Rick Poynor

Critic; Curator; Writer; Lecturer / Graphic Design / United Kingdom / Design Observer

Books Every Graphic Designer Should Read

Books led me to typography and graphic design. Love of reading became love of the medium in which the words are printed, of the type that composes these words, of the substrate that supports them, of the page layouts that give form to narrative and argument, of the covers and bindings that hold these texts and pictures together, of the lettering and imagery that seek to express a book’s essential nature. . . . View the complete text
20 books
F. H. K. Henrion

This weighty compendium, published in 1989, details the founding and early history of the Alliance Graphique Internationale, a professional organization dedicated to supporting and disseminating the highest standards of graphic design. For anyone fascinated by the practice’s international history during the crucial formative years from the 1950s to the 1980s, this book is an indispensable resource. Henrion’s pages are crammed to the bursting point with inside information, documentary photos of meetings and events, and early examples of work by designers less well known today that can be hard to find elsewhere.

Lisa Mahar

A rare example of a book about graphic design—in this case roadside signs and lettering—where the investigation is conducted visually by means of photographs, diagrams, and annotation, as well as in longer texts. In a typical spread about the formal etymology of a motel sign in Amarillo, Texas, each part of the sign is explained in words and pictures. Representing eight years of research, Mahar’s 2002 study is an obvious descendant of Learning from Las Vegas. Its exceptionally detailed and cleverly sustained analysis is more illuminating than a purely text-led discussion would be, making it a paradigm for future visually inventive design studies.

For many graphic designers, a monograph is a chance to create a visual testament that fully represents their body of work while becoming an integral part of it. British designer Jonathan Barnbrook is well known for visually complex designs that express deeply held and sometimes controversial political views, and his “bible” takes this kind of self-authorship to spectacular extremes. The book, published in 2007, is both a masterpiece of design craft—it’s hard to imagine pages more intensively worked— and a challenge to fellow designers to treat design as an art form that demands the close critical reading we bring to art or film.

When it appeared in the mid-1990s, Lupton and Miller’s highly original collection of essays had a tremendous impact on a generation of young designers committed to critical reflection and writing. Informed but never overburdened by critical theory, its topics include deconstruction, modern hieroglyphs, the relationship of “low” and “high” visual culture, and the visual representation of African Americans. The authors designed their own text and the book remains unusual to this day—one has to wonder why—for taking such a highly visual approach to design criticism. (Full disclosure: I wrote the book’s introduction.)

Philip Thompson
Peter Davenport

Seventeen years ago, in Eye magazine, I wrote that this book deserved immediate reissue. It didn’t happen, but I still think the same. As with some other books in this list, I include the dictionary, published in 1980, not because it will be easy to find, but because its originality will more than repay the effort. The book shows graphic design as an endlessly reusable and readaptable system of graphic ideas. So, under P, we find Painting, Palette, Palindrome, Palm Tree, Palmist’s Hand, Paper, Paper Boat, Paper Clip, and so on. Each of these kinds of graphic image is shown as it was used in a real piece of work. A wonderfully stimulating book.

Johanna Drucker
Emily McVarish

I reviewed this book for Design Observer when it appeared in 2008, in a long dialogue with a colleague, and expressed some misgivings. It’s an important intervention in the history of graphic design, however, that places much more emphasis on the social factors and forces that shape the practice, and on the conditions of production, than had been seen in earlier histories. Aimed primarily at student readers—it’s well illustrated, but has a textbook feel—this critical guide is also an essential read for anyone who seeks a more rounded understanding of how graphic design has operated in post-industrial societies.

Mildred S. Friedman

Produced to accompany a now legendary exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 1989 (which later traveled to London), this book stands up as a lasting contribution to the study of American graphic design. It features a series of searching critical essays by Neil Harris, Maud Lavin, Lorraine Wild, Joseph Giovannini, and others, interspersed with interviews with designers—including Saul Bass, Muriel Cooper, Paul Rand, and Bradbury Thompson—conducted by Steven Heller. Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller’s time line of American graphic design was later reprinted in their book Design Writing Research. I have returned to this valuable work of reference many times in the past 20 years.

Jon Wozencroft
Neville Brody

In 1988, when this arrestingly titled book came out, Brody was a phenomenon: admired, envied and resented for his precocious success—a retrospective at one of the world’s major museums and a career monograph for a designer barely into his 30s. Twenty-three years later, the book is still in print and Brody, after a long period of working quietly, is once again in the public eye. The book remains a unique graphic document of its moment in the postmodern 1980s when design and style were inseparably linked and a new kind of graphic design star was emerging. There is rich material here—both images and text—for critical reevaluation.

Robert Massin

Massin’s anthology of letterforms as images, illustrated with more than 1,000 historical examples, is a phenomenal feat of visual research. First published in 1970, this cornucopia of peculiar characters has few peers to this day. I can testify to the book’s continuing usefulness for anyone conducting research in this field. Working on a recent exhibition, I was able to track down an original copy of some pictorial lettering from the 1950s entirely thanks to its inclusion in the book. Massin’s use of picture numbers in the margin next to references in the text makes it easy to find your way around this lavish compendium.

Philip B. Meggs
Alston Purvis

I could hardly leave this title out. It was the first graphic design book I owned, a groundbreaking attempt at synthesis in its time, and an exciting window opening on to what was, for me, a previously unknown realm of visual history. I still have a fondness for that first 1983 edition, but readers interested in the evolution of the late Philip Meggs’s perspectives on graphic design history should seek out the third edition (1998). Since that volume appeared, design historian Alston Purvis has updated the book again. It’s probably best consulted now in combination with other revisionist histories (see Drucker and McVarish, Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide).

It’s hard to decide which title to pick from graphic design’s most prolific author. There are several I consider indispensable and this history of avant-garde magazines from 2003 is one of them, a subject close to my heart, and a volume I return to regularly. The book is superbly illustrated and so well put together that it’s easy to take the smooth flow of perfectly sized pictures and the immaculate balance of text and image for granted, without pausing to consider the mastery of page design (by Hans Dieter Reichert) they represent. Heller has a huge amount of ground to cover and he leads the reader through with equally fluent prose.

Glaser was the first graphic designer I knew by name, while still in high school—I saw his signature on a book cover and it stuck because I liked his art. He is one of the most important and inspirational designer/image-makers of the past 50 years. Art is Work (2000) is highly recommended, but I opt here for his first monograph from 1973 because of the immense chutzpah, visual energy, and style with which it captured its era. Look at what’s possible when a designer can draw. Milton Glaser: Graphic Design is a book that anyone working in the field ought to know.

Robin Kinross

Kinross is perhaps the most acute and interesting writer on typography working in English and this survey of typographic history, from 1700 to the present, is a classic account. Modern Typography’s European manner of design fully embodies the text’s principles: well made, light in weight, a pleasure to carry and hold, and eminently readable. Kinross handles the visual examples with exemplary restraint and provides fine discursive captions. First published in 1992 by Kinross’s Hyphen Press, the book was revised in 2004; the second edition is the obvious one to go for, but devotees of this publisher’s meticulously crafted output will want both.

Hugues Boekraad

The designer monograph is too often an unambitious genre that doesn’t set out to do any more than enshrine and celebrate its subject. This book about the French designer Pierre Bernard, co-founder of Grapus, shows what can happen when the writer has a clearly developed critical point of view. Hugues Boekraad, its Dutch author, is one of the most insightful critics of graphic design in the field today—his writing deserves to be better known outside the Netherlands. Unusually for a designer monograph, the pages are designed to be read with ease.

Harold Evans

This is a book I never tire of championing. Any graphic designer worth the name should aim to be an expert in photography: commissioning it, understanding it, editing it, and using it. Pictures on a Page, written by a newsman of brilliance, a former editor of the Sunday Times in London, is the best study of picture editing I have ever seen, and a book I often revisit. Evans analyzes a wealth of compelling news pictures and their presentation on the page, providing a masterly lesson in visual history as he guides and informs.

Herbert Spencer

Another title that can justly be termed a classic. A critical influence on at least two generations of graphic designers, Pioneers was one of the first surveys to introduce the work of modernist typographers—Lissitzky, Van Doesburg, Schwitters, Werkman, Zwart, Schuitema, Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, Bayer, Tschichold—to a wider audience, and it’s certainly the best known. Spencer’s first edition (1969) is still collected as a beautiful object in its own right. A reformatted edition appeared in 1982 and this was reissued in 2004 (I contributed a foreword). Spencer’s introductory survey was long ago superseded as a history, but it remains a key text in the historiography of graphic design.

Richard Hollis

Designer turned historian Richard Hollis is the author of a very useful concise history of graphic design. I might have included that here, but instead I want to recommend his history of Swiss graphic design (2006). It’s an important study illustrated with many significant works that also exemplifies Hollis’s approach to design. The main text is in bold, often in a central column, with reference pictures and extended captions running in parallel along either side. The pages are dense with information, but retain a sense of precision and clarity. It’s a book that could probably only have been conceived by an author who is also the designer.

Peter Hall Editor

This monograph is another highly personal choice. Kalman was the most inspirational graphic designer I have met, a dynamo who made the entire activity seem more exciting, risky, and relevant. Perverse Optimist, published in 1998, performs a subtle kind of ventriloquism. Kalman handed over responsibility for both the editing and design—he was by that time ill—yet his voice, attitude, humor, and spirit resonate through the project, which opens with a characteristic, Colors-like visual essay. The book assembles a crowd of witnesses to speak about the man and his work (here again, I must own up to being one of them) while displaying his visual thinking in the strongest light.

Michael Worthington

Some of the most engaging graphic design publications are exhibition catalogues with a small print run and limited availability. Two Lines Align, published in 2008 alongside a show of work by Ed Fella and Geoff McFetridge—curated by Michael Worthington for REDCAT in Los Angeles—is a particularly satisfying example. The 240-page hardback has several excellent texts, fine production values (with an appealingly tactile mixture of papers), and a nicely judged sense of visual “conversation” between the two designers’ highly idiosyncratic bodies of work.

Leonie ten Duis
Annelies Haase

This book had a limited distribution and was never reprinted, but I imagine that anyone lucky enough to own a copy recognizes it as a project of exceptional worth. It tells the story of Dutch graphic design, showing how idealistic designers were motivated, from the time of modernism, by a commitment to visual communication as an agent of change. This history is prefaced by a philosophical analysis of idealism, and the main text ends by showing how the tradition of idealism appeared—in 1999—to be coming to a close. Clad in a rough cardboard cover, the book projects the engaging visual values of a remarkably open graphic culture.

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