Jonathan Barnbrook

Graphic Designer / United Kingdom / Barnbrook

Jonathan Barnbrook’s Book List

None of these are design books. I don’t read directly about design, but instead look to the philosophies and experiences found in literature to influence my work. To be a good designer, you need to understand human beings, and for me the novel is still the best way to understand how people experience, affect, and are influenced by the world around them.

10 books
J. G. Ballard

This novel made my head explode. It contains the exact text of what would happen to me if I ever became mentally ill. It also has on every page enough concepts and amazing visual ideas for me to explore over several lifetimes. The themes contained within it distill all the important motivations, irritations, memes, and distractions of the late 20th century. The storyline about reconstructing the assassination of JFK to stop the outbreak of a third nuclear war is fantastically creative. The style of writing, which jumps from cold, analytical medical text to short-attention-span advertising-style copy, makes it a breeze to read. It’s full of madness but contains a logic that makes it a complete and self-contained work of art.


A beautiful piece of writing and an amazing exploration of the human spirit. This sacred Hindu text made me understand that we have to risk everything if we are to learn and evolve spiritually. It’s absolutely wonderfully constructed, using the very simple metaphor of a battle to understand human psychology. It also shows a maturity that is the opposite of the divisive nature of some religions: it acknowledges that any path to God—any way of belief or any creed—is acceptable.

Milan Kundera

I love all of Kundera’s books but this is the one I think is the most beautiful and sensual and relevant. His analysis of the use of memories and the discarding of them provided me with many concepts for my political work. Kundera is from a communist country so the way he lived with a regime he was forced to live under when he was younger is central to the construction of this book. It was the start of my trying to look at politics in a way that was poetic, emotional, and human rather than dogmatic.

Iain Sinclair

By one of the main exponents of the awkwardly termed “psychogeography”—that is, how a landscape, town, or place can affect you emotionally. Sinclair is a dense writer who does extensive research on the locations he writes about. The texts are part autobiographical, part stream of consciousness, part social critique, part poetry, part factual observation. The author is a resident and lover of London, (similar to me in this respect). This particular book deals with a walk with his friends around a motorway  that encircles London—which doesn’t sound like a good starting point for a book, but it’s a wonderful, beautiful read. You learn history, the mundaneness of places with no identity, the possible future for us all, the alienation of the individual, and the emotional beauty of even the smallest details of your journey.

William Shakespeare

Yes, I know you have heard of him and this play to the point of cliché, but Shakespeare is like the Beatles: you think that they can’t possibly be any good because of the kind of person who usually says, “I like The Beatles,” and then you listen—or in this case, read—and you think, “Hey, actually they are really very good.” After years of struggling with Shakespeare, I have just started reading him properly and was helped with a version that had clear English translations next to each piece of text. If you take your time and read both, then the magic, complexity of thought, amazing understanding of human nature, romance, humor, and beautiful use of language will be revealed. I believe that if you don’t know about some of the scenarios or characters in his works then you are missing out on a whole part of English culture that references him. Macbeth is a good place to start reading Shakespeare as it is fairly short and also has a lot of dark motives—always good for holding your attention.

George Orwell

Orwell is one of the most influential 20th-century writers in Britain and my teenage years were consumed with voraciously reading everything by him. His more documentary-style books, like Down and Out in Paris and London or The Road to Wigan Pier, have a clear unfussy style, yet he still manages to tell a story brilliantly. Orwell’s 1984 has been so influential on my work, from the way he analyzes dictatorships to terms like “Newspeak” and “Doublethink,” which crystalize how our thoughts are shaped (or repressed) by the society we live in. I am constantly going back to him for ideas to include in my work.

Andy Warhol

I can’t find my copy of this book and it’s not even in print any more, but I still remember it for a philosophy that had a point of view completely contrary to everything else I was reading at the time. There is a chapter that starts with a long list of possible “heavy” problems and then gives the answer, “So what?” Completely refreshing and also made me feel free to do what I wanted in my work without having to justify every single mark (that bit didn’t last long though).


Nothing is new and Plato proves it by showing that the basis of democracy that we try to live today is something that he understood the principles of 2,500 years ago. If you are looking to get a hook into ancient civilization and the similarity of principles between us now and humans in “ancient history,” you will find it in this book. It’s written in the style of a dialogue between two people, which makes the book much easier to get into than you might think. (Then move on to read Marcus Aurelius and Seneca as well.)

Hermann Hesse

This is the “bible” of my youth and it put me on the path to being a designer who couldn’t separate “the self” from the message in the work. It’s about a man who feels conflict between the instinctive and the intellectual sides of himself. He wants to rise above being merely “human” to lead a purely intellectual life, but also yearns to be very much part of society and live in the moment. It’s beautifully and profoundly written. When I first started to read it I couldn’t breathe for the first few pages—it was like someone had experienced my life and emotions already. Importantly, the book is first and foremost optimistic. From it I understood that we do have to live in the moment: laugh, love, live as much as we can, as well as appreciate, grow, and try to comprehend the big themes that every person faces in life.

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett puts in words the noise of my existence, the internal monologue that is on repeat inside my soul and that questions why I am here, what I am doing,  and whether there is any point to doing it. If it sounds heavy, you would be both right and wrong. It’s full of big questions (as one of the greatest pieces of 20th-century literature should be), but balancing the heavy is simple slapstick silliness and observations on the pettiness of humans. This manages to make the idea of existence—knowing you are alive—even more absurd. See it performed at the theater first, if you can, to understand the meaning of silence. The silences are as important as the words in this play—oceans that last a few seconds but contain centuries of human existence: life, death, and everything.


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