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. 


Op Art Penguins

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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.