Best 5 design books I read in 2016


This year I really doubled-down on my reading, going through over 30 design books. These are the books that influenced me the most.

1. Megg’s History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis

At over 600 pages, it is certainly not a quick read, but that’s one of the things I liked most about it. It diligently goes through every major design event in history, from cave paintings to the design of writing systems, to the invention of the printing press, and, in modern days, the internet and the digital devices we read it on.

Most importantly, it shows WHY we design certain things the way we do, why Swiss type and blackletter looked the way they did, why we use grids, why some design styles were fads and why some stuck around for hundreds of years. With it’s rich historical illustrations (over 1,400!) and warm, engaging tone, it was a very immerseful read that made me feel humble thinking I’m a small part of the designers’ world that came before and whose techniques I’m using today.

Fun fact I read: In ancient Egypt they were using predesigned sacred scroll templates! They had blank spaces for the name and other personal info of poorer Egyptians who couldn’t afford the whole custom thing. Turns out designers loosing work to cheap templates is a much older problem than we thought, ha!

2. The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

When discussing typography, things can quickly turn snobbish, obscure type founder names get dropped, there’s talk of ascenders, descenders, stems, swashes and what nots. This creates a kind of elitist and impenetrable air around it. This book is anything but. It’s humble, it’s engaging, it’s clear and it’s full of useful information and guidelines you can apply to improve your typography straight away. Besides the content, the care and craftmanship that went into designing this book is inspiring in itself.

3. The Elements of Style – by William Strunk Jr. , E. B. White

Not to be confused with the entry above (Bringhurst’s book is actually based on the format of this one), the whole focus of this little book is on how you can communicate clearly, with honesty and stop wasting people’s time. Besides the all important grammar and semantics guidelines, it really makes you consider who you’re writing to and why, shifting the focus from yourself to your audience. Don’t waste their time. Get your point across in as few words as possible. Use proper punctuation to make your message clear. Remove meaningless fluff words. And I could go on and on.

Originally written in the 20’s and revised over the years (I read the 60’s edition) it’s amazing how relevant it is in today’s world when most of communication happens in writing (emails, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, blog posts).

4. Badass: Making Users Awesome – by Kathy Sierra

Ok, so this books looks kinda silly. But past the funny images and captions, there is a ton of really insightful information. Why some products succeed and others fail (they’re recommended by their users). Why most users stop progressing after signing up for our service or product (they hit a plateau with no useful ways to get across). How can we help them along (make them practice the right thing).  Why did they really sign up in the first place (find out what the larger context is, outside your product).

It’s really mind boggling how many “OMG” epiphany moments can be packed in a single book.

5. Visuals Explanations, Beautiful Evidence, Envisioning Information, Visual Display of Quantitative Information – by Edwart Tufte

Ok, so that’s 4 books, not one, but they deal with similar topics, in the same style (I’m actually having a hard time telling them apart after reading them).

Tufte is a well known figure in the field data visualisation, sometimes controversial for his extreme approach to simplifying graphics (or removing “datajunk” as he calls it). But he does make some extremely good points. He explains why we should try to combine visuals with text again to add context and increase understanding (“again” because this was common practice in old manuscripts), how the first tables and time charts were created and shows that there is strong historical background and good reasoning to do away with those awful PowerPoint chart presets.

Honorable mention

Steal like an artist – by Austin Kleon

This small book destroys the myth of the lonely geniuses who create their work in total isolation. Everything around us is recycled, transformed and, even if it looks totally different, is a response to whatever came before it.

The pressure of “reinventing the wheel”, so to speak, whenever we design something new can freeze up all creativity.  So trying too hard to be creative can, ironically, stifle creativity. The sooner you understand this as a designer, the more you let yourself be inspired by what’s around you and the more creative you become. This book contains lots of small tips on how to do that.