Reading About Design Is No Fun

Swiss Graphic DesignI’m in the middle of reading “Swiss Graphic Design: The Origin and History of an International Style” by Richard Hollis, a thorough and lavishly illustrated overview of the extremely influential designers and philosophies that shaped much of the craft in the last century. It’s a fantastic tour through the evolution of visual communication in the Modernist style, comprehensive enough in its account to qualify as required reading for any graphic designer, I’d be willing to say. I recommend it.

The problem is, it’s not a particularly gripping read. To be sure, it’s well written and professional, but it’s not engrossing in its narrative; the mind tends to wander a bit when your eyes run back and forth across its dense paragraphs of factual prose; the words don’t do a particularly great job of grabbing your attention and holding onto it with the authority and immersiveness of storytelling. This is perhaps owing to the fact that it’s a history book and a book about design — two non-fiction genres that aren᾿t exactly known for yielding page-turners. Still, I don’t see a good reason why the book couldn’t have been as gorgeously and expertly assembled as it is and, at the same time, also proven to be a blast to read.

Words About Pictures

Looking at the modest library of design books I own, it strikes me that very few of them might truly be knockout examples of the craft of writing in and of themselves — none of them are, in fact. Among my favorite books on my shelves are other expert accounts of influential design subjects, like Steve Heller’s excellent “Paul Rand,” monographs so beautiful that I return to them again and again just to pore over the images, like Lella and Massimo Vignelli’s “Design: Vignelli,” and fascinatingly definitive texts like Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style.” But none of them are the kinds of reads that reward repeated visits of the text beyond the academic value provide therein. They’re all fascinating, but almost none of them are entertaining.

Don’t get me wrong, these are books to be cherished and revisited, for sure, and they’ve added immeasurably to the discourse of a trade that can only benefit from more similarly powerful academic works. But none of them are resolutely fun… none of them could be handed off to a friend with the assurance that, even though he or she might know nothing about graphic design, they’ll still be entertained in some significant fashion by the words between the pictures. And wouldn᾿t it be great to have a design book that you find endlessly fascinating but that you could also confidently share with a friend in, say, the field of accounting?

This is something that I’d like to see, a “Moneyball” of graphic design; a book about the profession that’s so entertainingly written that it sweeps up its readers regardless of their prior familiarity with or fondness for the subject matter… and yet still provides salient, unique lessons for even the profession’s veterans. Such a book would amount to a turning point for our trade, too, a meaningful further step into the popular culture that we’re so much a part of, and yet from which we remain perpetually distanced. Graphic design needs a book like that, I think. Is it possible?

  1. I think the MTIV book by Hillman Curtis comes pretty close to what you’re wishing for. I’ve found it entertaining enough to read through a couple times and have shared it with friends who have been designing for years as well as those who hardly even know what graphic design is and all have found it easy to read, insightful and entertaining. I highly recommend it.

  2. As someone less familiar with the subleties of design and design theory, I enjoyed The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. It provides a lot of quick examples for good & bad design, and explains how to make similar transformations to your own work.

    Perhaps this text is less relevant to your design-experienced audience, but I think this fits as a read for someone who comes from another discipline but is curious about design.

  3. I’m currently in the middle of a revisit to Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, and while I find its language to be stunningly insightful, efficient, and downright beautiful (a rare and wonderful combination), its function as a philosophy book, history book, and style manual kind of preclude it from being very entertaining. The contents are fascinating, but I still have trouble focusing, and I’m finding that overcoming that trouble is what makes it a rewarding read, one from which I’m more likely to benefit than I might be from something that could be called a “page-turner.”

    Page-turners have their place in non-fiction, and I think that place is at the introductory level. Ellen Lupton’s books, for example, aim to introduce graphic design to non-designers, and are, for that reason, much more accessible and inviting than more advanced texts. But once one is over that introductory hurdle, I think he or she is more likely to benefit from a more dense – and subsequently more challenging – read.

  4. Have you ever read Stefan Sagmeister’s book “Made You Look” ? It is one of the most entertaining reads, packed with great recolations of projects gone right and wrong, bits of his absurd journals and notes and revived me from a design slump when i picked it up 4 or so years ago. I highly recommend this book,- it’s insightful, hilarious, and motivating. -ak

  5. Rob-Agreed, Lupton is a subway read, but I must admit, my pleasure is gained from the book’s dance with the grid.

    Khoi-Yes, it would be nice to have a design text that was both entertaining and educational. Please add this to your to do list. Even with the comparison to the universal god of baseball, a good, well informed, writer could surmount the troubles of making the design dialogue engaging.

  6. For my money What is Graphic Design by Quentin Newark (2002, Rotovision) is as close as it comes to tackling the challenge you’ve outlined. I’ve read and loved it as a designer — but it is also the book I’ve always lent to non-designers and to to those considering design as a career move.

    It’s beautifully designed and features some lovely work, supported by loads of great, easy reading. It asks some interesting questions of the designer who reads it; and explains to others (better than I have ever managed myself) what exactly it is that I do.

  7. There’s also Adrian Shaughnessey’s book “How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul” – that’s not too dry, given its subject matter.

  8. If it’s juicy graphic design war stories you seek, I suggest Inside the Business of Graphic Design: 60 Leaders Share Their Secrets of Success. It’s a breezy book with dozens of interviews with leaders of design firms discussing how they run their business, and their challenges, pitfalls, and insights. It’s a broad (although in some cases shallow) collection of 5-page profiles, and many of the firms featured are pretty small (less than five-person) shops, but still it’s nice to read about how other businesses are dealing with the same problems many of us are — and, from a schadenfreude angle, it’s pleasing to see many of them dealing with problems that we don’t have.

  9. I’m not sure how many books about chemistry are romping good reads either. Why should they be? I think if designers want to be taken seriously they need to be willing to deal with complexities–they need to take design writing as seriously as they want their work to be taken. Otherwise, they are asking to be dumbed down to. It’s very hard to write about the visual. Because of this, most monographs and design magazines fall back on the profile: rather than focusing on the work they focus on the person who made the work. This is the easy way out. People like people. This sometimes yields insights into process, but almost never deals with the visual forms themselves. Writing about visual forms requires extreme precision and a specialized vocabulary. And the results are always going to be slower going. But I think designers, of all people, should be wary of “engaging”. Anyone whose ever been told to “punch it up” “make it pop” or “add a starburst” should crave and covet the subtle, insightful, and challenging. With books and articles that are difficult there’s a greater chance that someone is actually trying to say something important.

    Here are a couple of books that I think are worth the effort:

    Rick Poynor book of essays Design Without Boundaries isn’t much fun to flip through but is fantastically insightful and relatively easy to read. His second collection Obey the Giant is also great.

    Placing Words by William Mitchell who is head of the program in Media Arts and Sciences at MIT came out recently and looks at the boundaries between design/artchitecture/technology. It’s very approachable and covers a lot of territory.

    Oh and Else/Where: Mapping edited by Jan Abrams and Peter Hall just came out and looks stunning–I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

  10. Reading about art or design or any other aspect of the visual world beyond words is, of course, not about words. If you search around you can probably find some of the design exercises for students created by, say, Armin Hoffman. Try one or two and then go back to the book. I guarantee your reading will be different.

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