Starting an Education in Design: Essential Reading

My father has run the same antique book shop for nearly twenty years and has dedicated much of his life to his love for books. From a very young age, I learned to love books by seeing the care and affinity that my father had for them. While the design community has amazing resources and websites for learning how to start out on your own, I still believe in the need for great books in a design education.

I’ve been practicing and learning design, in one form or another, for nearly eleven years now. It is shocking just to think about that. The first books I read were software product manuals and tutorial-laden introductory books. While I think they were great at the time, most “how to” reading can be done online through Smashing Magazine, Adobe tutorials, or CodeSchool. Especially with the pace of our industry, it is necessary to keep up on the latest tutorials, rather than best practices from a few years ago.

But the difference between copying from a tutorial and being able to come up with new and thoughtful ideas comes from learning design theory. Design theory helps to build off the history of the industry while creating basic guidelines for the future. For every student looking to start a career in design, I have narrowed bare-minimum reading down to ten books. If you pair these books with your own tutorials and side projects, I believe that you’ll have the fundamentals for creating beautiful visual design in print or on the web.

  1. Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton
    This book was given to me by a college professor and it was the first time that I truly understood my passion for a career in graphic design. Ellen Lupton is a fantastic designer and teacher for our industry, and distills hundreds of years of typography down to a beautiful and understandable book. For everyone starting in the fundamentals of design, look no further for an education on typographic design.
  2. Making and Breaking the Grid by Timothy Samara
    This was the first book, not necessarily the best, that I read on grid design. It combines a useful connection of theory and practice throughout and can be perfectly applied to print, web or mobile design. If you have never read a book about grid design, please do, and try to make it this one.
  3. Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field by Helen Armstrong
    The same class that started me on Thinking With Type rounded out the education with this great theory book. The essays by Paul Rand and El Lissitzky are great starting places for designers and should be mandatory reading for anyone starting in the field. Reading this book will not turn you in to a great designer, but it will make an honest one.
  4. Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann
    If you are looking for the final word in grid systems, look no further than Müller-Brockmann’s book. The book itself follows a very strict, very Swiss grid and is published in both German and English side-by-side. It is extremely dry and will be a great testament to how much you want to pursue design as a career. If you can get through the book, then any client project should be a breeze.
  5. Never Sleep: Graduating to Graphic Design by Dress Code
    This is one of those “I wish I read this before going to college” books. While learning in a classroom with a professor can be very enlightening, there is often important parts of a designer’s life that gets skimmed over during a four-unit class. Never Sleep focuses on how to actually be a graphic designer—how to conduct meetings, build your portfolio, learn how to charge clients—rather than just the theory to make great work. Great read for graphic designers and essential reading for freelancers.
  6. Offscreen No. 1–5 by Kai Brach
    Essentially five separate publications (so far), Offscreen has been the driving force of inspiration for me during the last year. It focuses on the people who create the digital products we use every day and how they work day-to-day. It is always a joy to read and gave me the confidence to leave my day job to pursue freelance work and my own personal projects.
  7. The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
    I probably should have put this book higher on the list, but it is such a dense book that it often scares away people who are interested in graphic design. I read it back in 2009, after a recommendation from a friend, and found it had a lasting impact on my work. It really brought a wave of classicism around the style of work that I took on and the products that I produced. While it is not a long read, it’s textbook-like style of writing will teach you quite a bit about a variety of classic design principles.
  8. Typography Sketchbooks by Steven Heller & Lita Talarico
    “Web design is 95% typography” is one of Oliver Reichenstein’s famous quotes about how important it is to show off beautiful and legible content. Typography Sketchbooks is kind of a look behind the curtain of famous typographers and the process behind some of their lettering and typographic work. For newcomers, it is amazing to see the amount of care and work that goes in to typographic design.
  9. Dangerous Curves: Mastering Logotype Design by Doyald Young
    I put this book on the list not only to sing its accolades, but also to (re)introduce everyone to Doyald Young. His work has spanned more than thirty years and includes top names of international companies. Please, do yourself a favor and watch this short video about his work and life. Dangerous Curves is the only book of his that I’ve read, but it introduced me to his work, his methodology, and honestly: the correct way to work on a company’s logo.
  10. Paul Rand: Conversations with Students by Michael Kroeger
    Paul Rand is one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century and his work is seen every day by millions of people around the world. Rand’s portfolio includes the branding for: UPS, ABC, IBM, Steve Jobs’ NeXT computers and many more. Conversations with Students is an incredibly approachable and welcoming book that addresses his philosophy in design and how to dedicate your life to the pursuit of graphic design.

I’d love to know of any recommended books that I have missed in this small list. It is important to remember that this is merely a starting place for new designers—or as a refresher for career designers—and that there are many important texts that span graphic design and other theories that pertain to the field. As always, an earnest dedication to graphic design will always be necessary to stand out in the field and produce amazing work.

If you liked this article, let me know. You can find me on twitter.