Penguin Plays with grids

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Modular design refreshes an old brand

In 1963, the dowdy layout for the Penguin Plays series, shown on the left, was replaced by a fresh colourful grid, shown on the right.

The new designs, by Denise York, have a modular format with three horizontal sections that naturally echo 1930s Penguin covers. 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 neatly arranged in asymmetric Helvetica. 

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Denise York’s designs express the precepts of the Swiss Typographic Style, especially the theatre posters of Josef Müller-Brockmann. These were clean, functional graphics composed in grids, with sans serif fonts in a typographic rather than illustrative layout. His Opernhaus Zürich posters were, like York’s grid, intended to be modular, with a standard grid supplying the format that other designers could in-fill with changing details.  

Many of the 1960s Penguin covers made under art director Germano Facetti held to the Swiss philosophy, the Marber grid Crime, African Library and Penguin Specials all reflect a similar approach.

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


The backs covers of Penguin Plays continue the grid with author portraits taking up two bands, but otherwise maintaining the simplicity and functional order of the front. 

The modularity of the Swiss method was particularly suited to book series where individual illustrated covers could not be justified financially. A grid could supply a recognizable format while allowing variations through colour or photography. You can see how bold and energized 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 had looked in 1935.

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