Graphic design books that help you improve
If you’ve got an eye for design, then you’re in luck. Never before in history has business been so visually and aesthetically-focused, meaning that the need for graphic designers is more urgent than ever.
Whether you’re a design veteran, a young gun, a side hustler, or someone contemplating a career change, improving your designer’s mind is the way you’re going to rise above the rest and become the best graphic designer you can be.
Realise your design potential through reading
For reasons we’ll look into in a while, reading is one of the most effective ways to do this. It actually helps you become a more creative, insightful, and critical graphic designer and helps you realise your potential in a wickedly competitive industry.
Ready to get stuck into a good book? So are we. Let’s go!
Classics about the history of graphic design
Thoughts on Design by Paul Rand
Rand’s Thoughts on Design is, for many, the granddaddy of design books. Derived from his 1947 essay on the same subject, it became the book we know today in 1970. Rand was the mind behind many of the logos of companies that shone in the 1960s, like Morningstar, Westinghouse, ABC, and NeXT and, for many, he is the designer that best represents the glories of the ‘Mad Men’ design era.
After writing the book, Rand went on to teach design at Yale until the 1990s, when he resigned in protest against postmodernism. This conflict soured many people’s memory of him, but Thoughts on Design is one part of his legacy that continues to hold its sway. More of a treatise than a workbook, it’s nonetheless a must-read on any designer’s list.
In short: Relatively brief and easy to read, this book is cultural rather than instructional. Read it to better understand the graphic design industry’s history and major players.
Interaction of Color by Josef Albers
Considered by many to be the last word in color theory, Interaction of Color by German-American teacher Josef Albers was designed to act as a practical handbook and teaching aid for design and art students who wanted to dive deeper into complex color theory principles.
Since it was designed with education in mind, it’s easy to read and clearly explained, with solid examples and challenging exercises. It’s standard issue on many university reading lists and, for that reason, should also be on yours.
In short: Concise, well-explained, and educational, this book was written with learning in mind. That makes it a great choice for anyone who wants to improve how they interact with color.
Grid Systems by Josef Müller-Brockmann
If you’ve spent any time studying graphic design, you’ll have come across grid systems as a tool for organising layout and content. Müller-Brockmann’s handbook is considered by many to be a seminal work on the subject but, despite being both minutely detailed and a little dense (“definitely written by a German in the 1960s”, commented one reviewer wryly), it is actually pretty accessible even for inexperienced designers.
The great thing about Grid Systems is that it not only explains what grid systems are and how to use them, it also shows you why one grid choice would work so much better than another in a given situation. Grid systems aren’t really a design topic you can skip, so do yourself a favour, and read this when you can.
In short: While not a fun or exhilarating read, Grid Systems will teach you everything you need to know about grid systems and their use, and is easily available to download free in PDF.
Graphis Diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data by Herdeg Walter
Published in 1974, Graphis Diagrams is Herdeg Walter’s book on the graphic representation of data. In a world that’s been poisoned by cheap and cheerful infographics, it’s a breath of fresh air to study educated and critical thought on the subject.
If you get your hands on a copy, be prepared for the explosion of multilingual texts and many graphic representations of mind-bogglingly varied data. It’s a jewel of the 70’s and well worth tracking down.
In short: A deeper look at data visualisation with an awesome 70’s feel, Graphis Diagrams is as much fun to read as it is inspirational.
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
In direct contrast to Grid Systems, The Elements of Typographic Style is actually a fun and playful – yet highly educational – read. This classic is a solid how-to of typographic instruction and advice and if you spend any time with typography at all, you should have read it already!
Divided into effortless-sounding sections such as Rhythm & Proportion and Harmony & Counterpoint, The Elements of Typographic Style walks readers through everything and anything connected with the design of words and text. It begins with the use of whitespace, and moves on to precise instructions for kerning, spacing, and indentation. Robert Bringhurst was also a translator and poet, so it’s no surprise he managed to combine form and function in this enjoyable read.
In short: A seminal design book that’s also a great read, The Elements of Typographic Style is a book you’ll return to time and time again.
Great design books about typography
Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton
Thinking With Type is the latest edition of a classic typography book designed to help anyone who works with type – designers, but also writers and editors – to get a better handle on how to use it on a variety of mediums, from print to the screen.
Divided into sections called letter, text, and grid, the book gives a theoretical introduction to the topic, followed by practical exercises that will put you to work. Lupton finishes up with examples and doesn’t forget the part we all love to see, the no-nos. They are clearly outlined in the hope that you won’t fall victim to them after you’ve finished the book.
In short: A practical, easy-to-read handbook, Thinking With Type is the perfect blend between theory and practical application.
Why Fonts Matter by Sarah Hyndman
Still on the subject of typography, but taking a very different approach, Why Fonts Matter is a study of how fonts affect emotion, communication, and human behavior and how we can best manipulate them for our own ends.
The book is actually a reprint of The Type Taster: How Fonts Influence You with a new name and updated content, but retaining the friendly, accessible approach that’s been described as ‘democratic’ and ‘informal’. If you’ve read one too many dense, tech design books recently, Why Fonts Matter might be the breath of fresh air you need to keep moving forward on your learning journey.
In short: Accessible and enlightening, but still a deep dive into font theory and use, Why Fonts Matter is high-brow design made accessible to all.
The Big Book of Font Combinations by Douglas N Bonneville
The Big Book of Font Combinations is a fun, inspirational read. It does exactly what it says it does – it combines pairs of fonts on the page for you to see and assess. Each page is written in the fonts it illustrates, allowing you to check it out and see if it sparks inspiration or creativity.
The book also gives you guidelines and FAQs about the ideas behind the book itself, as well as quick tips for better font combinations. It’s not so much a workbook as something that you’ll use for inspiration and to provoke thought.
In short: Unlike anything else out there on the subject, The Big Book of Font Combinations also offers apps and online tools to expand the ways you can use the book.
Type and Color: How to Design and Use Multicolored Typefaces by Mark van Wageningen
Once you’re comfortable with the basics of type, take a jump into the wonderful world of color typefaces with Type and Color: How to Design and Use Multicolored Typefaces. Taking the awesome cover of this book as a starting point, it helps designers navigate their way around the junction between color theory and typography.
Offering tips on how to put an end to black and white, without hurting your customer’s eyes, the book itself is detailed and visually wonderful. It’s a lovely book to own and browse, as well as being an indispensable educational work on any designer’s bookshelf.
In short: A visually appealing and educationally relevant deep-dive into color and font, this book looks at a subtopic no designer will regret specialising in.
Designing with color in mind
Color Inspirations: More than 3,000 Innovative Palettes by Darius Monsef
Fans of Darius Monsef’s Color Inspirations regard it to be an essential resource for designers, rather than ‘just’ a good read. This book is eminently practical – it presents 3,286 color palettes designed to inspire, remind, and delight you. It’s the kind of book that you’ll want to have open on your desk to reference quickly when you’re designing or creating.
Color Inspirations is designed to be used professionally and practically – it offers accurate CMYK, RGB and HEX values for every color combination, and the physical copy of the book includes a CD so you can import the palette in the book into whatever project you’re currently working on. Finally, it also offers some tips on color theory and how to find new, inspiring color combinations from the world around you.
In short: If you love color (and we’d hope most designers do) then Color Inspirations is the handbook you need beside you as you work.
Chroma by Derek Jarman
Chroma, by the late Derek Jarman, is also a book about color, but takes a completely different approach and, as such, deserves a spot on your reading list. Rather than a study on color theory, this book is a journey into Jarman’s experience of color and all the fascinating color-related information and theory he picked up during his lifetime. If you’re not familiar with Jarman, he was a hugely creative artist and filmmaker who wrote the book as he was dying of AIDs and, sadly, losing his eyesight.
You could think of this book as his final attempt to distill and share his singular experience of color into a cohesive whole. One review calls Chroma a “love letter to sight and color” but however you feel about it, it’s a hauntingly beautiful book that will change how you feel about being able to see.
In short: Fascinating and sad in equal measure, this book is a valuable change of perspective on all things visual for designers (and everyone else).
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St Clair
If Chroma has left you yearning for more humanity in your design classics, then The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St Clair is an excellent next choice. This book tells the social, cultural, industrial, political, and historical stories of 75 fascinating colors, hues, and dyes. Many of history’s significant uses of color have amazing stories behind them, from the charcoal used to daub ancient drawings on cave walls, to the yellow in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The book will even clue you in as to why you don’t actually need to kill any dragons to get your hands on dragon’s blood (a vibrant dark red).
The Secret Lives of Color is a great read and one that you’ll enjoy whether at your desk or sipping coffee at home. For an excellent visual extra, check out the Instagram account that accompanies the book – as you might expect, it’s absolutely gorgeous.
In short: Mix up your reading list with the introduction of a book on color that delves into history and communication while temporarily leaving theory behind.
Best graphic design books for logos
Logo Modernism An unprecedented catalogue of modern trademarks by Jens Müller
Is your design library ready for Logo Modernism? A physically large book of over 6,000 trademarks, this catalog runs through the most important and stylish corporate logos created in the period of 1940-1980, when modernist attitudes had a major effect on corporate identity.
Logo Modernism is divided into three main areas, Geometric, Effect, and Typographic, and then subsections, such as alphabet, overlay, dots and squares. It also contains profiles of influential designers, and case studies of significant logo projects, like the Mexico Olympic Games of 1968.
In short: Designers love Logo Modernism as an inspirational deep-dive into modernist logos. It’s an excellent reminder that logos can indeed be a thing of artistic beauty.
Logos: Lord of the Logos: Designing the Metal Underground by Christophe Szpajdel
Lord of the Logos creeps into our listing on the basis that it’s fantastically niche and a fun, unique book to have on your bookshelf. Christophe Szpajdel is known as the lord of the logos in, wait for it, the black metal community. In the form of a black prayerbook, it would be easy to dismiss Lord of the Logos as a gimmick, but once you take a look, you’ll see that Szpajdel is actually a talented and creative designer.
Szpajdel takes inspiration from a wide and creative variety of sources, including Art Deco and Art Nouveau. This might sound unlikely, but once you see the logos he’s created for his black metal clients, you can see how these classic art forms fit in beautifully. It’s not an easy book to find, but if you happen to stumble across it on your travels, be sure to snap it up – it’s likely you won’t get a second chance.
In short: Lord of the Logos has novelty and creative value. If you find it on your travels, nab it – it’s rare and very cool, but be warned, it has a lofty price tag when you buy it new!
Square Circle Triangle by Bruno Munari
Bruno Munari was an Italian design legend and, in the 1960’s and 70’s, published individual case studies on the square, circle, and, later, the triangle. It is from these case studies that Square Circle Triangle emerged. Using ancient history and (relatively) modern designers like Le Corbusier as examples, Munari believed the basic and timeless shapes to possess unique qualities – the square represents safety, the circle signifies the divine, and the triangle is a key connector.
Square Circle Triangle goes on to lay out how the 3 seemingly insignificant shapes are essential to our understanding of life, design, and human experience. It’s a surprisingly accessible and fun read, although it sounds a little kooky, and it shows designers fascinating connections between the shapes which, once seen, you’ll never forget.
In short: This unassuming book is great for introducing some creative introspection to the process of working with seemingly mundane and basic shapes.
Branding and graphic design
This Is Not a T-Shirt: A Brand, a Culture, a Community–a Life in Streetwear by Bobby Hundreds
If you want to dive into branding in an imaginative, creative way, then it’s essential to mix up your reading and ensure you’re digesting a variety of sources and inspiration. Throw This Is Not a T-Shirt into your reading list to keep things interesting. Even if you’ve never heard of The Hundreds (it’s a streetwear brand), it’s the story of the brand’s evolution, told by co-founder Bobby Kim, aka Bobby Hundreds.
It’s a great education in passion and graft, and makes for an interesting read, no matter your understanding of streetwear. Most importantly, like Chroma, it provides a non-educational, non-instructional take on something that’s very relevant to your profession as a designer.
In short: Keep things fresh by reading books that aren’t necessarily academic or instructional. This Is Not a T-Shirt takes a fresh look at fashion, design, and brand.
Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman
If you hadn’t heard of Debbie Millman before, you’ll get to know all about her in this book. She’s a veteran design expert who has been in the business for the last 25 years and is already the author of How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, which gives you a good insight into where her talents lie. It’s thanks to this illustrious career that she’s been able to round up the branding insights of 22 branding ‘celebrities’, including Wally Olins, Malcolm Gladwell, and Seth Godin.
Don’t be mistaken, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits isn’t one of those books that’s actually just a collection of blog posts. It’s an insightful and complex dialogue between her and her interviewee, their thoughts guided by her experienced designer’s sensibility. Debbie Millman also hosts a design-oriented podcast, Design Matters, which might be a good introduction to her style and approach.
In short: Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is a series of interviews with people whose opinions on branding are what shapes the industry. If you want to succeed, you need to know what they’re saying.
General graphic design books
How to be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy
Originally published in 2005, but re-issued in 2012, How to be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul is a must-read book for design enthusiasts. While many graphic design books concentrate on artistic or technical aspects, they leave the would-be graphic designer somewhat bereft when it comes to the more basic concerns, like finding clients and knowing how much to charge them.
Adrian Shaughnessy, a self-taught, freelance graphic designer himself, saw this gap and decided to fill it. The result is a practical, unromantic guide to the less glamorous side of being a designer. Reviewers say it’s actually a must read for any type of creative freelancer, so once you’ve finished it, lend it to your self-employed friends.
In short: Knowing how to design is one thing, but making a living from it is another entirely. Let this book guide you through the pitfalls.
Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design by Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland
The more ambitious designers among you will be interested in Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design. Written by Maria Giudice, a leadership coach, and Christopher Ireland, co-founder at the startup incubator, Mix & Stir, both authors have considerable experience in what makes a good leader, and they know how the best leaders rise to the top. Encouragingly, Giudice and Ireland see a future where the DEO (Design Executive Officers) reign supreme, seeing all business problems fundamentally as design issues.
The book talks to leading DEOs – “leaders who understand the transformative power of design and embrace its traits and tenets can command in times of change” – and quiz them about their skills in leadership, change, and processes. They then break the information down into advice and tips about how to find and build these skills yourself.
In short: It’s a brave new world for designers willing to lead. This book shows you why the future of business lies in design, and how you can hop aboard DEO’s rise to the top.
The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide Paperback By Leah Buley
This book springs from the idea that, very often, product or web design projects are horribly understaffed and, more often than not, it’s you, poor designer, who will end up having to do all kinds of jobs that aren’t *technically* in your job description. If the UX of a project has fallen in your lap, this is the book you need. It shows you what’s essential, what’s not, and where you can safely cut corners and reduce work.
The author, Buley, is a design strategist herself, so her book is filtered through design eyes and will undoubtedly help any designer who has suddenly got user experience on their (already overcrowded) plate. Even if you’re blissfully free of UX responsibilities right now, the information contained in the book will help and shape the user impact of any design work you do in the future, which is a good thing all around.
In short: Designers often get lumped with UX work or are expected to have a current and applicable knowledge of the basics. If that’s the case, this book will be your bible – buy it now.
How reading will supercharge your professional game
If you’re still not convinced, then we’ve got some really good reasons for you to pick up a book – any book! As a designer, you’re in the heartland of tech. That means you probably spend a lot of time reading snippets, summaries, blog posts, and articles. This type of reading is known as information gathering, but it’s not deep reading.
Why deep reading is better than skimming
Deep reading is the type of reading that offers actual neurological benefits. As you concentrate on the information in front of you, your brain is forced to make new connections between information it already knows and the new information you’re feeding it, because what a human brain craves more than anything is context and order.
This forces the brain to make new synapses and strengthen ones you already possess, which is why scientists think that deep reading can keep age-related brain degeneration at bay. And if a new, improved brain wasn’t enough, reading has been proven to offer a whole other raft of benefits, from increased empathy to leadership skills, and stress relief to increased creativity.
The last word: advice for graphic designers who want to read more
We know that it’s not always easy to fit reading into an already jam-packed schedule. Never fear, because we’ve got 7 great tips that should help.
Read in topics
Get more bang for your buck by reading around a topic, rather than jumping to and from subjects. After a few books on closely-related subjects, you’ll have exponentially expanded your knowledge.
Alternate fun and serious reading
Don’t feel like the only books worth reading are really serious, technical ones. You’ll burn out if you don’t mix up the books you like and ones you feel you ‘should’ read.
Set aside time
Life has a habit of expanding to occupy the space you offer it. If you want to read, you need to plan for it, so sketch out time in your schedule and treat it as seriously as any other appointment you have in there.
Keep a list – but don’t be afraid to prune it
As you find books you’re interested in, add them to a ‘to read’ list so you’re never short of ideas (and keep the list close to hand – you never know when you’ll find yourself in a second-hand bookstore). That said, don’t be afraid to prune the list over time – there’s no reason to read a book you don’t fancy any more just because it’s been on your list for forever.
Make notes if there’s info you really want to remember
If a book contains information you really want to remember (which is quite likely with the more technical books), consider taking notes, like you did in school or college. There’s strong scientific evidence that information you write down has a much better chance of sticking in your head.
Consider starting a graphic design book club, online or offline
Book clubs are not dead – they’ve just moved online! Think about starting a graphic design book club. As well as giving more structure to your reading, you’ll make new friends and find new networking connections.
Use James Clear’s method - 20 pages a day
Finally, consider James Clear’s reading method. He reads 20 pages of a book first thing every day. It takes about 30 minutes and is his key to getting through dozens of brain-changing books every year.
Reading’s what sets the great and the good apart. It’s what helps create leaders and visionaries, and what allows designers to excel cross-departmentally and not just when you’re sitting in front of PhotoShop. Want to level up as a graphic designer in 2020? Start reading today.
Read one of these or think we’ve left one off? Let us know @getdesignwizard.