My Design Library: Books I'm Always Recommending

I was a reader before I was a designer, and naturally I spend a great deal of time collecting books on graphic design. Most of what I initially found, in the form of designer magazines and art books, contained banal information that is easily found online. For the stuff that can’t fit into blogposts, I turn to good books that require immersive reading with a wealth of knowledge you can mine for years. There is a more permanent knowledge that comes when you read something long-form and let it live with you for a length of time.

When I interface with fellow graphic designers, there are books I refer to often that get across things better than I can say myself. This list compiles some of the books I refer to most often.

Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud

Wanting to continue my design education after college, I asked Twitter and a handful of fellow designers for books on design they would recommend. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics came up more than once.

Understanding Comics is a great introduction to the mechanics of visual language and how to use it to communicate a story. Written as a comic itself, it’s approachable and communicates things visually that would be difficult to explain with words alone. 

I also learned that our founder, Tim Ogilvie, has pulled elements from Understanding Comics into the development of Peer Insight IP, such as encouraging voluntary audience participation by leaving certain elements out of a design.

You can watch his TED Talk, ‘The Visual Magic of Comics’, here.

How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul
Adrian Shaughnessy

I recommend this one to anyone who is studying design or thinking about learning design. It contains a lot of timeless advice you can carry with you, like how to build and present a portfolio, how to freelance and self-promote, and how to set up and run a studio.

Trade Marks & Symbols Vol 1: Alphabetical Designer
Yasaburo Kuwayama

Aaron Draplin referred to this out-of-print collection of logos in a Lynda sponsored video and it immediately became difficult to get your hands on it. However, if you’re able to find a copy, it’s a great book to have on hand. Unlike a lot of the more recent logo books, it’s references hark back to the basics and contain great examples of no-nonsense designs that are simple, sometimes elegant, and still work well in a contemporary context.

Show Your Work!
Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon’s follow-up to Steal Like An Artist is a pragmatic book about self-promotion for ‘people who hate the very idea of self-promotion.’ It’s a small book that can be read in a day, but it’s real value comes from the reminders you get every time you open it and remember to share your process, find your scene, read obituaries, and share something small every day.

Anything by Chris Ware

Ware’s visual language shows a master-level knowledge of type, icon, and color. A lot of his comics follow an infographic-format and require deep reading and re-reading, like a difficult novel. When I first opened Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Boy On Earth and found this spread, I spent over an hour digesting the hilarious and melancholy ups and downs of the Corrigan’s family tree.

Another Ware piece that I love is the diagram of the apartment building in Building Stories that shows an entire history of all the people who have lived there.

And don’t even get me started on his color theory.

Color Works
Eddie Opara

Written by Pentagram partner Eddie Opara, this is my handbook to using color in design. It’s also ab-so-lute-ly beautiful, and worth having around just to look at.

In My Life So Far
Stefan Sagmeister

I keep this book on my desk to remind me of the range of possibilities with communicating visually, to live outside my computer every once in a while, and that graphic design is the best job in the world.

First of all, there’s something that makes me smile about the fifteen booklets that spill out the lovely die-cut case. Each booklet in Things I have Learned In My Life So Far contains a typographic project that’s full of life and a design case or story that leads to a lesson about living professionally and personally. His follow-up, Made You Look, is also excellent.

Animator’s Survival Kit
Richard Williams

Although explicitly written for hand-drawn animation, this bible of animation works as a wonderful preliminary to motion graphics as a whole. It contains the best explanation of timing and easing I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of great advice on giving your movement life, and practical general advice about being a designer, like his lesson one about unplugging your headphones and putting 100% of yourself into what you’re doing to double the quality of your work.

Color & Light
James Gurney

I originally bought this book to help with my painting skills, but I’ve found that it’s bled over into my graphic design practice just as much. This book is packed with insights on how to recognize color in the world, how to understand color relationships, techniques for building color palettes, and other great practical information. This is the textbook I wish I had when studying color theory in school.

How To
Michael Bierut

How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World is a reflective collection of thirty-five case studies by a living master of graphic design.

Daily Rituals
Mason Currey

This is a great little book that collects the day-to-day habits of famous creatives. The general pattern is that most wake up early, navigate obstacles, and stay boring to do what they love to do.  


I have a stack of new books to read in 2016, including Creativity Inc. and Cloud Atlas, which I’ve been told has designerly qualities to it. If you have book recommendations for me, please reach out on twitter: @austinbreed