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 graphic design potential through reading a book
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!
A Classic 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.
Great Design Books About Typography
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.
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
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.
Archaic Modernism by Christophe Szpajdel
Archaic Modernism is a continuation of Christophe Szpajdel’s Lord of the Logos, a fantastically unique niche book of logos for the black metal community. With this new book and his attractive as well as functional logos, Szpajdel has expanded his clientele past the metal scene. He takes inspiration from a wide and creative variety of sources, including Art Deco and Art Nouveau.
Showing the interactions with clients and how the artist integrates his research and inspiration in his work, Archaic Modernism depicts Szpajdel’s artistic journey. He didn’t go on this journey alone and collaborated with other artists such as illustrator Stan Dark Art. If you’re looking for a book that takes you inside the artist’s vision and philosophy, pick up Archaic Modernism.
In short: If you want to have a unique graphic design book on your bookshelf that takes you on a journey into the artist’s universe, Christophe Szpajdel’s follow-up of Lord of the Logos Archaic Modernism is worth checking out.
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.
How reading will supercharge your professional design 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.
Detailed design: 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 design 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 graphic design reading 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 graphic design book 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 design notes from your book 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.
Read a book faster: 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 2021? Start reading today. For more design tips, read our ‘Creative Ideas to Increase Sales‘ e-book.
Niamh is a veteran writer and content strategist. Originally a translator, she decided she needed fewer dictionaries and more SEO, so moved to Barcelona to break into content and marketing. Now freelance, when she's not working she likes to bake cakes, run, and do obstacle course races (the first one providing energy for the other two).