17 graphic design books that will change your approach to design

May 27, 2020

If you’re a graphic designer looking to improve your design skills with new ideas and approaches, welcome to our essential graphic design reading list. If you specialize in another part of design—you’ve also come to the right place. Here’s why.

As the design profession continues to evolve, new specialist roles and definitions are invented all the time. While it’s good to know the difference between UX and UI design, it’s equally important to remember that the best designers often don’t specialize in any one thing.

Design blogger Butterhalfsix sums it up nicely:

“I continue to define myself in a very simple way: I’m a designer.”

So whether you’re a graphic design guru or a web design wizard, dipping into specialist areas outside your own will make you a better, more rounded designer.

As well as providing an essential reading list, we asked a range of designers from UX, product, and brand to reveal the graphic design books that had a big impact on their ideas about design. We hope you find a good book that sparks fresh inspiration and new ways of thinking—no matter how you define yourself as a designer.

Essential graphic design reads

Interaction of Color by Josef Albers

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Using color effectively is one of the great challenges of design. For design teachers, students, or professionals, Albers’ influential work on color theory demonstrates how to think outside the box of safe color palettes in an economical and impactful way.

Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler

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Depending on your role in a company, the word ‘rebrand’ is either exciting or terrifying. Wheeler’s brand Bible goes beyond just visual design, tackling the entire topic from brand strategy to research. As the book’s subtitle says, “An essential guide for the whole branding team.”

Grid systems in graphic design by Josef Müller-Brockmann

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Consistency is a vital design principle, especially if you’re designing a product or brand. The most common way to achieve consistency in these contexts is with a grid system—and what better person to learn from than the godfather of grids himself, Josef Müller-Brockmann.

Logo Modernism by Jens Müller

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Designing a company logo that’s both simple and iconic is harder than it looks. If you need inspiration, this book is an extensive archive of clean, crisp logos from the modernist period. A cultural artifact charting the rise and rise of the corporate logo.

Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton

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The definitive guide to using typography in visual design. While there are many books about typography covering different areas of the topic—some of which will appear later in this list—this is a great all-round introduction for any design student.

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 by Michael Bierut

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A monograph examining the life work of legendary graphic designer and Pentagram partner, Michael Bierut. The book spans 35 projects and delivers unique insights into the potential of graphic design to make a big impact in a variety of ways.

100 Ideas That Changed Design by Peter Fiell & Charlotte Fiell

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A great book to dip into for any designer or design fan, 100 Ideas That Changed Design is exactly what the title implies. Comprising ideas and trends emerging from the 19th century up until the present day, it’s a great all round resource for bite-sized nuggets of inspiration.

Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning by Adrian Frutiger

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Our UX designer, Jolanta Gil, opens the list with this seminal work by Swiss typeface pioneer Adrian Frutiger. The book delves deep into the relationship between symbols and psychology, providing fascinating theories on why certain shapes and patterns have endured in the human mind throughout history.

“The book tells such interesting ideas, like why we depict the heart's symbol in one way or another, even though the real human heart looks completely different.”
Jolanta Gil, UX Designer at Maze

Full of theories on the roots visual symbols and how they've developed through the history of graphic design, the book is a must-read for any designer who wants to understand simple visual elements that we take for granted. A vital resource for logo design.

Fun fact: Adrian Frutiger was a leading typeface designer who created many famous typefaces, including Avenir, Linotype Didot, and Frutiger Next.

Type Matters! by Jim Williams

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While typography is an essential pillar of graphic design, product designer Matt Elbert thinks having a good understanding of the elements of typographic styles can massively benefit any designer. He recommends reading Type Matters!, a solid introduction to why fonts matter and how you should think about typography, written by award-winning graphic designer Jim Williams.

“Whether it’s graphic or product design, typography has a voice. How we interpret that voice affects how the design makes us feel. This is a great book for communicating that idea.”
Matt Elbert, Product Designer at Movista

If typography is an unexplored area for you, this is a great place to start.

Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles by Jan Tholenaar et al.

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Another one for typographers, this comprehensive and beautifully put together collection of fonts begins all the way back in 1628. The book showcases a broad range of typefaces across history, with a particular focus on the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. It also includes other typographic elements like borders, initials, and ornaments.

Claudia Aran, Senior Visual Designer at Typeform and typeface connoisseur, was keen to recommend it for this list:

“This book feels like a journey through time in typography and letter print.”
Claudia Aran, Senior Visual Designer at Typeform

A great resource for any designer to dive into for typeface inspiration.

Designing News by Francesco Franchi

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Creative director Francesco Franchi draws on his publishing experience to set out a comprehensive vision on editorial design. The book examines how the transformation of news and journalism in the digital age affects the way we should approach design in the media.

Product designer Alex Muench gives it a big thumbs up:

“For graphic and editorial designers, it’s an inspiring read about the past and potential future of news and media reporting—and how designers can shape this future.”
Alex Muench, Product Designer at Doist

If you work in editorial design, dip into this book every once in a while for inspiration on layouts and infographics.

Designing Design by Kenya Hara

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Written by Japanese graphic designer and MUJI art director, Kenya Hara, Designing Design is an ode to the power of simplicity in design. Inspired by Japanese philosophy and color theory, the book emphasizes the importance of emptiness and space in design—something that product and UI designers can relate to just as much as graphic designers.

Product designer Helen Tsvirinkal explains how this book impacted the way she approaches design:

“Reading this taught me that every aspect of a design has to be meaningful. Only use a color if it helps communicate something. Only choose a material if it solves a problem or stimulates a desired tactile experience. And if something doesn't have a clear purpose, reconsider if it's necessary.”
Helen Tsvirinkal, Product Designer at Shopify

Fun fact: Author Kenya Hara designed the opening and closing ceremonies for the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams

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Perfect for beginners, this one’s an essential guide for anyone dabbling in design for the first time. It breaks down the basic theory around the pillars of design—proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast, and color—that anyone can understand and remember.

Reading this book as a non-designer makes you realize that, actually, you’re doing design work all the time. Williams equips you with the fundamentals to apply design principles in your everyday life and improve things.

Maze product designer Victor Vorontsov loves the book for this reason—but points out that it can also be a double-edged sword:

“This is the best book for explaining basic design rules in a simple and clear way for newbies. But you’ll suffer afterwards, because you’ll spot bad design in everything around you!”
Victor Vorontsov, Product Designer at Maze

As a non-designer who has read this book, I can confirm.

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

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A great follow-up read for design students once The Non-designer’s Design Book has taught you the basics. This book is all about how design is applied to the world around us. Less to do with graphic design specifically—but still incredibly relevant—Don Norman’s classic reveals the ingenuity of the design behind everyday objects.

Illustrator and designer Petra Sitaru sums up her main takeaway:

“I read this book a while back, but I still remember the most important thing I learned: good design becomes invisible by fulfilling its purpose. The only time people really notice design is if it’s not doing its job.”
Petra Sitaru, Freelance Illustrator & Designer

If you ever wondered why doors are shaped like they are, this book will help explain things. An absolute must-read for designers of all kinds.

Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far by Stefan Sagmeister

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If there’s such a thing as a graphic design rockstar, Stefan Sagmeister definitely qualifies. Between designing album covers for Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, and Jay-Z, he has hosted exhibitions all over the world and has even made a feature length film.

Less a book on graphic design, and more an abstract window into the mind of a true graphic design auteur, this is a unique experience for designers who really want to challenge their imagination. Sagmeister superfan Claudia can’t recommend it enough:

“A master of graphic design and typography, Sagmeister has always inspired me with how differently he sees things and solves visual communications. He can pick any random topic and make it evolve in a beautiful way with visual design.”
Claudia Aran, Senior Visual Designer at Typeform

Full of witty diary observations and jaw-dropping visuals, this book is a work of art in itself.

Design Diaries: Creative Process in Graphic Design by Lucienne Roberts & Rebecca Wright

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While many of the books on this list delve into the theoretical side of design, Design Diaries explores the practical side with real-world, detailed case studies on the design process.

Featuring inside reports on how famous international studios approached past projects, it’s a fascinating look at the day-to-day struggle behind beautiful designs—the imperfect part you don’t normally get to see.

Brand designer Dimitra Papastathi explains why this book is special to her:

“Process is the most important part of the job. Beyond defining the final visual outcome, it’s the part we enjoy most as designers. The book showcases projects throughout the years, so it’s particularly interesting to observe how design processes have evolved over time.”
Dimitra Papastathi, Freelance Brand & Digital Designer

An insightful read for budding designers and branding teams still honing their design process.

The Language of Things by Deyan Sudjic

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A funny, thoughtful essay about how designs change the world and shape our perceptions. Authored by the Director of the London Design Museum, the book draws on a huge variety of physical designs and objects—from lamps, to calculators, to guns—to form an academic critique on our cultural relationship with design.

Here’s UX designer Jolanta Gil on why this book makes the list:

“The book answers questions like: Why do some objects become archetypes? And why do we let ourselves be drawn into a mad trance of consumption? Using concrete examples from history and modernity, Sudjic shows that design is an evolving language that’s worth learning to read.”
Jolanta Gil, UX Designer at Maze

For designers who are interested in how design relates to society, this is an engaging read.

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