Two Books by Two Designers

I’m at a point in my life know where I actually know real authors of real books. It’s strange, because these are regular, ‘one pant leg at a time’ human folk like you and me, and yet somehow they’ve managed to articulate a real, honest to goodness view of the world… and they’ve convinced other folks to print it for them. Now you can buy these books via the Interweb and even hold them in your hand. It’s amazing to me.

So, having said that, now I’m going to plug two of them.


Words About Pictures

79 Short Essays on Design

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design” by Michael Bierut is just out and it’s exactly what the title says: a compendium of several dozen of Bierut’s insightful, entertaining and ambitious writings over the past few decades.

It’s no secret that Bierut is at the top of this profession for many reasons, not the least of which is that he possesses a rare, once-in-a-generation brand of visual intelligence. I think my favorite reason, though, is that he complements that with a passion for and dedication to the written word; he has consistently and persistently sought to bring clarity to the fuzzy complexities of graphic design by doing the difficult work of writing about it. I’ve said it many times, but I truly believe that design writing is a crucial part of the future growth of our craft, and in that way, at least, this book is a kind of treasure. I find it really inspirational.

The Complete History of Information in 238 Pages

I’m even more wowed by the debut book from my colleague at The New York Times, information architect extraordinaire Alex Wright. The book is called “Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages” and it’s stunningly ambitious in scope.

Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

I’m four chapters into it, and already Alex’s prose has taken me on a whirlwind tour of the evolution of information — tracing the epigenetic origins of how we organize data as far back as primordial bacteria, and as far afield as Greek mythological genealogy, Aztec libraries and the very first accountants.

In part it’s an exhaustive academic thesis, but it’s also genuinely entertaining and surprisingly relevant. We often think of the ‘new world’ we’re building online as a fresh slate and without precedent, but Alex shows how incorrect that truly is, and how much we have to learn from what’s come before.

Cover Stories

I highly, highly recommend both of these, but of course, one is an easier sell than the other. Michael’s book comes with the imprimatur of the upper echelons of graphic design practice, and it’s packaged in a beautiful hardback cover wittily designed by his Pentagram colleague Abbott Miller. On the other hand, Alex’s book comes in a rather underwhelmingly designed package that looks like it was lifted from an undergraduate textbook from the mid-Nineties. It’s a shame really, because it’s an amazing piece of work… don’t judge it by its cover.

Now Let Me Tell You About My Book

Speaking of books, people ask me from time to time if I’ve thought about writing a book. Well, as a matter of fact, I have… but thinking about it hasn’t magically produced a manuscript, as it turns out.

Seriously, I have intentions to write a book, but they’re just intentions and I haven’t figured out yet how I can actually get it done. I think part of the reason is that most of the serious interest publishers have expressed in having me write a book has been along the lines of a technical how-to, something that might be called “Awesome CSS Grids” or something. There’s value in that kind of book, for sure. But it’s not the kind of book I want to write.

I have no reservations about writing about grids, but I prefer something higher-level, more theoretical, and less tactical. I guess the problem is that I don’t exactly know what kind of book I want to write, which as you can imagine, makes it difficult to write a book. I know I want it to be higher level, and I know I want it to be the kind of book that has a certain amount of timelessness, but beyond that, it’s all rather unformed.

Really, you know what I should do? I should just stop complaining about this on my blog and sit down and just write the damn thing.

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  1. Surely there is some theoretical background behind behind your individual practice of design (namely, um, “subtraction”?) that might stretch beyond Grids and such. What always gets me going, however, is seeing the intersection of the personal creative mind with what are ultimately very public and functional objects. You know, like that secret sketch pad you keep in the bottom of your desk with all the huge splotches of color that aren’t aligned AT ALL. When’s that book coming out?

  2. I’ve been following your blog for a couple months now, and I’m sure you could cook up something interesting about visual hierarchy, design or something of the sort.

  3. Here’s what I’m wondering: can someone with no obvious artistic ability or formal training become a competent graphic designer? And if so, how should they go about it?

    I’m a user experience guy, but I’m a firm believer that it’s extremely useful for UXers to become at least half-competent in the fields that surround us (like IA, development, marketing, etc.). Not so we can do their jobs, but so we can have meaningful conversations, do prototypes, and lead. I’ve tried to do this… except for graphic design. Because, frankly, I’m afraid I can’t do it.

    I don’t know why I think I can learn a reasonable smattering of marketing, development, and information architecture but not graphic design… some inherent fear that artistic ability is something you’re born with, not something you learn, I guess.

    Regardless, I was thinking that 79 might be a good way to start down this road, but it also might be a good idea for a blog post – “Learning Graphic Design for Dummies”. =)

  4. “Here’s what I’m wondering: can someone with no obvious artistic ability or formal training become a competent graphic designer? And if so, how should they go about it?”

    If people with no obvious graphic design ability but a lot of photoshop tricks can do it, then I guess anything is possible.

  5. Khoi, I relate completely to the surreality you describe in knowing actual published authors. My former roommate, design colleague and dear friend started a band.

    It was good music and our circle of friends had a lot of fun going to concerts at local bars. But then they went on tour, ended up playing Lollapalooza, with no label backing them, no full length album, just an EP. It was a success that helped them self-release two more EPs.

    Then they were signed to a independent label and played the Letterman show. That was truly a strange experience. Watching my friend rock the bass guitar on Letterman’s stage.

    This summer, it gets even weirder. They are opening for Muse at Madison Square Garden, then joining The White Stripes on tour.

  6. I love the last sentence in your article, Khoi.

    I should just stop complaining about this on my blog and sit down and just write the damn thing.

    That sums it up for most of us I think. Looking forward to the book.

  7. Ben: Thanks. I meant it in more than one way. To be honest, writing this blog several times a week is a great way to procrastinate on the harder task of writing a full book. I don’t really want to stop the blog, but in order to produce a book, I may have to yet. We’ll see.

  8. I don’t really want to stop the blog, but in order to produce a book, I may have to yet. We’ll see.

    For a book, it would be worth it; but would you really consider stopping the blog completely?

  9. I find myself in the same situation wanting to write a book on the business of design. As you mention, it would be easier to write a technical “how to” book, but I would love to go deeper into concepts and business models.

    Recently I blocked out a four hour chunk of time and sat down with a note book to write out objectives, goals and steps to getting the book done sometime in the near future. It’s always that first step that’s difficult to take, but once you take it the ideas and inspiration begins to flow.

  10. Hi, in my opinion you could conciliate blog and book writing. You could publish on your site the book chapter drafts as soon as they are available. Readers could comment on the drafts and the final print book will be even better.
    As an example see what’s happening with the Django Book, to be published this year.

  11. I can tell you that it’s much easier to “sit down and write the damn thing” when you have a signed contract that requires you to meet prearranged deadlines. If I didn’t have that pressure I never would have finished my own book. Thanks for the recommendations and I’m looking forward to reading a great high-level, theoretical design book in the not-so-distant future.

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