Graphic Design

Penguin Classics: Design Features of Paperback Covers

penguin paperback cover design

The team at Penguin Random House know a thing or two about publishing. The merged publishing behemoth is responsible for around 800 million book sales annually. The Penguin half of the company began life selling cheap paperbacks in the 1930s. These mid-century Penguins have some cool design features that will be very familiar to anyone who likes to browse second-hand bookshops. Let’s take a look. 

Colour Scheme

Booklovers often have a favourite genre. Penguin recognised this and colour-coded their books. Originally the code was:

  • Orange: Fiction
  • Red: Drama
  • Green: Crime
  • Blue: Biography
  • Purple: Essays
  • Yellow: Miscellaneous

Triband Design

Until the 1960s, Penguin book covers were divided into three bands. The top and bottom bands were in the relevant genre colour. A thick stripe of white ran across the centre of the book cover where the title of the work and the author’s name were printed. Allen Lane, founder of the Penguin empire, thought illustrated covers were trashy.

Iconic Colophon

The bottom band of colour on the front of classic Penguin paperbacks was home to the iconic penguin colophon. This image has evolved a lot over the years. Some iterations are detailed in this blog on the evolution of the penguin logo.

Modernist Typography

From the 1940s, the influence of German Typographer and champion of White Space Jan Tschichold becomes apparent. Structured typographical hierarchy – the use of different sizes and weights of type – became the order of the day. This is a great way of quickly conveying different information (book’s title – author’s name). Originally, titles were printed in all-caps. Later, a more modern typography was introduced - with titles in lowercase apart from the initial capital letter of the opening word and any proper nouns.

Marber Grid

The Triband design dominated until the early 1960s when the Crime section switched to a new design by the Polish designer Romek Marber. Moving the colophon, price, title and author’s name into three bands in the top third made room for original illustrative covers. The layout became known as the Marber Grid and its influence can be seen in many modern paperback cover designs.

At RWD Design, we are interested in all aspects of design. We hope this brief survey of a design classic has been of interest. If you would like to work with professional designers to produce a classic of your own, then get in touch, you can call the office on 01603 409060 or email

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