Design is not just a practice, it's a philosophy. The sheer amount of books by designers out there shows there's a lot to be said about the field, and while a lot of it is waffle, there are some diamonds to be found in the dust.
You may be happy with essential guides to graphic design bought during your years as a novice, or coffee table books full of nice pictures and not much food for thought. There is a happy medium between the two, though, and our guide to the best design bibles puts together deep and detailed reads that come with as many great illustrations as words.
From monographs by the world's best designers to researches of graphic design history and theory, spanning across essential business tips guides and ways to stay sane in the industry, our list has something for designers of all stripes.
Putting together this piece, we noticed that weirdly barely any of these books have a Kindle alternative, despite being fairly recent publications. As such, you'll find links to the cheapest format of either hardback or paperback in our introduction to each classic.
First up is Radim Malinic's Book of Ideas.
Book of Ideas - a journal of creative direction and graphic design
By Radim Malinic
Radim is the designer you may known as Brand Nu, friend of DA and maker of a few darn good tutorials for us.
His wildly popular Book of Ideas is something more than a monograph, condensing what he’s learned over a decade of being a freelancer over 15 case studies and 45 short chapters. We also recommend its follow up, as featured in our best recent design books round-up.
The Design of Everyday Things
By Don Norman
Even the smartest among us can feel inept as we try to figure out the shower control in a hotel or attempt to navigate an unfamiliar TV set or stove. When The Design of Everyday Things was first published in 1988, cognitive scientist Don Norman provocatively proposed that the fault lies not in ourselves, but in design that ignores the needs and psychology of people, pioneering the application of cognitive science to design..
As such, Norman's book is a powerful appeal for good design, and a reminder of how-and why-some products satisfy while others only disappoint. A must-read for anyone in any field of design.
By Michael Bierut
How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world is actually the full title of this book by Michael Bierut, Pentagram legend and the mind behind Mastercard's recent rebrand.
The 35 projects Bierut presents in this book illustrate the breadth of activity that graphic design encompasses today, his goal being to demonstrate not a single ideology, but the enthusiastically eclectic approach that has been a hallmark of his career.
Each project is told in Bierut’s own entertaining voice and shown through historic images, preliminary drawings (including full-size reproductions of the notebooks he has maintained for over 30 years), working models and rejected alternatives, as well as the finished work.
The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson
By Lewis Blackwell
Designed by legend David Carson but written by former Getty creative head Lewis Blackwell, The End of Print visually is more 90s than a Kurt Cobain magazine front cover besides your open CD copy of Beck's Odelay. Seeing as Carson defined the look of the decade, this shouldn't come as a surprise.
This classic book has itself become part of the history of graphic design. It features work from the magazines where Carson first made his mark – including Transworld Skateboarding, Surfer, Beach Culture and Ray Gun – as well as his instantly recognisable advertisements for clients such as Nike, Pepsi, MTV and Sony. Carson also examines the origins of his approach and the extreme reactions to his work over the years.
Make It Bigger
By Paula Scher
In Make It Bigger Paula Scher surveys over three decades of work and provides a firsthand account of the complex interpersonal dynamics that dictate so much of the design process. The book features over 200 examples of work, several new essays, and a series of humorous diagrams that illustrate the mechanics of meeting dynamics, approval processes, and office layouts for peons and executives. An appendix reprints several of Scher’s previously published essays.
he book has intriguingly been designed to be its own object; edge-stained pages and a tight-back binding are used to 'package' it in typography that wraps around all sides.
Buy Make It Bigger in paperback for £7.43 at Amazon UK/$26.95 at Amazon US (where the hardback is cheapest, funnily enough).
A Smile in the Mind - Witty Thinking in Graphic Design
By Beryl McAlhone
A Smile in the Mind may date to the mid-90s but its influence is still in the air today, thanks to revised editions over the years.
The classic book explores so-called 'witty thinking', arguably the most entertaining area of graphic design. Witty thinking is playfulness with ideas, words playing against images, and unexpected connections prompting new insights. It is clever thinking, not just 'funny drawing.'
Beryl McAlbone analyses the intricate thought processes behind the apparently forward images. Her book shows how to make the case for witty solutions and, through a series of in-depth interviews with the world's top designers, suggests how to get inspiration.
Gathering together the best examples of graphic wit over the past three decades, this book includes work from over 300 designers in the USA, Britain, Europe and Japan. Written with insight and a subtle lightness of touch, it offers designers a friendly read, a helpful sourcebook and a dynamic trigger for ideas.
Design As Art
By Bruno Munari
Bruno Munari was among the most inspirational designers of all time, described by Picasso as 'the new Leonardo'. Munari insisted that design be beautiful, functional and accessible, and this enlightening and highly entertaining book sets out his ideas about visual, graphic and industrial design and the role it plays in the objects we use everyday.
Lamps, road signs, typography, posters, children's books, advertising, cars and chairs - these are just some of the subjects to which Bruno turns his illuminating gaze on an illustrated journey into the artistic possibilities of modern design .
Originally released in 1966, this book is the one with the best cover on our list, and the most delightfully illustrated.
100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design
By Steven Heller
Time to step into the history of the medium with a few choice selections.
Written by one of the world’s leading authorities on graphic design and lavishly illustrated, 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design is a great source of inspiration and a provocative record of some of the best examples of graphic design from the last hundred years.
The 100 entries, arranged broadly in chronological order, range from technical (overprinting, rub-on designs, split fountain); to stylistic (swashes on caps, loud typography, and white space); to objects (dust jackets, design handbooks); and methods (paper cut-outs, pixelation).
Find a fascinating excerpt from the book about the lost art of Letraset here.
Graphic Design: A History
By Stephen Eskilson
Heavy, heavy book this one, but not heavy going at all.
We recently got our hands on the third edition of this detailed exploration of graphic design from cave art and the start of printing press, spanning across to current UX design trends. Sounds daunting, but with an excellent selection of images and the author's deft touch it's pretty easy to mill through its almost 500 page length.
Organised chronologically, the book traces the impact of politics, economics, war, nationalism, colonialism, gender and art on graphic designers working in print and film and with the latest web, multimedia and emerging digital technologies. A meatier alternative to the Heller book, and another classic from trusty publisher Laurence King.
Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design
By Pat Kirkham
Designed by Saul Bass's daughter Jennifer and written by distinguished design historian Pat Kirkham, who knew Saul Bass, this book contains more than 1,400 illustrations, many from the Bass archive and never published before, providing an in-depth account of one of the leading graphic artists of the 20th century.
It's also the first book to be published on one of the greatest American designers of the 20th century, who was as famous for his work in film as for his corporate identity and graphic work.
Saul Bass created some of the most compelling images of American postwar visual culture. Having extended the remit of graphic design to include film titles, he went on to transform the genre. His best-known works include a series of unforgettable posters and title sequences for films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder.
He also created some of the most famous logos and corporate identity campaigns of the century, including those for major companies such as AT&T, Quaker Oats, United Airlines and Minolta. Together with his wife Elaine created an impressive series of award-winning short films, including the Oscar-winning Why Man Creates, as well as an equally impressive series of film titles, ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus in the early 1960s to Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Casino in the 1990s.
A legend like no other, whose influence pervades to this day.
Paul Rand: A Designer's Art
By Paul Rand
If Paul Rand was the most influential American graphic designer of the twentieth century, then Paul Rand: A Designer's Art is the most important book on his work.
A comprehensive collection of his most important and best-known designs, A Designer's Art gives unique insight into Rand's design process and theory. The 2016 edition of Rand's classic monograph meticulously re-creates the graphic quality of the original, with more than two hundred illustrations and twenty-seven essays, and a new afterword by Steven Heller, who we featured earlier.
Creative Strategy and the Business of Design
By Douglas Davis
Recommended to us by reader Jonathan Perucho on Twitter, this book is an informative read by designer/studio head Douglas Davis aimed at designers looking to flex their business skills as he has clearly done.
This book aims to give you the tools to provide value when design conversations veer off into marketing territory. Designers also get a framework for identifying and organising each project's essential elements and articulating strategy within their creative presentations.
He also teaches how to recognise what marketers are asking for and gain confidence as a designer in your ability to advise them with your creative executions.
Buy Creative Strategy and the Business of Design in paperback for £16.86 at Amazon UK/$16.00 at Amazon US (the Kindle option is dearer; it's like design publishers are anti-ebook or something).
How to be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul
By Adrian Shaughnessy
Another tip from our readers on Twitter, this time Kiran Qureshi, this design book classic is the perfect solution for all creatives in fear of churning out hackneyed material for small-minded corporations big and small.
Aimed at the independent-minded, it 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 won’t have been taught at college - for running a successful business.
The last edition from 2010 contains all-new chapters covering professional skills; design thinking; and global trends, including social responsibility, ethics and the rise of digital culture.
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