Mark Fox

Graphic Designer / United States / Design is Play; California College of the Arts

Mark Fox’s Book List

I learned to read at an early age by singing hymns at church. The repetition of this ritual—we sang the same small selection of songs three times a week—seems to have created for me a linkage between the act of reading, illuminating content, and the power and musicality of the vocalized word. Whenever I write I still read my work aloud to hear it and refine it.

Although I am no longer religious, I am nonetheless drawn to books that are, in some manner, revelatory. Insight and beauty—this is what I seek when I read. To experience revelation through art is to invite joy into your life. All of the books I recommend below have brought me joy.

9 books
Ray Bradbury

Read Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and then read (or reread) this classic novel of a dystopian future without books. I did, and the juxtaposition is startling.

Alastair Reid

Poet Alastair Reid exploits the often tenuous relationship between words and meaning in Ounce, Dice, Trice. He takes particular pleasure in the musicality of words—whether real or invented—and so this is a book best read aloud. Ben Shahn’s illustrations are a delight.

Adrian Frutiger

This exhaustive work by typographer Adrian Frutiger examines symbols in their myriad forms, including the history of writing and writing’s origin in drawing. Frutiger is persuasive in arguing that every mark has meaning, and that “emptiness does not mean ‘nothing.’”

Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino

Part history, part celebration, part elegy—this book explores the evolving relationship between technology, drawing, and architectural renderings. (Did you know that a German carpenter, Friedrich Staedtler, established the basic form of the modern pencil in 1662?) In particular, I recommend the essay by architect Paul Emmons, “The Lead Pencil: Lever of the Architect’s Imagination.” Emmons takes care to distinguish imagination in general from what he terms “the material imagination,” i.e., imagination informed by physical engagement with the material world. One intriguing passage: “Systems such as computer drawing programs threaten to eliminate the material imagination in their production of simulacra. Since computer-aided designers know only through sight, not through touch, they cannot understand the differences between the visual and physical world and project between them.”

Memo to the book designer: reversing text typography out of full-bleed metallic silver spreads does a disservice to both your readers and authors. To avoid the glare as I read I find that I must continually tilt the book like some kind of dowser looking for water. In addition, I am one of those readers who likes to mark my pages and underline passages; silver ink resists any attempts to do either.

Hermann Zapf

This compendium of 78 of Zapf’s book and title page designs is less about reading than it is about seeing. The American paperback edition, Typographic Variations, is quite good and worth owning. The original German casebound edition, however, is a revelation and my comments relate to that version. The German edition is letterpress printed and, at 8 3/8 x 12 1/8 inches, is around 130 percent larger than the American paperback. The generous margins of the original page design present the work in a way that invites study; the extra space also allows Zapf to blind deboss the folio and rules indicating the original title page trim sizes. The resulting hierarchical effect is wondrous. The synthesis of type design, page design, paper, and printing as realized in this work is a paean to German book arts. The experience of reading/touching/seeing this book produces pleasure, certainly, but ultimately it induces reverence (and joy!) because it reminds us of what a book can be. The introduction by Paul Standard celebrates what he terms the “courteous typographer” whose craft serves “the book, and so of civilization.”

Scott McCloud

Ostensibly a comic book about comics, in this work McCloud broadens our understanding of symbolism, the relationship between words and images, narrative, time as a function of narrative, and communication. I share his concept of “amplification through simplification” with my graphic design students every semester.

John Berger

This slim but dense book explores the relationship between art, advertising, desire, and capitalism. One of my favorite passages exposes the sociopolitical dimension of advertising, using the British term publicity: “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice.” A seminal work.

Roald Dahl

Marcel Duchamp wrote, “As a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter,” the idea being that one should look outside of one’s creative profession for inspiration to avoid direct emulation. It is in this spirit that I enjoy considering the practice of graphic design through the lenses of other creative practices, in particular the craft of writing.

We are fans of Roald Dahl in the Fox & Wang abode, and have read a number of his books to our (collective) three children. Not long ago we read Dahl’s 1977 memoir “Lucky Break—How I Became a Writer” (included in Henry Sugar) for the first time. On the second page he offers seven tips to would-be fiction writers that, perhaps not surprisingly, are relevant to would-be graphic designers.

Number one on that list: You should have a lively imagination.

One immediately thinks: Isn’t this obvious, for fiction writers as well as graphic designers? (Perhaps Dahl thought so, because this is the only piece of advice he doesn’t elaborate on.) After a moment, though, I have to ask: What does it mean to “have a lively imagination,” anyway?

Marcel Proust observed that “The essence of the writer’s task is the perception of connections among unlike things.” Whether writing or designing, I believe it is through seeing, through forming surprising or illuminating linkages, that one puts a lively imagination to work. It is being, in a word, playful.

A later book-length piece of advice, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) contains a number of insightful suggestions for graphic designers thinly veiled as advice to writers. In the chapters “Shitty First Drafts” and “Perfectionism,” Lamott explores the messy process of writing and the creative dangers of not allowing that process to be messy. She warns that “Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness.” And: “Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing [read: design] needs to breathe and move.”

It is interesting to weigh Lamott’s point of view against Roald Dahl’s, especially because his fourth tip—You must be a perfectionist—appears antithetical to hers. In truth, though, I think this particular issue is more about timing, about when to seek perfection in one’s craft rather than whether to seek it at all. Lamott allows for more detours along the way, I suspect, but both she and Dahl are intent on arriving at the same destination sooner or later.

Jaron Lanier

In the introduction to the paperback edition of You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier demarcates his position by noting that “This book is not antitechnology in any sense. It is prohuman.” Lanier is a computer scientist and a pioneer in the field of virtual reality. He is also a composer and musician, which may explain some of his sensitivity to issues of creativity and authorship.

Digital culture has no lack of cheerleaders, especially among the corporations and personalities profiting from its widespread adoption—or the governments gleaning information from its unwitting citizens. Less common is someone like Lanier: a sharp-eyed critic who effectively weighs the promise of digital culture against the reality of its impact on the culture at large. Lanier argues that social networks treat the user as a “source of fragments to be exploited by others,” and that “Using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.” A must-read.

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