Essential education: 20 books every designer needs to read

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Published:  January 14, 2015
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With an abundance of published information and imagery being spouted from every direction it can be hard to select the texts that are worth reading. Are the classics really all they’re cracked up to be? Should modern designers be looking to the past? As it turns out, the first thinkers have also been some of the best, beside a collection of contemporary minds that are trying to unravel this thing we call design.

Take a look at our launchpad list, below:

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What is a Designer? by Norman Potter

“Despite being aimed at students, it is clear – as Potter himself admits – that this book may also act as a congenial companion for the more expert. Indeed, it’s a book directed at anyone wanting to constantly redefine their role as a designer, to call to mind the freshness of spirit in which they first asked themselves questions about what they were doing.” — Label

Graphic Design: History in the Writing (1984—2011) by Occassional Papers

Edited by a graphic design theorist and a practicing graphic designer, the book chronicles the development of the emerging field of graphic design history from 1983 to today, underscoring the aesthetic, theoretical, political and social tensions that have underpinned it from the beginning.

The Design Manual: Principles and Practice by Armin Hoffman 

“Legendary Swiss graphic designer and educator, Armin Hofmann is recognized for his immeasurable influence on generations of designers, teaching the power and elegance of simplicity and clarity through a timeless aesthetic, always informed by context.” — AIGA

Design Act: Socially and Politically Engaged Design Today by Sternberg Press

Since 2009, the Iaspis project Design Act has been highlighting and discussing practices in which designers have been engaging critically as well as practically in such issues. Itself an example of applied critical thinking and experimental tactics, the process behind the Design Act project is considered as a curatorial, participatory and open-ended activity.

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Graphic Design: A Concise History by Richard Hollis

A new final chapter in the most recently revised edition covers the international development and leading practitioners in graphic design over the past ten years, exploring in particular the revolutionary impact of digital technology.

Manuals 1 by Unit Editions

From the creative powerhouse that is Adrian Shaughnessy, this book is the first comprehensive study of corporate identity design manuals, featuring 20 examples from the 1960s to early 1980s – the golden era of identity design. The book includes manuals created for institutions and corporations such as NASA, Lufthansa and British Steel.

A Century of Graphic Design by Jeremy Aynsley

The twentieth century was a landmark era in graphic design, the art that combines words with graphic images on posters, book and magazine covers, record jackets, billboards, and other print advertising and publicity media. This visually magnificent and factually informative volume tells the story of graphic design, then gives separate illustrated thumbnail biographies of more than 100 of the most influential and internationally known designers of the past 100 years.

Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann

Here is the definitive word on using grid systems in graphic design. Though Muller-Brockman first presented his interpretation of grid in 1961, this text is still useful today for anyone working in computer-assisted design. With examples on how to work correctly at a conceptual level and with exact instructions for each and every system, this guidebook provides a crystal-clear framework for problem-solving.

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The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher

“Fletcher’s mastery of design mixes type, space, fonts, alphabets, color, and layout combined with a ‘jackdaw’ eye for the strange and profound to produce a stunning book that cannot be read, but only experienced.” — Jerry Brotton, Amazon.co.uk

Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist by Tibor Kalman

“[Kalman's] body of work [is] breathtaking to behold all at once, which is the best thing about Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, a handsomely produced volume that is an archive of and homage to the designer… It is a playful greatest hits compilation of his most important work.” — New York Times

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Michael Beirut

“Thomas Watson, Jr.’s famous dictum ‘good design is good business’ implies that there’s good design and there’s bad design; what he doesn’t reveal is how to reliably tell one from the other. Neither has anyone else. It’s taken for granted that innovation, however, is always good.” — extract from text

U&lc: Influencing Design and Typography by John Berry

U&lc magazine was a defining voice in graphic design worldwide between 1970 and 1999. It was in some ways a lifestyle magazine for the design community, providing a fascinating intersection of popular cultural and graphic design in the last quarter of the 20th century. Their contributor’s best work is showcased in this book through the reproduction of selected covers, stories and illustrations from the nearly 120 quarterly issues that were published.

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Milton Glaser: Graphic Design by Milton Glaser

Perhaps the most famous book of its kind, explores the extraordinary achievement of America s pre-eminent graphic artist. Here Glaser undertakes not only a remarkably wide-ranging representation of his oeuvre but, in a personally revealing introduction, speaks of the influences on his work, the responsibilities of the artist, the hierarchies of the traditional art world, and the role of graphic design in the area of his creative growth.

Printed Matter by Karel Martens

This beautifully designed visual survey of the career of Dutch graphic designer Karel Martens is a tactile distillation of Martens’s unique and personal approach to design. Projects—ranging from postage stamps to books to signs on buildings—are arranged in layouts that fully explore the print process.

Marks of Excellence by Per Mollerup

“Marks of Excellence is another contribution to Phaidon’s deluxe series on design and architecture which provides an appropriate platform for communicating through impeccable and generously reproduced images. The indulgence of the coffee-table format is combined in this book with an intelligent and comprehensive text to create a reading experience properly saturated with looking.” — Journal of Design History

Things I have Learned in My Life So Far by Stefan Sagmeister

“In this presentation, Sagmeister throws his diary, a lot of design, and a little art together with a pinch of psychology and a dash of happiness into a blender and pushes the button.” — Sagmeister & Walsh

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Do Good Design by David Berman

Do Good Design is a call to action: This book alerts us to the role design plays in persuading global audiences to fulfill invented needs. In a time where anything has become possible, design thinking offers a way forward for us all.

It’s Not How Good You Are, it’s How Good You Want to Be by Paul Arden

We recommend the whole series, but this is a good place to start. “Talented but timid? This noted ad‐man is here to tell you that ambition, not just mere ability, is the key to success in his world … Arden is punchy and memorable about ’failing better next time’.” – i-D Magazine

How to Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy

Aimed at the independent-minded, the book addresses the concerns of young designers who want to earn a living by doing expressive and meaningful work and avoid becoming a hired drone working on soulless projects. It offers straight-talking advice on how to establish your design career and suggestions – that you wont have been taught in university – for running a successful business.

Typographie: A Manual of Design by Emil Ruder

Ruder, one of the great twentieth-century typographers was a pioneer who abandoned the conventional rules of his discipline and replaced them with new rules that satisfied the requirements of his new typography. Now in its sixth printing, this book has a hallowed place on the bookshelves of both students and accomplished designers.

Are we missing something? Let us know what you think every designer should read in the comments below.

5 Responses

  1. An unabashed plug for The business of design by Greg Branson because a majority of designers are small business operators at some stage of their life and most learn business/management skills ‘ on the job’. This book is written for Australian designers about Australian design practices by an Australian designer using his 30+ years experience of running an Australian design studio.

  2. While they’re are some great classics and modern essentials on this list, it is severely incomplete with the most import book series in the last 50 years. Marty Neumeier’s The Brand Gap, Zag and The Designful Company. These books chronicle the most concise, strategic and effective commentary on how graphic design is put into action today—within Branding. No one has ever been able to tell the story of branding as poetic and smart as Neumeier.

  3. I have read Sagmeister’s “Things I’ve learned in my life so far.” It is one of my favorite design books. I’m interested in checking out other books that you have listed. Great article!

  4. I’d like to add “Thoughts on Design” by Paul Rand to the list. I featured it in a similar article that I wrote by the name of “6 Quick Reads for Graphic Designers”. Check it out. http://www.josephnicklo.com/6-quick-reads-for-graphic-designers/

  5. John Scott Thorburn

    The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte.

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