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10 books every graphic designer needs in their life

Illustration of the best art and design books for creatives by Anat Pri Tal

For designers, the books we love the most are as visually pleasing as they are intellectually intriguing. This collection of art and design books is the perfect combination of both.

In an age when libraries are clearing out their shelves in favor of digital reading environments, what makes us still long for leafing through the pages of a book? This craving of ours is more than a nostalgic inclination. When knowledge can be accessed instantly and from any device, books are shifting away from their previous position as bearers of information, and towards a new role as desirable objects.

“No furniture is so charming as books, even if you never open them or read a single word,” mused 19th century writer Sydney Smith. While it may be alarming to think of a book the same way you would a couch or a smoothie blender, there’s much truth to the idea of books as beautiful print objects, offering intriguing uses of typography, format, paper and grid.

Whether you're looking for website design inspiration, graphic design portfolio and design blog ideas, or just need a break from staring at a screen, we’ve collected ten art and design books (with incredible book cover ideas, too) that are beautifully-crafted gems in and of themselves, and of equal importance, are fascinating reads on various creative topics:

Two people holding art and design books

1. Beauty by Sagmeister & Walsh

Phaidon, 2018, 280 pages.

Beauty’s got a bad rep in design. Since the 20th century, we’ve grown accustomed to think of design as a matter of functionality and problem-solving. Aesthetics, on the other hand, is at best considered as the decoration that designers sprinkle on top as an afterthought. At worst, it’s a superficial distraction to be avoided.

Acclaimed graphic designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh set out to shine a spotlight back on aesthetics, pointing to its merit in affecting our emotions and behavior. The book itself is living proof for the claim that the duo make, its design and production value proving the alluring powers that beauty is capable of.

Beauty by Sagmeister & Walsh

Penguin Random House, 2012, 192 pages.

“I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland,” reads the prologue to the Japanese artist’s version of Lewis Carroll’s timeless classic. It might be the artist’s condition of hallucinating polka dots that makes her share a vision of the world similar to that of Alice.

Their two unique perspectives of the world complement one another in this vividly illustrated book, that plays wildly with color, pattern, type, and of course, polka dots. Produced exquisitely with a clothbound jacket, the book provides a lively pop-art interpretation of Caroll’s iconic and beloved text.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with artwork by Yayoi Kusama

3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Tove Jansson

Tate Publishing, 2011, 112 pages (first published in 1966).

On this very different journey down the rabbit hole, we’re accompanied by Tove Jansson’s illustrations, the Finnish creator of the Moomin Valley series. Tove has said of taking on the project at the shadow of John Tenniel’s archetypical illustrations, that “it was like trying to paint Tahiti after Gauguin.”

Yet Tove’s cross hatching and watercolors rose to the enormity of the task, as she created her own enchanting reading of this fantastical, often nightmarish children’s tale. Finding surprise resemblances to Moomin characters adds a fun game to the reading experience (how much does the Mad Hatter remind you of Snufkin, or is it just us?).

See Tove Jansson’s illustrations for the book here.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Tove Jansson

4. Les Dîners de Gala by Salvador Dalí

Taschen, 2016, 320 pages (first published 1973).

A gold-foil recipe book by none other than Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí? Yes, please! The book gathers 136 recipes from the lavish banquets and dinner parties that Dalí and his wife and muse, Gala, famously held. The recipes include eccentric delicacies, such as a bush of crayfish in viking herbs, toffee with pine cones, and frog pasties.

Alongside the recipes are photographs of extravagant dishes and dinner parties, together with Dalí’s own original illustrations. Among them are a fish with the details of a female nude, or a saint bleeding on top a lobster mountain. And whether you attempt to make the cuisine yourself, or simply indulge in the book as a piece of art, this literary delight will make your mouth water.

Les Dîners de Gala by Salvador Dalí
A designer holding Les Dîners de Gala by Salvador Dalí

5. The NASA Graphics Standards Manual by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn

Independently published by Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed, 2015, 220 pages (first issued in 1975).

Pentagram designers Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed crowdsourced this reissue of the 1970’s identity book for NASA, designed by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn. The duo created an elaborate and futuristic branding for NASA, with the crown jewel – a minimalist lettering piece as a logo, affectionately nicknamed “the worm.”

The book conjures up a complete and cohesive design system, addressing almost every possible application of the brand’s design. It details the use of type, grid and color, the design of various spacecrafts, and much more. After being implemented by NASA for many years, Danne and Blackburn’s modernist system was later revoked, and in the early 1990’s NASA returned to its predecessor “meatball” logo which is still in use today.

The NASA Graphics Standards Manual
The NASA Graphics Standards Manual

Independently published by Wallace Henning, 2016, 472 pages (first issued in 1965).

“The British Rail Manual is not only a thing of great beauty in itself,” writes Michael C Place in the book’s foreword. “It is also one of those rare things of beauty: an idea that is defined by vigour and incredible vision.”

The book, reissued via Kickstarter by London-based graphic designer Wallace Henning, is a high-quality reproduction of the 1965 corporate identity book for the British Rail. The original manual was created by the Design Research Unit and spanned over four volumes, neatly organized into ring binders.

This comprehensive manual describes the modern visual identity of the railway in its entirety, from its famous double-arrow logo, down to the lettering, employee uniform and of course, the trains themselves. This beautifully clothbound, foil-blocked book also includes an interview with designer Gerry Barney who created the logo, and other surprises—the perfect inspiration for freelance designers.

British Rail: Corporate Identity Manual

7. Red: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pages.

The vibrant color red has a wide range of symbolism, extending from love to violence, blood to fire, Communism to Coke. This multifaceted and forceful primary color is also rich in history, and the book follows its path in Western culture from prehistoric times to modern day.

The book illustrates the many meanings of the color red with artwork and illustrations, from a medieval demon’s flaming mouth to Marilyn Monroe’s fashion choices. With this wealth of visual stimulation and insight, the book is bound to make the process of picking your next project’s color palette all the more inspirational.

Also in the series: Black, Green and Blue: The History of a Color, all by Michel Pastoureau.

Red: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

8. Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK by Nicholas Bonner

Phaidon, 2017, 240 pages.

North Korea is a secretive and enigmatic nation, but this book is able to provide readers with a rare glimpse into the country’s design language, and possibly, into the daily life of its people. Based in Beijing, author Nicholas Bonner is also a tour guide in North Korea. Over his years of touring the country, Nicholas has managed to amass a large collection of graphic ephemera.

With 350 images, the book displays many of these items alongside brief explanations, teaching readers about the popularity of 3D postcards, the design of military parades, biscuit wrappers and more. The visual language that arises from the book is reminiscent of dated design that was perhaps more commonly used in the 1950’s, and brings up questions and curiosities of the gated culture that produced these items.

Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK by Nicholas Bonner
Two people reading art and design books

Phaidon, 2016, 320 pages.

Published for Tomi Ungerer’s 85th birthday, this treasury of eight of his children’s books is a wonderful commemoration of the acclaimed author and illustrator, who passed away earlier this year. The legacy Tomi left behind is prolific, with over 140 books published in his career. With this much abundance to choose from, this treasury is as a concise and exquisite collection of his works for children.

Bringing together a few of his most classic picture books, including “The Three Robbers,” “Moon Man,” and “Emile,” the treasury is gloriously designed to unify the different books’ styles. Included are also an interview with the author and other never-before-published materials, such as original sketches, storyboards and more.

Tomi Ungerer: A Treasury of 8 Books

10. Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Penguin Modern Classics, 2009, 176 pages (first published in 1972).

While plainly designed and arguably not the most coveted object in and of itself, this book’s discussion of the act of seeing is what makes it indispensable for designers. Based on the BBC television series by the same name, British visual thinker John Berger examines the ways in which looking is never a neutral act. Rather, he claims, it’s always a political one. As such, our vision always varies in relation to context, scale, taste, society, and other factors.

For designers, whose work is intended to be seen, the influential Ways of Seeing provides an interesting outlook into the meaning and the ambiguity of everything visual.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Two people holding art and design books

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