Penguin Plays with grids

cover of Penguin Plays book showing old-fashioned graphic style////cover of revised Penguin Plays book with 1963 Swiss-style grid by Denise York

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 are an expression of the Swiss Typographic Style, especially the 1960s theatre posters of Josef Müller-Brockmann shown here:

example of Swiss Typographic Style as reference to Penguin Plays cover grid ////example of Swiss Typographic Style as reference to Penguin Plays cover grid

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 back covers continue the grid with author portraits taking up two bands, but otherwise maintaining the simplicity and functional order of the front (see below).

/.//////                    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

 The Studio magazine 1960s with modernist graphics by David Pelham

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.”

modernist graphics by David Pelham for 1960s Studio magazine …….1960s graphics by David Pelham for Studio magazine.Studio magazine cover by David Pelham…….Studio magazine cover design in 1960s……………  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 as printmaker

Germano Facetti designer of science Pelican book using overprinting spot colours                                                           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 with colour overprinting in a kind of printmaking aesthetic.

Pelican cover design by Facetti using overprinting……..Pelican book cover by Germano Facetti using old engraving and overprinting

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

Eno's Fruit Salts advertisement in 1940s Penguin shows smiling female soldier              

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.

Front and back cover of wartime Pelican book with ad for Jif shaving stickback cover of wartime Penguin book with ad for Greys cigarettes/////Back cover of wartime Penguin book with ad for Caltex showing aircraft carrier plus fighter planes.////………Wartime ads inside Penguin book of Craven A cigarettes plus Mendaco asthma cure

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


The Art of Plain Speaking

Stark typography on white background expresses the book The Complete Plain Words………Knots by RD Laing set in too closely spaced Futura type             

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

A book written by a blind person has cover set in very small white type on jet black background……….Writers at Work cover text set in typewriter font

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. Note the contrast in scale between the large title and the very small sub-title above it. The blunt effect of this cover 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 through 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

painting of The War Room shows bureaucrats at work to illustrate Orwell's 1984 government control                                                                      Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, 1949

painting of The War Room shows government bureaucrats at work during world war 2                                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:

1984 presents a nightmarish regime of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of all persons and behaviours within society. 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. 

Abstract geometric shapes in different colours used to illustrate novel's idealistic dystopia  …        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.

Fernand Leger painting of abstracted mechanical shapes as metaphor for futuristic society ….                    Penguin book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932                                        PaintingMechanical 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.”


Derek 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

Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing monkey holding dynamite

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.”  (

Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing cow and pattern …… Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing woman and flowers…….Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing ships funnel and waves…….Meeuwissen illustration for Penguin Paul Gallico book showing pattern and travel designs