As graphic designers, it’s our job to make sure things look great, convey messages effectively, and solve problems. How do we step outside of what we know and use everyday to create something innovative and unique? For some, this is an innate and organic ability, and for others it’s learned over time through trial and error — I think it’s a combination of both.
That being said, over the last few years I’ve been asked for book recommendations for designers who are just starting out, or people who are interested in the field. I am by no means an authority on what the right things to read are, I just know what I really like and what has worked for me. So here are some books that helped me grow as a designer, and some that helped me become a better businessperson — which is very important if you decide to do freelance or contract work. Others served as inspiration and reminders to embrace what you love and what interests you and to bring those influences into the work you do.
Ways of Seeing by John Berger
I had to read this for a film studies class when I was in college, and it’s a book that I’ve held onto and re-read every few years. It poses a lot of important questions about how we view art, film, the media around us, and how those messages that we receive may or may not be manufactured to change the way we perceive ourselves and each other. It is a very critical book, but it helped inform the projects and clients I take on as a designer and the pieces I create.
“The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images.” // “Publicity images also belong to the moment in the sense that they must be continually renewed and made up-to-date. Yet they never speak of the present. Often they refer to the past and always they speak of the future.” // “[Publicity] proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer — even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. [...] The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.”
It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by Paul Arden
A brilliant marketing friend recommended this book to me a few years ago when I was feeling stagnant and uninspired. This book is brief, brilliant and bold. This is a book I read whenever I need a good kick in the pants, which is about once a year. It happens to all of us right? This book also lives on the bookshelf by my front door so I see it when I leave my apartment every day.
“Experience is the opposite of being creative. If you can prove you’re right you’re set in concrete. You cannot move with the times or with other people. Being right is also being boring. Your mind is closed. You are not open to new ideas. You are rooted in your own rightness, which is arrogant. Arrogance is a valuable tool, but only if used very sparingly. Worst of all, being right has a tone of morality about it. To be anything else sounds weak or fallible, and people who are right would hate to be thought fallible. So: it’s wrong to be right, because people who are right are rooted in the past, rigid-minded, dull and smug. There’s no talking to them.”
The Non-Designer’s Type Book by Robin P. Williams
I took a community college typography class and absolutely hated it (because the instructor was terrible) but I LOVED this book. It claims to be for non-designers, but I think it’s really for designers. If you wanna work with type, you better know how to use it, and this is a terrific guide.
100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design by Steven Heller & Veronique Vienne
I didn’t go to school for design, so I’m sure there are tons of books out there that cover the history of graphic design, but I particularly love this one. The layout is sexy, letsbehonest, and it’s fun to flip through hundreds of years of history that relates to design. It’s kind of a coffee table book, but also a lot more informative than a lot of the other books I’ve come across about design history (that are not text books).
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
When I started my third (and current) full-time design job, I was working under a senior designer who was very meticulous and had a great eye. I wanted to learn everything he knew, and asked for book recommendations. He brought me this gem and I devoured it in a weekend. It’s a pretty dry but incredibly intelligent book about the history of communicating data visually. Written in 1983, this book illustrates how information graphics are used correctly and basically, how easy it is to f*ck them up. It has, as a result, made me very critical of basically every infographic I see on the internet.
Suffragettes to She-Devils by Liz McQuiston
This is a book, as I mentioned in the intro to this post, that inspires me on a personal level. The personal is political, right? This is more of a coffee table book, and I have never actually READ it. I just look at the photos and captions. It’s a wonderful collection of suffragist and feminist posters, postcards, artwork from the last two centuries. Some of my favorite artists are featured in the book, including Guerrilla Girls, Judy Chicago and Barbara Kruger. Really phenomenal book to keep in your arsenal if you can find a copy.
Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets for Designers by Shel Perkins
I actually took Shel’s class a few years ago at UC Berkeley Extension. I believe it was called Business Basics for Designers, and this book was our text book for the class. It goes over registering your business, how to set your rate, legal things to consider when creating your invoice and contracts, and more. I think this book would be helpful for any type of creative starting their own business or doing freelance work.
Role Models by John Waters
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’m a big fan of John Waters’ work, and John Waters as a human being. In this book he shares stories about the people he looks up to. What I love about this book, and about John Waters in general, is that he is unabashedly proud of 1.) where he grew up, 2.) the people he surrounds himself with, and 3.) who he is — and I think this is incredibly inspiring. It’s important to embrace where you’re from and who you are and use it to your creative advantage. He did! And now he hosts a Christmas special every year where he gets to talk about poop and people EAT IT UP. (You’re welcome for that visual.)
“True success is figuring out your life and career so you never have to be around jerks.”
Have any book recommendations? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re a fellow bookworm, add me on Goodreads!