September 27, 2004

On the Subject of Design

I get a lot of emails from people asking me if I can recommend any good books for learning about design. So, rather than reply to all of you, I am just going to share my design book short list. This is not an exhaustive book list, nor is it a list of solely inspiring books. The majority of these books are instructional and informational, providing groundwork and baselines to start thinking and learning from. While you can also learn from others in gallery books (like typography and design annuals), they have no place on this list; these are hard and fast guidelines for learning design principles and history.

A History of Graphic Design

A History of Graphic Design
by Philip Meggs
This should be required reading. A History of Graphic Design was my textbook in college for Historical Survey of Graphic Design. Sadly, I didn’t really care as much about design history and theory in school (I thought I was far too cool for it, and regardless, there were video games to be played). It wasn’t until after I graduated that I cursed myself for being such a damn fool, and read the darned thing cover to cover. While not a comprehensive guide to Design history, this book is a very broad overview of the different design movements and all of the big players. Above all, it is most useful as a basic groundwork in design history and a starting point to discover topics you want to learn more about.

Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus

Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus
by Johannes Itten
The Bauhaus School focused on bringing design to the people, reducing everday things to their simplist, most functional forms. It encompassed many different types of art, of which graphic design was just a part, from architecture to industrial design. The lasting effects of the schools ideals and principles can still be seen today. This is as basic as it gets, useful and informative for anyone starting out.

Visual Literacy: A Conceptual Approach to Graphic Problem Solving

Visual Literacy: A Conceptual Approach to Graphic Problem Solving
by Judith Wilde, Richard Wilde
A ground-level course in basic design principals like rhythm, pattern, focal point, contrast, etc. You have to walk before you can run. These principals are so fundamental, yet are so easily overlooked daily.

Grid Systems in Graphic Design

Grid Systems in Graphic Design
by Josef Muller-Brockmann
Your basic course in grid work. Though I will probably be drug outside and beaten, I have to say that this book is not the bees’ knees. While it is an incredibly worthwhile book in grid systems, there are many more, newer volumes that are, I dare say, easier to digest. Many designers find this book to be the end-all-be-all, most of that is due praise because Muller-Brockmann was pretty much the first guy to synthesize this information. All I am saying is every designer should read at least one grid design book, and this is the daddy of them, but do some research, you may find one that works better for you (even if they are just presenting the same information a little differently).

A Whack on the Side of the Head

A Whack on the Side of the Head
by Roger von Oech
Even though I thought this would be a cheesy self-help book, my opinion was quickly changed and became a very important tome. Whack teaches you just how to free up your imagination and think out of your proverbial, self-imposed box, altering your line of thinking to allow you to get to more innovative ideas and conepts. Also very worthwhile is Roger von Oech’s follow up, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants.

The Elements of Color

The Elements of Color
by Johannes Itten
This is in many ways a more simplified version of Itten’s exhaustive The Art of Color. If you plan to work with color at all, you owe it to yourself to know some decent color principles like why certain color combinations work better than others, theories on color contrasts and processes to obtain color combinations that evoke particular moods. Also check out: Color Index by Jim Krause, and Leslie Cabarga’s The Designer’s Guide to Color Combinations and The Designer’s Guide to Global Color Combinations. While these are useful, they can also become crutches. Use them as starting points to color ideas or as reference.

About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography

About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography
by David Jury
A great intermediate book on type design. It takes a much more textbook style approach primarily focused on individual fonts for indentification, time period and usage, but you will also find some great layout and typographic methodologies.

The Elements of Typographic Style

The Elements of Typographic Style
by Robert Bringhurst
An essential book for anyone who uses type in design. Yeah, that’s right, I mean you. As a graphic designer, you owe it to yourself to read more books like this. Inside, you will find some hardcore principles of design, like The Golden Section, a thorough disection of type forms, type usage and layout, type identification, and ever so much more. Mostly focused on page design and print material (skewed towards type layout) but contains ridiculously useful information which is easily applied to all forms of design. For a more basic, but equally worthwhile starter course, try Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger.

Type: The Secret History of Letters

Type: The Secret History of Letters
by Simon Loxley
History of Type! Wow, this is serious Typographic nerdery, and I loved every word of it. Don’t take your fonts for granted. Find out why they were made, who made them, what significance they had to the greater picture. Chock full of interesting history and type related trivia.

Logo & Font Lettering Bible

Logo & Font Lettering Bible
by Leslie Cabarga
The subtitle of this book is: A Comprehensive Guide to the Design, Construction and Usage of Alphabets and Symbols, and it is all that and more. This is a very good place to start learning more about the particulars of logo design right down to nitpicking kerning, leading, individual character shapes.

Graphics Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines

Graphics Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines
by Graphics Artists Guild
You still wanna be a graphic designer, huh? You fool! If you insist on traversing this slippery slope, at least arm yourself. This is the stuff that they don’t tell you about in school (at least not at my college). Inside you will find very useful information like base pricing guidelines for every type of design work conceivable, information on paper work like invoices and contracts, and information on all of the situations in design and business you don’t see coming. If you plan to do things on your own someday, whether it be freelance or starting your own design business, you really need to start somewhere. By following some helpful tips and guidelines books like this contain, you help other designers too. The point is for everyone to value design (client and designers), by pricing things the general ballpark of what they are worth. Teach your clients what good design is, and what they are buying from you. You help us all from the notion we are graphic decorators.

Commentary (21):

1. Ethan says… sep 27, 2004 | 11:46 am

Jason, thanks so much for this; I’d been looking for some decent post-summer reading, and this list should do the trick.

Thanks, man.

2. Michael says… sep 27, 2004 | 1:40 pm

What Ethan said. I’ll have to put these on my Amazon wishlist for Christmas.

Would you say any one of them is your favorite? Why?

3. John Nick says… sep 27, 2004 | 2:15 pm

Great list. Personally, I love the Cabarga most.

It’s been a great one-stop-solution for me since I’m the designated “guy at the office who can draw” and therefore am expected to do ALL tasks relating to UI and branding.

N.B. to Jason: Diss the GRID and suffer the WRATH! :-)

4. kartooner says… sep 27, 2004 | 3:22 pm

A Whack on the Side of the Head is an excellent read, not only humorous but informative. It’s one of my all-time favorite books.

I’ll have to look into adding some of these to my already growing library. Thanks.

5. Todd says… sep 27, 2004 | 4:07 pm

As much as Historical Survey of Graphic Design put me to sleep, Meggs’ book is a great resource. I think it’s one of the only text books I kept from college. And the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook is a must own if you’re going to do freelance work.

Great write-up!

6. Matt Cahill says… sep 27, 2004 | 4:08 pm

I have to say “Elements of Typographic Style” is by far my favorite book on the list. It is the typography Bible and is essential to anyone serious about design.

Great list!

7. Jeremy Flint says… sep 27, 2004 | 4:50 pm

Great list Jason.

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to take a class on the history of graphic design. Had I done so, it would have given me enough credits for a minor in Art history (after 4 classes on the subject).

Any book by Steven Heller is going to be a great read as well.

I would reccommend Design Literacy, Design Literacy (continued) and Design Dialogues. The Education of A Graphic Designer is a good read if you are interested in education.

I also like Robert Bringhursts “Elements of Typographic Style”, and any of David Carson’s books are good for a look.

8. jen says… sep 27, 2004 | 5:15 pm

the graphic artists handbook was my textbook in my portfolio class at ringling.

why didnt i use it?

im still wondering this.

9. Jason Beaird says… sep 27, 2004 | 5:34 pm

Awesome list of “not so mainstreamish” design books. Having read only a couple of them, I know have a good handful to add to my Amazon wishlist!

Great post and a belated congrats on the filemagazine spotlight.

10. Brent O’Connor says… sep 27, 2004 | 5:40 pm

I’m currently reading, “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams which I think is an excellent book for both experienced Designers and beginners.

If you’re an experienced designer it won’t hurt to get a refresher and it you’re a beginner this book helps create the building blocks to build on your design skills.

Jason thanks for the book suggestions. However, it might be awhile before I have a chance to read some more books because I have 3 more books in my book queue:

The Non-Designer’s Type Book by Robin Williams
Paul Rand by Steven Heller
Designed by Peter Saville

11. RJ Hampden says… sep 28, 2004 | 8:06 am

Thanks, I’ll take these off your shelf this weekend. Can’t wait to dig in!

12. Michael Hupp says… sep 28, 2004 | 11:57 am

You say about the Grid systems book, “While it is an incredibly worthwhile book in grid systems, there are many more, newer volumes that are, I dare say, easier to digest.”

Could you follow up on that? I had heard other great things about this book but after finding it and buying it (it’s out of print so it’s not cheap) I was a little disappointed. Also, for you German speakers you get two books for the price of one.

I actually liked what Bringhurst’s comments were regarding page layout and proportions.

If Jason and the others have not made this clear by now Robert Bringhurst’s book is incredible. I pick it up every so often just to read a couple pages to reinforce everything that I’ve already forgotten… I cannot endorse it enough.

13. Jason Santa Maria says… sep 28, 2004 | 2:56 pm

Sure Michael, Making and Breaking the Grid by Timothy Samara is another great grid book to check out. Its not that Grid Systems in Graphic Design is bad by any means, people just may have an easier read with something a bit more updated. My two cents.

14. RJ Hampden says… sep 29, 2004 | 10:38 am

Dude. I am at work and today I have a ‘shadow’ from a nearby highschool. She wants to be a graphic designer. I totally turned her onto your sight, she’s wicked excited!

15. RJ Hampden says… sep 29, 2004 | 2:39 pm

She totally whipped up this website in like and hour!

peep this yos!

16. uninvited says… sep 29, 2004 | 3:37 pm

Missed “Grid Systems in Graphic Design” at youworkforthem. Does anyone know an online store who still sells the book?

17. Michael Hupp says… sep 30, 2004 | 6:00 pm

univited - I got mine as a gift from my folks, but they checked Amazon and got some leads there they told me. I think they say Buy Used… and it took them to a list of people selling it. They ended up getting it from a book dealer in NYC (they live in Denver) Not sure if those are the right directions or not.

Jason — Thanks for the follow up! I’ll check that out!

18. Alexis Bellido says… oct 21, 2004 | 8:08 pm

Jason, thank you for the great list, I’ve read most of the reviews at Amazon and many of them are in my wish list already.

I’ve been reading some sites about grid systems but most of them are very basic.

I can’t buy the mentioned books yet, I’ve just spent this month budget in some copywriting books a week ago.

Any suggestion of url’s about grid systems?


19. Jason Santa Maria says… oct 21, 2004 | 9:20 pm

Most certainly! Check out the Grid section of Thinking with Type.

20. Alexis Bellido says… oct 22, 2004 | 12:28 am

Great, thanks Jason.

I was just finishing reading your Grey Box Method article and I am still wondering: What’s up with the sock monkeys?! :)

21. Prabhath Sirisena says… oct 22, 2004 | 7:59 am

Thanks Jason, from the other side of the world ;-) (You know where Sri Lanka is?)