Maria Popova

Writer / United States / Brain Pickings

Maria Popova’s Notable Books of 2012

8 books
Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann is one of today's most masterful visual communicators, his illustrations at once endlessly refreshing and profoundly familiar in their ability to capture the universality of the human condition. Abstract City gathers 16 of his New York Times visual essays, infused with his signature blend of humor and thoughtfulness, exploring everything from his love-hate relationship with coffee to his obsession with maps to the fall of the Berlin Wall. An additional chapter on his creative process presents the ultimate cherry on top.

For more than three decades, graphic designer Louise Fili has been producing some of the most consistently exquisite typography, frequently hand-drawn and building upon thoughtfully curated vintage sources. In her decade as art director for Pantheon Books, she created nearly two thousand book jackets, each with remarkable attention to detail. Since 1989, she has expanded and extended her singular lens to restaurant menus and food packaging through her namesake design studio. The new monograph Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili offers, for the first time, a sweeping look at Fili’s work and the philosophy behind it. But Fili’s greatest gift is perhaps the extraordinary ability to seek out vintage gems —and to do so with great taste —which she then reimagines and combines into entirely new designs that aren’t mere homage to the past but, rather, an entirely original visual language with an entirely original point of view.

Janik Coat

In her children's book debut, French graphic designer Janik Coat teaches the progeny of the design-inclined about opposites and basic spatial, dimensional, and aesthetic vocabulary through a minimalist red hippo-hero, who remains charmingly catatonic throughout the book. With unexpected parallels and contrasts and a simple semiotic sensibility, Coat explores fundamental concepts in simple yet whimsical ways.

Ramsingh Urveti

For the past 17 years, Indian publishing house Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. This die-cut masterpiece two years in the making is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti.

Each line of the “trick verse” builds upon the previous one, flowing into a kind of rhythmic redundancy embodied in the physical structure of the book as each repeating line is printed only once, but appears on two pages by peeking through exquisitely die-cut holes that play on the stark black-and-white illustrations. Thus, if read page by page the way one would read a traditional book, the poem sounds spellbindingly surreal—but if read through the die-cuts, a beautiful and crisp story comes together. Achieving this required a remarkable level of ingenuity in order to make the conceptual structure of the poem fit the physicality of the book as a storytelling artifact—a true feat by Japanese-Brazilian RISD designer Jonathan Yamakami.

Sandra Rendgen Editor
Julius Wiedemann Editor

Information design books abound, but count on Taschen to take a common publishing trope and elevate it both in concept and in execution. Weighing in at 8 pounds, this lavish, ultra-large-format, 480-page tome by art historian Sandra Rendgen explores the four key aspects of visualizing data—Location, Time, Category, and Hierarchy—through exemplary work from more than 200 projects, alongside essays by information architect and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers, Density Design’s Paolo Ciuccarelli, and Rendgen herself.

Ron Van der Vlugt

It takes a special kind of creative alchemy to transmute image into icon and catalyze a cultural cult driven by a commanding brand identity. Logo Life: Life Histories of 100 Famous Logos from Dutch publisher BIS and creative director Ron van der Vlugt offers exactly what it says on the tin, covering brands as diverse yet uniformly enduring as Apple, LEGO, Adidas, Google, Xerox, and VISA. Each short chapter traces the visual evolution the respective brand logo, zooms in on noteworthy milestones in the company’s trajectory, and highlights first-hand accounts and curious anecdotes by the logo designers.


Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne bring us this thoughtfully curated inventory of abstract concepts that shaped the course of graphic design, each illustrated with exemplary images and historical context. Unlike in other design books, the ideas in this succinct tome aren't organized by chronology. From concepts like manifestos (#25), pictograms (#45), propaganda (#22), found typography (#38), and the Dieter-Rams-coined philosophy that “less is more” (#73) to iconic creators like Saul Bass, Alex Steinweiss, Paula Scher, and Stefan Sagmeister, the sum of these carefully constructed parts amounts to an astute lens not only on what design is and does, but also on what it should be and do.

The book comes from UK-based publisher Laurence King, who brought us last year's epic Saul Bass monograph.

Editors of Phaidon Press

Every once in a while, along comes a book-as-artifact that becomes an instant, inextricable necessity in the life of any graphic design aficionado. This season, it’s The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design—an impressive, exhaustive, rigorously researched, and beautifully produced compendium of 500 seminal designs spanning newspapers, magazines, posters, advertisements, typefaces, logos, corporate design, record covers, and moving graphics, examined through 3,000 color and 300 black-and-white illustrations in their proper historical and sociocultural context. Though the concept is hardly novel, wedged somewhere between 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design and Bibliographic, the book-in-a-box execution holds a rare kind of mesmerism, its dividers inviting you to organize and explore the wealth of design legacy by designer, subject, chronology, or alphabetical order.

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