Alissa Walker

Writer / United States /

Alissa Walker’s Notable Books of 2011

2011 was notable for me as it was the year I began reading digitally, specifically, on my iPhone. After much hesitation, I eschewed the hardback book on my nightstand as I launched iBook, downloaded the Kindle app, and popped open PDFs of ebooks. The experiment was astounding. Where once reading was confined to a tiny corner of my bed, I was now dipping into stories while waiting in line at the grocery store, riding the bus, even as I walked around the block. Most importantly: Where I once had read a single book a month, I was now reading three or four or five.

If I could recommend anything when it comes to reading, I’d recommend going digital. And as I sat down to select these books, I realized that recommending my must-read design books this year should also include my recommendations on how to read them.

The first, Steve Jobs, would be scandalous to read on anything but an iPad or iPhone.

The second is a gossip-soaked art-world page-turner that you won't want to put down. So read Rebels in Paradise fast on a Kindle or Kindle app.

Designing for Emotion has a revolutionary publishing strategy that will change the way design books are distributed. The paperback can be gobbled in a few hours, but the accompanying PDF can sit on your desktop for reference.

Of course, some tomes still require a cinematic monitor, if you will. Star Wars: The Blueprints begs for a custom table—maybe even a custom room—to make the most of its expansive, visionary pages.

Maps by Paula Scher is a world onto itself which demands a place next to your couch, a good warm light, repeat viewings, a tour for guests.

And finally, one book that's 50 years old, re-released this year with a new introduction. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I would say, should be read as it is practiced. Analog, hardback, in a park, with the hum of the city around you.

I've chosen six books that are personal, about people and their ideas. Technology has enabled us to take these ideas with us out in the world in a new way. But no matter how we choose to consume a book, it's still all about the story.

6 books
Jane Jacobs

The timing could not be more perfect for the reissue of what might be the best book about changing the way we live with one another. I know, you've read it. So have I. But let me make the case for reading it again. Something happened this year, a shift in our thinking about cities. As Americans seem to rediscover their sidewalks, and bike lanes begin to lace through our metropolises, it feels like we’re finally ready to listen to what Jacobs has to say. Jason Epstein was Jacobs’s editor at Random House and in his introduction, he provides the background for the book’s debut (including a funny response by Robert Moses, who returned the book to the publisher). I dare you to find another 50-year-old book that is as unequivocally relevant today.

Aarron Walter

Most tech books are so impersonal they might as well be written in code. A Book Apart, a new publishing company founded by the triumvirate of Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, and Mandy Brown, has produced a series of slim, delightful guides on designing for interactivity that will make you want to learn CSS, just so you'd have to read them. In this book, Walter constructs a compelling case for creating a website that will make your audience fall in love. With tips on adding elements of surprise, tools for manufacturing delight, and instructions how to make a human connection (yes, on the Internet!), presented in rich, full color, Walter’s advice is essential for anyone who makes websites. But since your website is the first and sometimes only way that people interact with your brand, I’d say it should be read by anyone who has an online presence, period.

Since the 1990s, in what I imagine to be her 15 minutes per day of free time, Pentagram partner Paula Scher has been painting massive maps of her own imagination. The colorful tapestries with type rendered in all-caps look like imaginative wayfinding but they function more like infographics, their visual hierarchies layered with not only place names but details like trade routes, zip codes, transit lines. The book takes a cue from Google Maps, giving one image of the full-sized painting and one that zooms in to a detail, where you can almost see Scher’s hand meticulously cramming in the name of every city in Uruguay, eventually spilling out into the Atlantic Ocean in waves. As the book progresses, Scher gets more topical (and more political) painting not only places but events like the 2000 Florida election results, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, or mapping out the history of the term “weapons of mass destruction.” As art, it’s gorgeous; as a process, it’s a lesson in obsession; and as a narrative, it’s storytelling at its best.

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

Finish Fetish, Assemblage, Feminist Art, Light and Space: all these movements originated in a nascent Los Angeles art world, as a tiny band of artists began to twist the rules on materials, form, and (perhaps most importantly) self-promotion. But this book is also about how these Southern California artists figured into the larger world of pop culture: how they intertwined with the Sunset Strip music scene, affected young Hollywood filmmakers like Dennis Hopper, and figured into the Civil Rights movement. We watch as Ed Ruscha creates a new visual narrative by playing with words in his paintings, see how a young Frank Gehry built cheap houses with unfinished edges inspired by the art of his friends Ed Moses and Larry Bell, and look on in horror as John Baldessari burns his paintings in favor of a more conceptual approach. It’s messy, scandalous, and racy, but so was L.A. in the ‘60s. And visual culture was never the same.

J. W. Rinzler

Okay, maybe George Lucas has screwed up a few times (Han shooting first, computer-generated Yoda, Jar Jar), but all is forgiven here in this double-whammy treasure trove of design and sci-fi nerdery: hundreds of original blueprints from Star Wars sets, unearthed from the Lucasfilm archives. From the dim booths of the Mos Eisley Cantina, to the sterile Imperial corridors of the Death Star, to the swinging wooden bridges of the Ewok Village, the true artistry of the film is revealed here in architect-accurate renderings—most of which were indeed built, which is even more impressive, considering that half of them were created in the age of computer-generated imagery. Yes, it's a $500 book, but with only 5,000 produced, it’s a must for the true fan. The depth and detail of Lucas’s vision was never more apparent: He really did design an entire universe.

Walter Isaacson

What hasn’t already been said about Steve Jobs? As it turns out, quite a lot. By now most of the spoilers in Walter Isaacson’s sprawling biography have found their way onto the blogs—Steve did acid! Steve threw tantrums!—but there’s still much to be gleaned from this truly captivating tale. Although Steve Jobs may be maddening to some who will wish Isaacson's voice aimed higher on the design-savvy spectrum, the book is at its best when the sometimes unbelievable story speaks for itself. It’s impossible not to be entranced as we witness the birth of the Mac’s graphical user interface or watch Jobs rehearse endlessly for his iconic presentations. There’s plenty to mine when it comes to innovation and branding and product development, yes. But it’s more than that. Jobs spent a lifetime building technology for artists. And designers, as those who have benefited from this process the most, should know the fascinating story behind their tools.

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