January 5, 2011

The Marber Grid

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"In 1961, impressed by Marber’s covers for The Economist, Facetti commissioned him to design covers for Simeon Potter’s Our Language and Language in the Modern World. He then asked Marber to propose a new cover approach for the Penguin Crime series. Derek Birdsall and John Sewell (who died in 1981) were also asked to make proposals. Marber’s solution was accepted and he went on to design dozens of crime fiction covers. Seen as a series, these emerge as one of the outstanding achievements of British book cover design. Marber’s basic design was so successful that Facetti applied it, effectively unchanged, to the blue Pelicans and to the orange covers of Penguin fiction. Before long, its spirit pervaded the entire list.

Marber’s contribution is known, but from the outset it has never received as much acknowledgement as it deserves. In 1962, Herbert Spencer researched and wrote a sixteen-page article for Typographica magazine tracing the history and development of Penguin cover designs. Although seven of Marber’s Penguin Crime covers were shown and credited to him as individual designs, the new format devised by Marber was attributed to Facetti. After some deliberation, and having taken advice from colleagues, Marber sent a brief note to Spencer pointing out the oversight. He recalls that Spencer contacted former art director Hans Schmoller at Penguin, who confirmed that the new design was Marber’s work. In the following issue, Spencer went to the unusual length of publishing a two-page correction, which included copies of Marber’s handwritten proposal and cover grid, and a letter from Facetti. ‘There is an omission in your otherwise admirable piece on Penguins in Typographica 5 which I should have hastened to amend at proof stage,’ writes Facetti. ‘I should be grateful if, in fairness to Marber and for the historical record, you could print a correction . . .’

Marber’s design has an impeccable logic. It is based on a careful analysis of what needed to be retained and replaced. Penguin’s Mystery and Crime series, which followed Edward Young’s famous typographic design based on Gill Sans, had remained largely unchanged for 25 years. Even when Schmoller made some small adjustments around 1960, increasing the size of the title and author’s name and ranging them left, the three horizontal bands survived. Penguin had made a previous attempt to introduce pictorial covers. As consultant art director from 1956 to 1958, Abram Games designed a series of illustrated covers with a white band at the top carrying the title, author’s name and the Penguin colophon, but the publisher did not pursue it.

Two key observations guided Marber’s proposal. First, that ‘The Penguin identity is synonymous with the goodwill to Penguin which has been created over many years.’ Second, that Penguin Crime books are an integral part of this identity. For this reason, Marber decided to retain green as the series colour, though he chose a fresher shade, and he kept the horizontal banding. The image occupies just over two-thirds of the space, while the title section at the top is divided into three bands carrying colophon / series name / price, the title and the author’s name, with the type ranged left. Marber planned to use white at the top of the cover, referring to the central white title panel on Young’s design, before introducing all-green covers at a later date. In practice, though, both white-topped and all-green covers were published from 1961 until what is probably Marber’s final crime cover, for Ellery Queen’s The Scarlet Letters, in 1965. In either case, the author’s name is in white reversed out of green. Rules are used as needed to divide the bands. Marber chose the sans serif Standard (Akzidenz Grotesk), to preserve continuity with the earlier use of Gill. Setting the titles in all-lowercase after the initial cap, except for proper nouns, added to the books’ modernity. Marber was conscious of the Swiss Style, to which his typography is clearly indebted, but a visit to Switzerland, he says, ‘put me off Swiss design slightly’. He felt that the imposition of Swiss grids led to a lack of vitality.

Marber’s grid allows for different placements of title and author’s name depending on the length of the title and the needs of the design as a whole. There are small inconsistencies in some of the vertical measurements on a few of the books, probably due to printer’s error, but the basic design is sufficiently robust that it does not matter. Marber says that he received no brief from Facetti for the redesign. ‘It had nothing to do with him. He was only the person who actually commissioned me to do it.’ His proposal, which included five cover designs, was accepted as submitted, with no request for further refinements. Facetti then asked him to design twenty covers and all of these were accepted. Once printed, they were tested at airports and railway stations, which led to retailers sending the old designs back and requesting copies of the new covers instead.

Links of Interest: 
Olly Moss's Video Game Coveres Using the Grid
Romek Marber's Wikipedia Page
Marber Grid Pelican Books
Ministry of Type

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