Penguin’s Grunge Essentials

In 1998, Penguin awoke from decades of slumber to regain its reputation for good 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 on particular. The scratched, rubbed, 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 has 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 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. 


Junky: cover design Chris Ashworth + A. Sissons.                                            Riddle of the Sands: Paul Cohen.                                                                                     A Clockwork Orange: Dirk van Dooren.                                                                   1984: photographs by Darren Haggar, Dominic Bridges.                                  Ballad of the Sad Café: photographs by 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 with her letterpress equipment. 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.

She 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 and her 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.

 ////                                          Josef Müller-Brockmann posters, 1960s (from

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. 


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 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 where he reigned until 1980.



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 wrote that “a comparatively successful” Penguin would sell 150,000 copies. The charge to the advertiser was five shillings per thousand copies for a full-page black & white ad. In this case the advertiser would pay £62.10.0. If you consider that an industrial worker then earned only £180 per year the figure is put in a different perspective, £62 was a good sum.

There were four or five pages of ads in each book so that advertising was a nice little earner for Penguin. In 1944 it brought in £20,000, or about £5,000,000 in today’s terms.

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


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


The Art of Plain Speaking


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

6                                                                     Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, 1949

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

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:                                                                                             

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. 

4  …                    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.

2 ….                            Penguin book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932                                          Painting: Mechanical Elements, Fernand Léger, 1924

Brave New World “satirizes 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


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 the popular Paul Gallico novels that came out 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.”  (

gallico-meeuwissen-3 …… gallico-meeuwisen-2…….gallico-meeuwissen-5…….gallico-meeuwissen-6

Spain and McBain

spain-mcbain-5                                                                    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.

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.

The McBain series was one of the earliest and best uses of Romek Marber’s 1961 grid, it holds Spain’s energetic illustrations in place. 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……

How the Marber grid was made

father-brown                                                                      The Marber grid – this is so wonderful I don’t even know how to talk about it.” David Pearson

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

Romek Marber was a well-trained Polish designer working in London. He had done two covers for Penguin when the new art director Germano Facetti invited him and two other Penguin illustrators, John Sewell and Derk Birdsall, to propose a design grid for the crime imprint. Marber won. His approach was very methodical, reflecting his interest in symmetry and proportion:

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)

grid                                                                     This is the design Marber presented to Penguin in 1961. He based his development of the grid on the Golden Section, the ancient formula for well-proportioned designs, especially in architecture. Since the A-format paperback is made in the Golden Section proportions (1 : 1.618) it was a logical starting point.

But how did he develop it? The following panels show my analysis of the steps that Marber may have taken in developing the grid.

a1….11….3   1  The golden section. Marber uses its main cross line to begin his grid             2  Diagonal lines are drawn to the opposite corner and to the top midpoint     3  Corner-to-corner diagonals and the vertical centre line are added

9…..14….13   4  Diagonal lines intersect (marked by a red spot)                                                     5  From these intersections, horizontal lines are drawn                                          6  A diagonal line from the left corner is drawn to a horizontal line

10…..87  7  A new intersection generates a new horizontal line                                            8  This new horizontal line creates a further intersection (top left)                     9  Some of the intersections are used to create vertical lines

6…..grid..   father-brown   10  The completed grid uses horizontal and vertical lines for text placement 11  The grid as it was presented by Romek Marber in 1961                                     12  An early crime cover using the grid, with illustration also by Marber


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

Swiss Mini Modern


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.

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.                                                         borges-mini-modern///./updike-mini-modern//////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…”

One of the most successful of all Penguin Modern Classics was JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, published with this elegant minimalist cover in the late 1960s. Is this what inspired Jim Stoddart in his art direction of the Mini Moderns series?


Hogarth in Greeneland


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.  (

penguin-hogarth-1///////penguin-hogarth-6penguin-hogarth-10////./ penguin-hogarth-5penguin-hogarth-14/////   penguin-hogarth-8/penguin-hogarth-4///////penguin-hogarth-13

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


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, especially in the corporate sphere, for several decades right up to the present.

The Swiss style 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.


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.