In 1961, a Polish graphic designer by the name of Romek Marber, conceived a grid layout for Penguin book covers that became one of the most praised and recognised layouts of all time.
Just what is ‘the Marber grid’ and what was the thinking behind his now famous design?
Prior to the design and implementation of the now revered grid layout, Penguin tended to favour simple typographic covers for their publications.
Abraim Games, the consultant art director from 1956 to 1958, had tried to convince Penguin bosses to introduce pictorial designs before, but his proposals were refused.
In 1961, after being impressed by some of Marber’s designs for The Economist, the then Penguin art director Germano Facetti commissioned him to produce covers for Simeon Potter’s books ‘Language in the Modern World’ and ‘Our Language.’
Romek Marber’s covers for The Economist – 1961 (courtesy of CR Blog)
Again impressed by Marber’s talent, Facetti asked him and fellow designers Derek Birdsall and John Sewell to propose a new approach for Penquin’s series of crime fiction novels.
Considering the design
Marber intricately analysed what was needed from the layout and designed his grid based on his observations. He was careful to consider that the mystery and crime series style had remained practically unchanged since Edward Young’s typographic designs were first adopted 25 years prior.
As the crime series was one of Penguin’s most popular and recognisable series, he decided to keep the familiar green hue of the covers, but chose a ‘fresher’ shade.
By collating the typographic information and the colophon together within the top third of the page, he allowed for over two thirds of the cover to be used by the illustration, effectively giving the cover artwork the space needed to capture a browser’s attention and sell the book.
Facetti was so inspired by Marber’s design that he also used it for Penguin’s fiction range, and would later apply it again, practically unchanged, to the blue Pelican books. Eventually Marber’s layout became the standard layout for the entire range of Penguin paperbacks.
The classic ‘Marber grid’ wireframe
In 1962, Herbert Spencer, a British graphic designer and founder of ‘Typographica’ design journal, published an article exploring the history of Penguin covers, including the then recent rebranding, yet he attributed the new design to art director Facetti, despite having mentioned Marber in the article and even publishing some of his individual cover designs using the grid.
Marber was unsurprisingly disheartened by his design accidentally being attributed to another designer, and so after much deliberation and encouragement from his colleagues, eventually sent a brief and informal note to Spencer highlighting the oversight.
Spencer in turn contacted Hans Scmoller, a then art director at Penguin, who confirmed that the design was in fact the sole work of Marber.
In the following issue Spencer published a two-page article that attributed Marber to the design and included hand written notes from Marber’s proposal, as well as sketches for the layout. He also published a letter from Facetti that confirmed Marber was indeed the designer responsible.
“There is an omission in your otherwise admirable piece on Penguins in Typographica 5, which I should have hastened to amend at the proof stage. I should be grateful if, in fairness to Marber and for historical record, you could print a correction.”
Today, Marber’s design is synonymous with Penguin books. Many people I’m sure could recognise a Penguin book from the layout alone, simply because they’re so well recognised as ‘classic Penguin’ designs.
It’s stood the test of time due to Marber’s careful consideration of it’s application and requirements, the fundamentals of any good design.
Contemporary designers still continue to admire and emulate Marber’s design, applying it to a range of mediums and twisting it to fit with modern day practices, a trend that I personally hope continues for a good while yet.
Thanks to Eye Magazine for the bulk of the information related to this article.