Theory

Graphic Design Theory coverGraphic Design Theory
by Helen Armstrong

This book offers a great primer on graphic design theory by collecting 24 essays from design luminaries like Jan Tschichold, Lorraine Wild, Paul Rand, El Lissitzky, Herbert Bayer, and more, culled from writings spanning more than a century on wide ranging topics from typography to the social responsibilities of a designer.

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Bird by Bird coverBird by Bird
by Anne Lamott

One of my all-time favorite books. Lamott manages to dissect writing and process in such an inspiring way that it becomes something you simply must do as a thinking person. If you are tasked with putting words to paper at any point in life, I can’t recommend any book more highly. Especially love the notion of “Shitty First Drafts”, something I’ve always done with my design work but never really practiced while writing before.

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The Form of the Book coverThe Form of the Book
by Jan Tschichold

A collection of 23 essays compiled over 40 years on Tschichold’s thoughts on layout and design, primarily with type. While this work focuses mostly on concerns specific to book design, its presentation of topics is wonderfully approachable, and many of the guidelines are applicable to any medium. A true treasure from one of the father’s of modern book and system design.

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How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer coverHow to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer
by Debbie Millman

Interviewer extraordinaire, Debbie Millman, talks to 21 designers and the results are thoroughly enlightening. We all love to hear about how other designers work, their processes, and what drives them to want to create; and it’s for those reasons that I really connected with this book. My copy is bursting with marginalia, highlighted passages, and dog-eared pages. Tons of insight from many of our most celebrated and accomplished designers.

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The Art of Looking Sideways coverThe Art of Looking Sideways
by Alan Fletcher

A seriously massive work from the late Alan Fletcher compiling tons of quotes, work, and nuggets of wisdom from designers, artists, writers, and more, all categorized by topic. One of the most diverse and densely packed sources of inspiration you can have on your shelf.

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How Designers Think coverHow Designers Think
by Bryan Lawson

A seminal classic in design theory and practice that breaks down the nature of our engagements with clients and conspirators, process and inspiration. This book will teach you how to design better by thinking better and understanding how the creative process works. Basically, a handbook for how to be a designer.

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Visual Grammar coverVisual Grammar
by Christian Leborg

A slim and simple tome, but visually stunning in its description of the basic principles of objects on a page and how they interact with one another. Visual Grammar serves as both a visual dictionary and a straightforward introduction to the visual language of graphic design.

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Art Direction Explained, At Last! coverArt Direction Explained, At Last!
by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne

Defining “art direction” is a hard enough nut to crack on its own, but teaching it to someone can be a daunting task. It combines so many unknowns, so many gut feelings, and so much intuition, that it’s best learned from seasoned practitioners. Steve Heller and Veronique Vienne, two battle-hardened art directors in their own right, define and discuss just what art direction is and how to capture the best thoughts in your designs. This book compiles their take on the topic, and polls many of the world’s best art directors through case studies and interviews.

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Art As Experience coverArt As Experience
by John Dewey

While the language can be dense at times, the rewards are wonderful. Art is an experience in itself, both as a practitioner and a viewer. Being able to tap into the reasons why something was created and its intent gives deeper meaning to a work and a deeper understanding of why it was made a particular way. Invaluable for thinking through aesthetics and engagement in what we make, and how they impact us as designers or our intended audience.

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How Buildings Learn coverHow Buildings Learn
by Stewart Brand

Buildings, like any of the things we design, don’t exist as static entities. They are shaped by their surroundings and the ways people interact with them, and because of this, they change. Some adapt peacefully, others, not so much. A great read on how the passage of time affects the things we make and how we can better understand designing for contingency.

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The ABC’s of Bauhaus coverThe ABC’s of Bauhaus
by Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller

A thin but powerful book collecting essays of type and design based on the Bauhaus principles and theories edited by (and with contributions from) the indomitable husband and wife team of Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller. A perfect primer for learning all about The Bauhaus.

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The Brand Gap coverThe Brand Gap
by Marty Neumeier

A slim book that packs an incredible amount of insight. This is one of those books every designer (and maybe clients too) should read at least once. Neumeier dissects just what a brand is, the difference between it and your logo, and what the purpose and strengths a good brand can bring about. Indispensable for the uninitiated.

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Understanding Comics coverUnderstanding Comics
by Scott McCloud

Though the main subject here is about comic books as an artistic medium and a vehicle for storytelling, all of its lessons are just as applicable to design problems. The entire book appears in the format it champions, a graphic novel, narrated by the comic book version of the author. This is a fantastic book to help you think about design from a different angle and gain deeper insight into the decisions you are tasked with making as a visual storyteller.

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Marks of Excellence coverMarks of Excellence
by Per Mollerup

Mollerup presents a thorough history of the trademark, why we have them, why they resonate with us, and why they’re significant in our culture. This book also contains a comprehensive taxonomy of the types of symbols and signs that make up different kinds of trademarks, using a large selection of global brands as examples.

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Comics and Sequential Art coverComics and Sequential Art
by Will Eisner

While the focus of Eisner’s book is on visual storytelling in comic books, the lessons are equally useful for all students of visual media. Topics covered include the anatomy of a story, how visuals can impact and drive a story forward, and using visual media as a means of artistic expression.

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Design Writing Research coverDesign Writing Research
by Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller

A fabulous collection of critical essays on design, visual theory, and history, adding strong discourse to the medium by questioning the ways we practice, sell, learn and create in our profession. Worth it for the chapter “Period Styles” alone.

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Unjustified Texts: Perspectives on Typography coverUnjustified Texts: Perspectives on Typography
by Robin Kinross

Lots of great essays and discourse on the value of socially minded design, with a focus on editorial design and the state of typography. Includes a good number of brief biographies on notable designers like Jan Tschicold, Adrian Frutiger, and Norman Potter.

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Designing Interactions coverDesigning Interactions
by Bill Moggridge

A thoroughly enjoyable history of interaction design, from the first glimmers of man and machine interfaces to modern day sci-fi, that describes not only how we interact but why we interact. The book centers around interviews with interaction design luminaries who all offer up their insightful experience in the field. Required reading for any designer. Also doubles as a hefty doorstop or burglar deterrent.

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Envisioning Information coverEnvisioning Information
by Edward R. Tufte

Classic Tufte, and the sequel to The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information offers a wide range of examples and techniques for ways to visualize data to bring meaning into the story being told.

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The Design of Everyday Things coverThe Design of Everyday Things
by Donald A. Norman

An analysis of usability, or sometimes more importantly, the lack of usability in objects. Norman seeks to expose the dangers of not considering how people interact with the things we make, as well as the hurdles to comprehending interfaces and functionality of technology. Includes some great material on complexity vs simplicity in interfaces.

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Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus coverDesign and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus
by Johannes Itten

The Bauhaus School focused on bringing design to the people, reducing everyday things to their simplest, most functional forms. It encompassed many different types of art, of which graphic design was just a part, from architecture to industrial design. The lasting effects of the schools ideals and principles can still be seen today. This is as basic as it gets, useful and informative for anyone starting out.

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Visual Literacy: A Conceptual Approach to Graphic Problem Solving coverVisual Literacy: A Conceptual Approach to Graphic Problem Solving
by Judith Wilde, Richard Wilde

A ground-level course in basic design principles like rhythm, pattern, focal point, and contrast presented as assignments from a design class complete with creative thinking exercises and real solutions from the authors’ students. Solid advice and examples to help you walk before you can run. These practices are so fundamental, yet are so easily overlooked daily.

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Grid Systems in Graphic Design coverGrid Systems in Graphic Design
by Josef Müller-Brockmann

Your basic course in grid work. Though I will probably be dragged outside and beaten, I have to say that this book is not the bees’ knees. While it is an incredibly worthwhile book in grid systems, there are many more, newer volumes that are, I dare say, easier to digest. Many designers find this book to be the end-all-be-all, most of that is due praise because Müller-Brockmann was pretty much the first guy to synthesize this information. All I am saying is every designer should read at least one grid design book, and this is the daddy of them, but do some research, you may find one that works better for you (even if they are just presenting the same information a little differently).

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A Whack on the Side of the Head coverA Whack on the Side of the Head
by Roger von Oech

Even though I thought this would be a cheesy self-help book, my opinion was quickly changed and became a very important tome. Whack teaches you just how to free up your imagination and think out of your proverbial, self-imposed box, altering your line of thinking to allow you to get to more innovative ideas and concepts. Also very worthwhile is Roger von Oech’s follow up, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants.

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The Elements of Color coverThe Elements of Color
by Johannes Itten
This is in many ways a more simplified version of Itten’s exhaustive The Art of Color. If you plan to work with color at all, you owe it to yourself to know some decent color principles like why certain color combinations work better than others, theories on color contrasts and processes to obtain color combinations that evoke particular moods. Also check out: Color Index by Jim Krause, and Leslie Cabarga’s The Designer’s Guide to Color Combinations and The Designer’s Guide to Global Color Combinations. While these are useful, they can also become crutches. Use them as starting points to color ideas or as reference.

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The Elements of Typographic Style coverThe Elements of Typographic Style
by Robert Bringhurst

An essential book for anyone who uses type in design. Yeah, that’s right, I mean you. As a graphic designer, you owe it to yourself to read more books like this. Inside, you will find some hardcore principles of design, like The Golden Section, a thorough disection of type forms, type usage and layout, type identification, and ever so much more. Mostly focused on page design and print material (skewed towards type layout) but contains ridiculously useful information which is easily applied to all forms of design. For a more basic, but equally worthwhile starter course, try Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger.

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On the Subject of Me

Jason Santa Maria is a graphic designer living and working in sunny Brooklyn, NY. More »


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