Every once in a while I’m asked what books I’d recommend. Here’s a list of the books and resources that have influenced and enlightened me. (last updated: 12/21/2012)
When I got started in “design”, I was a computer engineering student with no intuitive grasp of style or layout. My aesthetics are driven primarily by information hierarchy: introducing concepts in an order that is logical, ideas building from preceding ideas, as the reader follows the text. That’s the very nature of writing: introducing concepts one at a time, and letting them build a picture in the reader’s mind. You have a lot of control. Building a picture in someone’s mind is different on a two-dimensional (2D) page, but you still have a lot of control if you are aware of how visual hierarchy works. The fundamental rule is simple: The human eye will automatically jump to the most attention-grabbing element and then explore from there. Therefore, to control the eye, you must understand how to control attention. This means learning not only what attracts attention in order of contrast, but also learning to understand how people think. If you can do that, you can regain the control you had as a writer and introduce concepts—even multiple concepts—simultaneously and in any order you want.
- If you have no sense of what goes into a basic page layout, Robin William’s The Non Designer’s Design Book is a good starting point. I also like John McWade’s excellent Before and After Page Design. Both books are clear, to the point, and practical. If you read through these books, you will pick up a sense of the concepts that go behind a piece of print design. While the layouts may appear a bit boring to the design aficionado, they clearly demonstrate the foundational concepts that you will need. In particular, McWade publishes Before and After Magazine, which is an excellent magazine filled with “how do I make…” articles. You can buy a DVD with all the back issues for around $150. It goes back all the way to the dawn of desktop publishing; McWade was the guy that Apple hired when they discovered he was using their computer to do professional print design. This DVD is probably worth more than many 4-year graphic design degree programs.
Building on your understanding of page layout concepts, Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think will give you real-life examples of how people scan pages and process information to make decisions. It’s a book on web usability, but the concepts and explanations are pure gold. I find it much more accessible than Jakob Nielsen’s work, and a lot more fun.
Beyond the static page, I still refer to Herbert Zettl’s textbook Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics. This is a film textbook that builds from the very fundamentals of our senses and the emotional impact they have. I first came across as an undergrad engineering student. This book taught me how to understand the cognitive aspects of composition with regards to storytelling. Film is a frame of content filtered through time to tell a story, and this is exactly what you must do as a graphic designer. I found this book so remarkable that I considered “borrowing it permanently” from the WPI library, the first time I’d ever entertained such a thought.
So how do you put it all together? Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a powerful and literate thesis on the topic of “sequential art” aka comics. Don’t be fooled by its comic book-style presentation: it’s a deeply insightful look into symbols, semiotics, and storytelling. His third book in the series, Making Comics, is also good, going into a practical “how to” of using visual concepts to express a story. The second book, Reinventing Comics, is more of a treatise on the potential of New Media and the Internet as it was understood by the author in the 1990s.
I’ve always had trouble with typography books, as the useful tips and concepts tend to be buried in acres of historical commentary. The basic layout books mentioned above provide some basics, but the missing primer was Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students. It is the accessible typography book I’ve always wanted, presenting the high-level aesthetic concepts followed by copious examples. Previously, I’d tried to work my way through Jan Tscichold’s The New Typography (translated) and Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, but I found them less appealing because I lacked the patience to appreciate them. With that itch scratched by Lupton’s book, I might take another crack at them.
In summary, it’s useful to understand how the human eye is drawn to elements on the page, in the order of visual dominance. If you can understand how one might scan the landscape for saber-toothed tigers, you are on the right track. There is a children’s book I had that demonstrated this with great effect; sadly, I loaned it to someone and never got it back. NEVER LOAN YOUR ONLY COPY!
Finding your Design Footing
Looking for Style
If you are looking for visual style to call your own, one way to start is to look at other designers. A lot of them. Go to the Design section of your local bookstore and skim through the various “best of” design books. A lot of designers I know do this for inspiration. Online, there are places like Dribbble, Vimeo’s motion graphics group, and the Behance Network where designers post their works for show-and-tell. It is also instructive to browse “spec sites” like 99Designs where people compete for design projects in a contest format. You’ll see a LOT of average-quality work on sites like this. Seeing the range of quality will give you a sense of where you fit, and you may even be able to discern what the differentiating factors are between bad work and good work. Other than cribbing other people’s work, you could also make graphics that reference like the things you already like. This is like studying other designers indirectly. You probably have your own collection of favorite pop cultural references, passions, or hobbies. Immerse yourself in the iconography and graphic feel of the times, and start making them your own. Make note of photographic styles, popular typefaces, fashion, cars, appliances, leisure, foods. These can be useful in showing you the direction to your style. But really…your style will probably come from things you naturally enjoy, not through aping what others have done. Over time, as you develop your preferences and skills, some kind of discernible pattern will emerge. Whether it is a “good” one or not will depend on how hard you push yourself toward a given set of design principles. Are you a specialist in a certain kind of look or demographic? Are you a generalist that handles corporate communication? And so on. If you’re not sure what you naturally enjoy, look for the things that naturally make you smile. This might be found in your hobbies and interests, the things that truly compel you. It might not even be visual. Those problems and ideas that keep coming back to you. Try expressing those. It may take a few years of experimentation. I’m going on 25 years, myself, and still haven’t quite figured it out. The fun is in trying, and sharing what you’ve learned.
Looking for Meaning
For myself, I like finding the meaning in communication. I’m not much of a stylist, so I focus on how to clarify what I’m trying to say through visual means. My favorite sources for this are the book A Smile in the Mind and issues of Marty Neumeier’s CRITIQUE: The Magazine of Design Thinking (sadly no longer published). You’ll also find amazing presentations on the TED website; search for design keywords. There are several principled graphic designers that I enjoy reading about:
- Milton Glaser, though his work may seem kind of subdued by today’s standards, goes quite deeply into his work. Adobe has an interesting video on his studio and process.
Craig Frazier, whose process is fascinating. His work is deceptively simple in appearance. I saw him speak once at a Boston AIGA meeting and I was really impressed.
Aaron Draplin is an American graphic designer who I’ve been watching because he has a love for American industrial graphics, more blue collar in his sensibilities than foofy. I think that’s cool.
Check out your local chapter of the AIGA to see who they have speaking. They often have interesting designers talking about the way they approach their work.
Graphic design is about communicating ideas. For complex ideas, you need a conceptual structure to hold it all together while you’re making your pretty graphics.
- For data visualization, Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is fun to flip through. While it won’t necessarily teach you anything about information graphic design on purpose, you will gain an appreciation of the art. I consider Tufte’s books as well-curated collections of information graphic design accompanied by an expert guide; you’re unlikely to learn how to be a master designer by experiencing the collection, but you may be inspired.
John McWade wrote this succinct description on the role of story in Design. He makes the distinction between style and meaning very clearly.
Mike Rohde, known for his sketchnotes that distill ideas with words, wrote The Sketchnote Handbook to document the process of capturing information as you are listening. Rather than listening dumbly, Rohde describes the process of listening for key concepts and structuring them using both verbal and visual thinking. Although it is about capture, the concepts are broadly applicable to any application where thought, words, and visuals come together.
The Experience of Being a Designer
Other than style, craftsmanship and the ability to deliver work to specification are the professional sides of design. I’m not a full-time professional service-oriented designer, so I don’t have much personal advice that I would be comfortable giving. The best resource I’ve come across is Design is a Job, by designer Mike Monteiro. It is a brisk and straightforward description of what goes into design for a client other than your own brilliance. Professional resources like the AIGA and Graphic Artists Guild offer some assistance in understanding the business side of design. The GAG handbook, for example, is pretty well-known for breaking down pricing and other anxiety-causing questions. They just aren’t very fun to read, as they seem to be written for an audience that desires “fitting-in” as the recipe for success; I find the tone of the experience not as exciting. Steven Heller has a book that I bought long ago called Education of a Design Entrepreneur, a collection of essays on the subject. At the time, it gave me a sense of what design was all about before the Internet existed. Heller has several books in this vein published quite recently. Another interesting source for stories is The Art of Advertising Writing, a collection of interviews with giants of the advertising industry back in the 50s and 60s. If you liked Mad Men, then you might enjoy this. It has a clarity of conviction that is interesting to contemplate with respect to your own ambition.
The Creative Process
So how does one become creative? There are several books that I like for kick-starting the creative process.
Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit is an amazing book about the creative process, told in a forthright and direct manner. Tharp is a successful American choreographer who got her start in the 1960s with a high profile in the Arts. Her process involves a lot of the same things that any aspiring graphic designer needs to deal with: motivating one’s self, building good habits, and so on. The book also does a good job of emphasizing the nature of the hard work that goes into process; this may help you weather the down times when nothing seems to be happening. When I first read the book, some of what she talked about was beyond my comprehension because I wasn’t experienced enough to really get it. Rereading it a few months ago, I connected with the issues more strongly. She has another book called The Collaborative Habit that is a collection of stories about working with other people. There are a few good lessons in there, but it’s not a book of sure-fire ways to ensure collaborative success. I still liked it.
Fashion designer Paul Smith wrote You Can Find Inspiration in Everything*: (*and if you can’t, look again). My sister gave me this book, bless her. Anyway, Paul Smith was a cyclist as a youth who, upon wrecking his body in an accident, started working at a clothing warehouse. He developed a fascination for quality traditional British clothing, and started designing his own variants around it. This eventually led to his first store, and over time international success. The book paints a fascinating (and I think quite complete) picture of a designer who followed his interests and let them permeate his approach to life. The book itself, filled with stories and a glimpse of Smith’s world view, is sadly out of print.
Understanding your Audience
Before I was a computer engineering student, I was planning on becoming an English major. One lesson I’ve taken from that is the basic rule for writing a good essay: assume your audience is intelligent but ignorant of your topic. The trick then is to learn how to plug into your own associations, memories, and influences into your design work. Perhaps it’s an experience you share…that’s is a good starting point. It’s also good to expand your horizons into psychology. What shared experiences and emotions can you bring? These are connection points you can build upon to create a connection. The point of this? If you know what your audience’s meaningful experiences are/have been, you know what your lead is. On the page, that is the first thing they see. If it’s visual, it’s going to be the most contrasting object on the page that stands apart. The very next thing your viewer will see is whatever is next to it and obviously related. Make that work, and you have the hook. With your understanding of symbols and semiotics, you’ll know how to choose the right graphic elements (presuming you have done your research, or are part of the target audience yourself). It starts with understanding, though. If you find the prospect daunting, the following books might be a good start.
- Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness is about the cognitive processes behind our desires, which helps us understand our own pursuit of happiness. Largely, Gilbert suggest, this idea of happiness is an illusion that is prone to failure. As design is often about conveying what makes us happy or not, this is good stuff to know. Consider also that Advertising is, on one level, about influencing how people think about their happiness. Understanding how people believe they are happy gives you a powerful tool for understanding why people make decisions, so you can present the information you need to make them.
I would also look at Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, which is a useful distillation of, well, how people try to dominate other people. People have to deal with situations like this all the time. If you’re designing something that is intended to be used in this environment, then this can be useful stuff to know.
It wouldn’t hurt to look at a book on body language and sex; there’s one I have called SuperFlirt by Tracy Cox (Brit layout with lots of pictures, so it’s highly visual). Robert Greene has a couple of books on the subject as well, though I haven’t read them.
If you want to understand the mindset of the master performer, take a good look through Henning Nelm’s Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers. As a designer, you are a performer by proxy, a kind of static showman. The art of misdirection and expectation management are important aspects of presentation to understand, especially in new media. It’s important to direct (or misdirect) on purpose, not by accident.
Fortune telling systems, whether you believe in them or not, represent hundreds of years of systematic thinking about human desire, fear, and control. If you can find a good reference on interpretation on card reading or astrology that uses a depthful understanding of human psychology as a basis (I’ve found exactly one such reference), that can give you some interesting ideas about human nature. On the more sociological side of things, personality tests based on the Myers Brigg Type Indicator (designed originally as a way of creating characters for novel writing, interestingly enough) also provide interesting maps of desire and behavior. For the real deal, I suppose you could look into Psychology itself, but the advantage of looking at fortune telling and personality tests is that they have the storytelling “baked in”; psychology books tend to be more clinical.
Between Happiness, Power, Sex, and Showmanship, you have an interesting cross section of topics to understand how human primal needs are expressed and directed. Combine that with your own experiences of daily life, and you have the basis of understanding to reach a mainstream audience. Figuring out how to translate the idea into powerful graphic statements…well, that’s the trick isn’t it :-)
Other Relevant Fields of Study
Cognitive Science is a multi-disciplinary field that centers around the study of the mind and behavior. It’s one of those fields that if I had known about it when I was applying to college, I would have totally jumped on it. The most immediate application I can think of is the use of eye-tracking tools to understand what the eye is looking at in real time, and an understanding of how our visual system (eyeballs, brain) actually works. If you have a science-oriented mind and can correlate your understanding of how people really see with what they feel, you might find CogSci very interesting as a designer.
Film and Animation. Particularly the principles of animation hammered out by Disney’s Nine Old Men. It would behoove you to look also at the motion graphics industry, which produces some amazing graphic design in motion.
Music Composition. I’m really just getting into this, and haven’t yet formed an understanding of how to relate this to graphic design, other than composition IS a form of design.
Storytelling. There is a book by Robert McKee called Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. It is pretty astonishing. I have not yet fully absorbed it, but it definitely makes my list of canonical design references.
Video Game Development. Particularly the history of the early games, which were nothing more than moving blocks of light that looked like blocks. That these crude graphics could convey any meaning at all is fairly amazing by today’s standards. The old masters of the genre understood motion, timing, expectation management, and use of context to set the stage for a great experience. This predates formal UX by decades. Today, there is a lot of accessible material in game development communities like IGDA and the sessions from Game Developers Conference, as well as a lot of more scholarly material.