Books for designers that are anything but boring

There are so many great books for designers out there, teaching you working techniques, giving you historical lessons, analyzing the trends that shape your field.

But let’s face it: reading them feels like work. In the summer you want a book you can read on your porch, at the beach, in bed. A novel, a page turner, or something that opens your mind. You don’t want it to be boring.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be relevant to your identity as a designer, though. On the contrary, we’ve put together a list of great design-oriented books that are also great summer reads. Some of them have designer protagonists; some are mémoires by brilliant artists; others are just great literature that is sure to get your creative juices flowing. Enjoy!

1. Designer heroes
_

designer heroes

Designers have always made great protagonists, especially underdogs. This is certainly true of Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), which take place in mid-century Britain and America, respectively.

A more recent update is Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2013), which tells the story of a web designer who takes a job in a bookstore during the recent recession years.

2. The art world
_

art history books for designers

Art world shenanigans never get old, especially when we’re talking about the swinging ’60s and gritty ’70s New York, as we are with Andy Warhol’s POPism (1980) and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013), respectively. Or post-punk 1990s London, brilliantly satirized by Michel Houellebecq in The Map and the Territory (2010).

3. Chip Kidd
_

chip kidd books for designers

Chip Kidd is a designer best known for his book covers—he has designed literally hundreds of them for Random House. At a certain point he decided he’d take a stab at writing some, and what resulted were The Cheese Monkeys (2001), which takes place in design school, and The Learners (2008), which follows up in the working world.

4. Artist protagonists
_

artist protagonist books for designers

Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976), Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard (1987) and Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988) are wildly different books in style, but they share a few things in common: they are all excellently written, and they are all have an artist in the leading role.

5. Daniel Clowes
_

daniel clowes books

Since the early 1990s, Oakland, California-based illustrator Daniel Clowes has produced an amazing series of graphic novels that are as funny as they are philosophical and thought provoking. Pussey! (1995), Ghost World (1997) and The Death-Ray (2011) are three of the best.

6. Great mémoires
_

art memoires for designers

When it comes to artists as brilliant as the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, the writer and political commentator Gore Vidal and the rock musician Patti Smith, you want to hear their stories straight from the source. That is exactly what you get with their top notch mémoires, Speak, Memory (1951), Palimpsest (1995) and Just Kids (2010).

7. Steve Jobs
_

steve jobs books

Books and films about former Apple CEO Steve Jobs have become a cottage industry in itself, and for good reason. The man was a compelling figure whose life story yields unending insight into the rise of the now all-powerful tech industry.

Two good places to start are Walter Isaacson’s official biography, Steve Jobs (2011), and Rick Tetzeli and Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs (2015), which focuses on the subject’s life outside of the office.

8. Page turners
_

page turning books for designers

Don’t thumb your nose at Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code (2003); that book is insanely entertaining. The same can be said of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch (2013), all of which can be described as page-turners with substance, and stories that happen to unfold in the domain of art.

9. Design greats
_

famous designer books

Milton Glaser: Graphic Design (1973), Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist (1998) and The Vignelli Canon (2010) all fall under the “designer history” category, as they cover the life and work of three 20th century greats, but their tone is more autobiographical, humorous and fun than your typical designer bio.

10. Old masters
_

classical art books

The Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini was born in 1500 and died in 1571 and, boy, what a life he led. His autobiography, published in 1558, is way more R-rated than you would expect. Irving Stone is another great writer who allows readers to dive into the minds and lives of master artists like Vincent van Gogh and Michelangelo in his books Lust for Life (1934) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961).

11. Visual writers
_

visual books for designers

We could have added any number of authors to this section, which is meant for books that are written in a manner specifically meant to trigger the visual cortex with intensely evocative description and attention to visual detail.

You certainly can’t go wrong with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur (1955), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), or W.G. Sebald’s illustrated The Emigrants (1992).

What books for designers are you putting on your summer reading list? Share in the comments!

The author

Alex Bigman
Alex Bigman

Alex contributes from New York City on topics ranging from branding and typography to the history of design.

Related articles

The 43 best design blogs to read for inspiration

The 43 best design blogs to read for inspiration

Creative design blogs come in handy while working in the field of graphic design. After all, it’s too easy to loose steam in the midst of cranking out design after design. Fear not! For your inspiration needs we’ve combed through every inch of the internet to bring you 43 of the best design blogs in existence. On…

20 new design books for your summer reading list

20 new design books for your summer reading list

It can be tough to get any reading done during the cooler months. Business ramps up right after the new year, flooding your inbox with projects, and around the winter holidays there is a similar rush to finish outstanding tasks and balance the books. During the summer, though, there is a pleasant lull—a perfect time…

Current Design Contests

Designers, check out these contests so you can start building your career.