Crime By Design – 1: The Marber Grid

This is the first in a series exploring the best design in crime and detective novels, starting with an absolute icon, the Marber Grid.

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As an artist myself and being married to a graphic designer I am always drawn to a book by its cover, and classic crime is no exception. The green hue of the vintage penguin crime paperback always brings a joy to the heart. But one format in particular stands apart as being one of the most influential and beautiful layout designs of all time.

Marber Brown.001
The Marber Grid and a Chestertonian example

The Marber grid was designed by Romek Marber in 1961, after Penguin Art Director Germano Facetti commissioned three designers to devise a new grid system to allow for illustrations alongside the bold typography associated with Penguin covers. Marber’s grid was chosen and he went on to illustrate around 70 titles for the Penguin Crime series. Marber retained the classic penguin green but significantly lightened the shade. The text was cropped at the top, which allowed for a broad section of two thirds of the cover to be used for illustration, something which hadn’t been done before across the Penguin brand.

The designs were provocative and eye catching and even a little unnerving to some, as Phil Banes writes in his book Penguin by Design: ‘The imagery used in the area below was often suggestive rather than literal, but even so, there was some adverse feedback about the ‘darkness’ of some of the images.’

These news covers, with striking imagery at an affordable cost brought high quality art and design into everyone’s home. These illustrations perfectly capture some element of the story or characters, as with one of my favourite designs, the covers for the Father Brown series, which show perfectly how Brown reaches his solutions through intuition and and meditative thinking, rather than through scientific or straight deduction. The design is so classic that in even more contemporary re-releases of Brown this same illustration concept has been retained.

Brown 3.001
The classic brown cover and a more modern retake

It was later decided that recurring series works should have a recognisable recurring image, as with the covers for Dorothy L Sayers releases, which contained a hand cut white figure placed somewhere on each design.

Sayers Grid.001

The Marber grid continued from here to influence every part of Penguins design output, as The Book Design Blog writes: ‘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.’

Marber Orange Blue.001

Marber’s own story is a fascinating one. Born in Poland in 1925, he escaped the Nazi death camps with the help of Sergeant Kurzbach, who helped saved large numbers of Jew’s during WWII. Arriving in Britain in 1946 he enrolled at St Martin’s school of art (a member now of the UAL group of universities, where I also currently study), to study commercial art. He then went on to attend the Royal College of Art in 1953. Marber then designed a number of covers for the economist. These bold typographic designs were noticed by Germano Facetti who then asked him to work on some Penguin titles, which lead to the commission of the Marber Grid.

Marber-Economist

Marber is still alive and retired from the design world, holding a place as Professor Emeritus with Middlesex University. Designers today still look back to this iconic grid and its influence on cover design the world over. I think it’s also helpful in our current climate to think that a Polish immigrant to the UK who lived through Nazi occupation, changed the face of crime and book cover design the world over.

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15 thoughts on “Crime By Design – 1: The Marber Grid”

    1. Thanks Kate, yeah it’s pretty influential over time as a grid system, and it’s interesting how Marber used the old and brought it up to date keeping both the weight of Penguin’s reputation up till then and making the titles stand out.

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  1. I, like Kate, had absolutely no idea that these covers were designed along such…strict, I guess, lines. It make sense that there’s some sort of template or general design consensus, but the actual specifics of that shown near the top of this post are fascinating — thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    All that said…I’ve never been a huge fan of these covers. I typically find the image selection to be, at best, distracting and at worst just awful — that Police at the Funeral cover for one, what the hell is going on there?! Of all the different editions of the classic detective paperbacks I’m apparently destined to spending the rest of my life tracking down, I gotta say that these would be pretty near the bottom of the pile. Although I will admit that is also in part due to the fact that the books also feel so damned cheap — they were undoubtedly produced along the cheapest lines possible, and as a physical object are clearly hugely inferior to the earlier green-banded, text-only covers.

    But, for an artistic ignoramus like myself, that makes the history no less compelling.

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    1. Gah! Also meant to say that I love that side-by-side Chesterton comparison. Again the image itself is just a terrible choiuce, but great to see the impact these designs clearly had.

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      1. I must admit, I am of the opposite opinion when it comes to the imagery, indeed some are better than others, but I find them hugely enigmatic and great pieces of response to the stories. And I must say that the Chesterton one is probably my favourite!

        And your right about the cheap quality, I think it was to with the idea of bringing these works and other works to the man in the street, therefore made with an easier to produce set of materials.

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      2. That’s the beauty of art, I guess — there’s a great discussion to be had on covers and what makes a good one, though perhaps with a few too many possible perspectives to make it really worthwhile.

        With regards the quality, a lot of these later Penguins seem noticably more expensive than the green-banded ones: all mine are 2/6 (2 shillings and 6 pence) whereas these go up to 5/6…now, my old currency is a little rusty, but doesn’t that represent a pretty decent inflation in price even allowing for the 20 years that elapsed between these different editions? More expencsive to buy and noticably poorer materials is an unforgivable combination! Though I appreciate that I’ve veered rather far from the topic of you post, for which many apologies… 😀

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      3. A really interesting thought, I need to look deeper into that. It seems that these books in many ways might represent a number of post-war cultural shifts from the 50’s to the 60’s that would be worth studying more.

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      4. Just been thinking about your suggestion of a further discussion to be had on good covers and I think that would be a great idea. I’m hoping with this series to get that going generally, but it would be great to do a post just on that theme, as with crime covers (and thrillers to some extent) there is the extra layer of not wanting giving away anything, while also drawing something out.

        I have been chatting with my wife about it, who does a lot of illustration for print, and she said (as I was just mentioning to JFW below) that there are a few different illustration types. Ones that literally describe ideas, like a book mentions a gun, so you draw a gun on the page somewhere, which is a literal interpretation. She was saying that good illustration in someway elucidates the text, drawing something out or sheds light on something you hadn’t seen. The She Died a Lady one at the bottom I think is a really gorgeous example of that.

        Both types do the job of selling books, as ultimately that’s what the publisher wants(!), and both can be appropriate in the context. Interestingly Marber was saying that the early green versions with just the text (which I love also, and will do a post on as well) were dropping in sales, they were getting lost in the shops as book design was changing. Penguin crime had always been there most popular range so Marber suggested a radical shift to make them eye catching once more, and sales shot up again.

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    1. I have really just skimmed the surface here as well, the choice of typography , the letter sizing, capitalisation, the layering of photography and hand drawn and the placement of the Penguin logo were all intricately determined as well. And it worked, these have lasted a long time and influenced a lot of work.

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  2. If I recall correctly, I’ve the Green Penguin Marber editions of Carr’s ‘Case of the Constant Suicides’ and ‘Death-Watch’. The cover for ‘Constant Suicides’ was functional, and thankfully did not issue any unwanted spoilers. The cover for ‘Death-Watch’ was more creative and bizarre – along the lines of Father Brown entanglements. Incidentally, I strongly recommend ‘Death-Watch’, with or without the Marber cover. 😛

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    1. Yes I have heard that some cheaper published copies of Suicides have just given away the solution!

      Love the Marber covers for these two books you mentioned. There are definitely a number of different illustration styles at work in this series. The ones that go for getting the atmosphere across as with Suicides, and ones that draw out or elucidate something of the themes of the story as with the Death-Watch cover.

      Marber said that after reading them he would immediately make the illustrations and try to get across some sort of essence from the book. I guess either character, deduction method, the main trick, plot or atmosphere, whatever seemed most present.

      Haven’t read Death Watch yet, but keep hearing good things of late, thanks for your recommendation.

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