8 Design Books That I Love: A List of Personal Favorites

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There’s always an endless stream of internet design inspiration at our fingertips but the feeling of flipping though a book can never be replaced. Over the years I’ve gathered a small library of design books that I refer to on a regular basis and though all quite different, I consider many of these titles to be indispensable for varying reasons. I am by no means proclaiming these books to be the best out there; these are simply titles that I personally own and have found to provide great content. Note: these are not listed in any particular order.


01: Graphic Idea Notebook by Jan V. White


If you’ve ever wondered how designers got inspired before the internet was commonplace, Graphic Idea Notebook can easily answer that question. This book definitely has a spot in my top three all-time favorite design books. Each page is brimming with basic design concepts that are as relevant today as they were in 1980 when the book was first published.

Graphic Idea Notebook is overflowing with inspiration that will help you think in a whole new way when working with page layouts, type and images. I own the second edition from 1991 and the ‘new’ introduction from that time now sounds laughably quaint. An excerpt: “Imagine a time when there were no faxes, no answering machines, no microwaves, no CD players, no VCRs, no Cuisinarts, no Post-its — how primitive. No computers? (Big number-crunchers were around at that time. They didn’t do pages.) You mean people actually enjoyed making up pages using rubber cement, razor blades and scotch tape? Indeed they did ten short years ago…” The introduction goes on to say that even though technology has changed dramatically since 1980, we are still very much faced with the same old design dilemmas today. I agree. Perhaps the best part about White’s series of books is that they are completely accessible — you can pick up most of them for just a few dollars each!


02: Helvetica: Homage to Typeface by Lars Muller


Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface was the first ‘design’ book that I ever purchased; I found it back in 2002 during my second trip to New York, tucked away in the F.I.T. bookstore. This book helped me understand how graphic design relates to our every day environments. The book’s premise is very simple; it features snapshots taken throughout the world’s major cities of Helvetica in use, most commonly on store and subway signs. Also mixed throughout the pages are packaging, maps, logos and more, all featuring Helvetica as the unifying factor. Of the book, Müller says, “The designs gathered together here in honor of Helvetica have been created by superb designers and anonymous amateurs from all over the world…Helvetica is the perfume of the city.”


03: How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy


How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul has probably been mentioned on my blog more than any other book. I bought it while still in college and referred to it constantly. Why? It is brimming with practical, common sense advice that every beginning designer should know. I love the introduction: “Designers are quick to tell us about their sources of inspiration, but they are much less willing to reveal such critical matters as how to find work, what to charge, and what to do when a client rejects three weeks of work and refuses to pay the bill.” This book answers all those nagging questions designers have when starting out but don’t know who to ask. Written in a very straight-forward manner by a designer for designers, this is a must-read for design students.


04: The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier


The Brand Gap isn’t exactly a design book. But, if your goal is to be a designer at ad agencies (like mine was), it’s important to have a basic understanding of the relation between business strategy and design. This book can help you understand why some of the biggest brands in the world have been so successful in a simple, fun manner. Marty Neumeier wrote a brilliant introduction that starts out with, “A lot of people talk about it. Yet very few people understand it. Even fewer know how to manage it. Still everyone wants it. What is it? Branding, of course — arguably the most powerful business tool since the spreadsheet.” Bonus: If you want a sneak peek, I shared my favorite slides from the PDF version of the book here.


05: Experimental Formats 2 by Roger Fawcett-Tang


Experimental Formats.2 is a bit more gimmicky than the rest, but in all fairness, it lives up to its name. With an emphasis on books, brochures and catalogs, the book has a split spine and folds out into two books. It’s full of edgy and inspiring printed matter and fantastic if you’re looking for new ways to liven up your publication design projects.


06: Typography Essentials by Ina Saltz


Typography Essentials: 100 Design Principles for Working with Type is a recent addition to my collection and perhaps quite telling, it is already bookmarked with a pile of sticky-notes. Each page in this book is brimming with relevant, of-the-moment examples. I have found the huge number of editorial design layouts that are showcased to be particularly helpful. Sometimes, when you’re stuck on a basic page layout, you just need a few visuals to jog your memory. This book isn’t the most cutting-edge but it is one of the most practical — the 100 principles and corresponding images are well curated and fairly timeless.


07: Super Identity


Super Identity: In Your Sight and in Your Mind is a must-have if you’re an identity junkie. Incredibly well designed and with a focus on mostly fashion and retail brands, it doesn’t just showcase the same old logo and letterhead combos. Promos, ads and other integral pieces of collateral are shown off, creating a truly inspiring and well-rounded look. Martin Margiela, American Apparel, and Saks Fifth Avenue are all covered. Disclaimer: My identity design for Nubbytwiglet.com was included as well but even if it wasn’t, I would still consider this book to be one of the best curated examples of identities out there.


08: The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst


The Elements of Typographic Style is often referred to as the “Typographer’s Bible.” This book is super wordy, detailed and…poetic. Bringhurst’s attention to detail when it comes to typography is unparalleled. He speaks about type in a truly enlightening manner and really makes you notice and appreciate even the smallest details in typography all while absorbing proper etiquette. Especially useful is the inclusion of a glossary of design terms, an explanation of letters in foreign alphabets, and even a listing of type designers and foundries.


Hopefully my list of recommendations will help those of you who are looking for some new design books to add to your collection. In return, I always love hearing about the titles that other designers swear by. What are some of your favorites?


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