How the Marber grid was made

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

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

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 how Marber used as his starting point the main horizontal line which divides the rectangle.

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

3 & 4 Intersections (shown in red) are used to draw horizontal lines – the beginning of the grid.

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

7 and 8 The final intersections (shown in red) help to create three vertical lines.

9 and 10 The intersections of lines have generated the final grid, a template for separating typography and image. On the left the basic design. On the right the complete design showing typographic style, as Romek Marber presented it to art director Germano Facetti in 1961

Each horizontal segment has a purpose. Starting from the top segment: the logo, category name and price. Then below the title of the book, and below that the author’s name. Finally, the largest space is reserved for the illustration. This was the purpose of developing a new layout for Penguin, to introduce a more visual aesthetic to the company’s products, moving away from the informational typographic approach of the past. Thus, the cover is organised by typographic information and by 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. Type layout was left-aligned and off-centre rather than the more stilted centred type.

The Marber covers successfully stepped across from the then old-fashioned 1935 and 1949 typographic covers, which were still in use, to the new visual culture of the 1960s with its television, colour magazines and Beatles.

These examples from the early 1960s show Marber’s grid applied, with variations, to four Penguin categories: General Fiction (orange), Crime (green), Modern Classics (grey) and Pelican (blue).

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