the orange only in the top section, but the illustration struggles to balance it.

Only with the white backgrounds do the covers achieve balance. The text itself is set in orange, putting this too-active colour in its place. This is best seen in A Morning at the Office where the elements come into balance. In this cover, the background is in the background, whereas others have the background coming forward due to the active effect of the orange.

img840. …. img838..     img835   ….img834……

Colette in the Belle Epoque

colette-1                                                              Colette was a society beauty in the 1890s and wrote the Claudine series of novels about a young girl’s growth to maturity. They were hugely popular for many years but, incredibly, they were published under her husband’s name and he received the royalties. This caused Colette much hardship but she continued as a writer and was eventually nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1948. I guess that counts as getting the last laugh.

The covers of these Penguins show engravings from late 19th century magazines or fashion catalogues. They are tinted in mostly warm tones and set in a decorative border that evokes the Art Nouveau designs of Hector Guimard. The Colette designs capture the flavour of Belle Epoque Paris with great simplicity.

The covers, from 1972,  are credited to Crosby Fletcher Forbes, then a leading design studio in London. It expanded to become Pentagram in the same year and is now the “world’s largest independent design agency.”  The partnership had a long connection to Penguin.

This series is typical of the stylish and polished aesthetic that prevailed under Penguin’s art director in the 1970s, David Pelham. 

colette-6 ……colette-7colette-10…….colette-2 colette-4 …. colette-9 …….colette-12/////colette-8

Jim Stoddart’s ‘Swiss’ Mini Moderns


The influence of the Swiss Typographic Style has had a long reign at Penguin. Bursting out in 1961 with Romek Marber’s famous grid, it has reappeared in different forms ever since. The Swiss design philosophy was to achieve a kind of informational purity, with the use of modern sans serif fonts, taut assymetrical layouts, and, when images were needed, photographs rather than hand-rendered illustrations. It was ‘high modernism’ in graphic design.

Penguin art director Jim Stoddart employed a version of the Swiss style in his layouts for the Mini Modern series. The formula is very simple: no illustration and just serif type in black & white with a silvery-grey background. The covers have a minimalist aesthetic – achieving the maximum with the minimum, but with elegance. 


james-mini-modern. / ..james-mini-modern-2

On his website Stoddart has published the design grid he formulated for the series. Look for other grids on the site, it reinforces the impression of classical design rigor at Penguin that goes all the back to the 1940s and the era of Jan Tschichold and Hans

The Mini Moderns were published as a “memorial” to the Penguin Modern Classics which started in 1961:  “In 2011, on the fiftieth anniversary of the modern classics, we’re publishing fifty mini modern classics: the very best short fiction…”

Was Jim Stoddart inspired by this 1960s title? JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was one of the most successful of all Penguin Modern Classics. It was printed with this elegant minimalist cover in the late 1960s – Salinger famously insisted on typographic covers. A mint condition copy is like a bar of silver and Stoddart’s series shares that feeling of preciousness, despite their small size. 


Hogarth in Greeneland

cover of Graham Greene Penguin book showing lonely man on footpath

Paul Hogarth’s watercolour illustrations for Graham Greene covers

In 1962, Paul Hogarth was an established artist with a distinctive watercolour style. He had worked in collaboration with literary artists, including Brendan Behan, so it was natural for him to illustrate the covers of a new edition of sixteen Graham Greene novels.

The Hogarth Greenes are a notable series in Penguin history and were one of the early successes of the Marber grid. This new design layout enabled Penguin to maintain its typographic branding while introducing eye-catching cover art. Hundreds of thousands of the Greenes were were sold.

The choice of Hogarth for Greene was an interesting one. Both came from an ideological background that permeated their work, communism for Hogarth and catholicism for Greene. Both were inveterate travellers and both had seen the best and worst of humanity in their travels. They shared a jaundiced if hopeful view of mankind, and on top of that, they got on well. “There are writers who are immensely sympathetic towards artists and certainly he was one of them. He was easy to work with, but very exacting.”

The series started an association between Penguin, Greene and Hogarth that lasted for many years. Despite his long career and considerable reputation Hogarth is possibly still best remembered for his Penguins Graham Greenes of the 1960s.  

They are characteristically simple colour drawings which manage to capture a mood – whether of menace or anxiety or general seediness and invariably set in an exotic location – true to the writer’s work.  (

/Paul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-ministry-of-fear//////Paul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-confidential-agentPaul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-stamboul-train////./ Paul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-burnt-out-casePaul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-end-of-the-affair/////   Paul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-heart-of-the-matter/Paul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-Our-Man-In-Havana///////Paul-Hogarth-Graham-Greene-back-cover-layout//////////

In the mid 1980s, Hogarth travelled 50,000 miles to draw the locations of Greene’s novels. His pen and ink watercolours were published in this impressive book published by Pavilion in 1986.                     hogarth-graham-greene-country

Swiss Pelicans


Swiss design ideas create order

The subjects of these 1960s Pelicans are serious social issues so it’s natural that the cover designs employ a typographic solution. The heavy bold titles act like headlines in a magazine article.

These covers show the pervasive influence of the Swiss Typographic Style on Pelican cover design in the 1960s and 70s. The Swiss style was the offspring of the Bauhaus, its ideas refined and adapted to the postwar world. Swiss became the dominant philosophy of graphic design for several decades right up to the present, especially in the corporate sphere.

It offers order and rationality through a simple set of tools: grids to control space, alignments to create unity, and sans serif type to provide clarity. The aim is a functional, emotionally neutral, communication.


Penguin_Alcoholism_Kessel and Walton….img776

In Martin Bassett’s designs above, notice how the grid of horizontal panels locks the space, giving clearly defined areas for text. These panels have the flavour of Hard Edge painting which was then a current trend and appeared on Pelican covers elsewhere.

The alignments provide a tautness to the layouts: notice on Venereal Diseases how the circle, author, title and Pelican brand all align vertically and give the layout a feeling of orderliness. Graphic design in the Swiss style is not “artistic”. The aim is always an “engineered” design.

The beautiful library


One of the more ambitious series produced at Penguin in recent years is the Penguin English Library of 2012, a presentation of 100 classics in beautiful patterned covers.

The art director was Jim Stoddart, but the design work was done by twenty two artists who worked on the project over a period of nine months. They were led by Coralie Bickford-Smith, an in-house designer at Penguin and a rising star in international design. Her book covers have been recognised by AIGA in New York and D&AD in the UK as well as featuring in the New York Times and Vogue. You can see why.

The books are firmly planted in Penguin tradition, the vertical stripes and centred text echo the Penguin covers of the 1950s. The pattern of each cover is made out of symbols that cleverly sum up the book – see the cutthroat razors in the Edgar Allan Poe cover below.


One member of the team was  Viki Ottewill who designed one of the covers and was  responsible for artworking all the designs following the detailed layout guidelines. (click here to see instructions for the spines). She then had the technical job of making the designs ready for press. You get a sense of the sheer labour involved in a project of this size.


The project has been very successful, especially in the UK where they are everywhere in bookshops. And they have attracted much publicity and many prizes. The Penguin English Library cements the tradition of intelligent, classy design in highly collectable series.

Robert Jonas and the American Penguins


Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, hated illustrated book covers and fought against them at Penguin. He feared that introducing illustrations would infect the dignified Penguin brand with “bosoms and bottoms.”

In the US, paperbacks were sold on news stands and had to compete with  newspapers and magazines so typographic covers like Penguins would be lost in the riot of colour and sensation.

The director of the fledgling American Penguin operation, Ian Ballantine, hired a young artist called Robert Jonas to design some early covers. He soon became a regular and eventually gave the US brand its characteristic colourful look.


Jonas had been deeply involved in the New York avant-garde in the 1930s, just before it burst on the international scene. He was editor of an art journal and was a friend of Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, both to become leading Abstract-Expressionist painters in the 1940s.

In the 1940s he made his living as a commercial artist for Penguin and stayed on when it became New American Library, publishers of Signet and Mentor paperbacks. He designed many covers for these imprints until 1955 when he left to design for hardcovers.

Jonas was a dominant and successful cover artist. He developed an idea and projected it powerfully without getting trapped in compromise. His designs worked year after year.”  (Bantam art director Gobin Stair)


Though he was a flexible commercial artist and could work in many styles, his most recognizable work has a flavour of modern art, showing the influence of Surrealism and Cubism. Each cover has a striking visual idea which is quickly grasped, as in a poster. Colleague James Avati stated that  his covers were very simple technically speaking, but they had an enormous psychological power.”

The artistry of Jonas’ covers gave American Penguin a degree of modernity when compared to other more populist US brands such as Dell or Pocket Books. They must have played some small part in explaining modern art aesthetics to the conservative American population.

jonas-penguin-2…….. jonas-penguin-3

David Pearson’s Great Loves

pearson-great-loves-6                                                               “Penguin brings you the most seductive, inspiring and surprising writing on love in all its infinite variety”. So runs the blurb on the back of the Great Loves series of 2007. These small, beautifully packaged books were art directed by David Pearson who also made made several of the illustrations.

This series of twenty books continues the tactile quality achieved in the Great Ideas series, also by Pearson. The white panels are slightly debossed and the card has a soft matte feel. “They’re riding on the back of Great Ideas…become a bit of a franchise to be honest. We just made the illustration the hero in these, flipped everything round.”

Pearson made eight of the illustrations (including The Seducer’s Diary and Mary presented here), Victoria Sawdon eleven (A Russian Affair, A Mere Interlude, Something Childish), and Claire Scully one.

To achieve the handcraft quality of the covers Pearson used rubber stamping, a variant of letterpress printing using rubber relief plates instead of wood or steel. I’m obsessed with rubber stamps. I’m quite uptight as a designer so I need help to make things a bit loose and fractured. By rubber stamping it everything gets levelled out to the same layer. The lines start to break, the ink bulges, everything becomes much more convincing”



The Balkan Trilogy

olivia-manning-balkan-fortune                                                                British author Olivia Manning wrote the three novels that comprise the Balkan trilogy during 1956-64. They cover the wartime experiences of an English couple in wartime Romania.

Penguin released the three novels in 1974 in a clever triptych. The designer Humphrey Sutton uses a layered collage across the three covers incorporating a map of Romania, the Times newspaper and a photograph of a Stuka dive-bomber. It gave the books a palpable sense of urgency and danger.balkan-trilogy    Olivia Manning was in Romania during the war, escaping the Nazi onslaught with her husband, first to Greece, then Egypt and later Palestine. She led a full life.

With her subsequent series, the Levant trilogy, they make up the Fortunes of War cycle, described as “the most underrated novels of the twentieth century.” In 1987 they were made into a television miniseries starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.