Brain Pickings

The Best Books of 2010: Art, Design & Photography

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Analog interactivity, or what flowcharts have to do with the history of street art.

We reviewed a lot of books this year and after curating the best in Business, Life & Mind yesterday, we’re back with our 10 favorites in Art, Design & Photography — a continuation of our end-of-year best-of series. (Earlier this week, we covered the best albums and the most compelling long reads published online this year.)

TREE OF CODES

Without a shadow of a doubt, Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes is the most ambitious book project of the year. So ambitious, in fact, nearly all bookbinders Foer approached deemed it unmakable. But when Belgian publishing house Die Keure eventually approached the problem with a make-it-work mindset, what came out was a brilliant piece of “analog interactive storytelling” — a book created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. The die-cut narrative hangs in an aura of negative space for a beautiful blend of sculpture and storytelling, adding a layer of physicality to the reading experience in a way that completely reshapes your relationship with text and the printed page.

We reviewed it in full here, complete with a sneak peek of the pages and remarkable making-of footage.

I WONDER

Marian Bantjes, a remarkably diverse creator, she calls herself a ‘graphic artist’ and is an avid advocate for self-education and self-reinvention. Stefan Sagmeister, a longtime Brain Pickings favorite, calls her “one of the most innovative typographers working today” — with no exaggeration. (So innovative, in fact, that Sean “P. Diddy” Combs felt compelled to shamelessly, blatantly rip her off recently.) Her latest book, I Wonder, is a remarkable journey of visual joy and conceptual fascination, intersecting logic, beauty and quirk in an utterly breathtaking way.

Our full review, alongside stunning spreads from the book and Bantjes’ fantastic TED talk, can be found here.

EVERYTHING EXPLAINED THROUGH FLOWCHARTS

Flowcharts have risen to pop culture notoriety with their delightful intersection of geekery, design and humor. Everything Explained Through Flowcharts by standup comedian and book designer Doogie Horner is the absolute pinnacle of the hipster meme. It goes by the tagline “All of Life’s Mysteries Unraveled” and flowcharts the way to everything from world domination to getting laid to the religion that offers the best afterlife in over 200 illustrations, 40 gargantuan flowcharts and various supporting materials — essays, graphs, annotations — bound to fill your semi-secret inner geek with glee.

Our full review features a sneak peek of the quirky goodness inside, including a flowchart guide to psychoanalyzing Facebook portraits.

ALPHABETS

Our obsession with visual storytelling around the alphabet is self-evident. And nothing fuels that obsession more richly than Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters — an ambitious exploration of the pervasiveness of letters in everyday life, tracing our visual vocabulary to its roots in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Kanji characters and other ancient alphabets with rich illustrations, beautiful graphic design and typography, found objects, graffiti and more.

X from Pin Ups

From a provocative book shaping letters out of women's bodies represented by negative space

The full review, complete with beautiful artwork from the book, was one of our most-tweeted articles this year.

DESIGNING MEDIA

Design titan Bill Moggridge has formidable credentials — director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, co-founder of design innovation powerhouse IDEO, and considered a pioneer of interaction design. IN Designing Media, he explores the evolution of mainstream media, both mass and personal, looking closely at the points of friction between old and new media models and the social norms they have sprouted.

From design to civic engagement to the real-time web, Moggridge offers a faceted and layered survey of how our media habits came to be, where they’re going, and what it all means for how we relate to the world and each other — all through 37 fascinating interviews with some of today’s greatest media innovators, including This American Life‘s Ira Glass, Pandora founder Tim Westergren, prominent New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn, Twitter founder @Ev, statistical stuntsman Hans Rosling, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The book comes with a companion DVD, featuring the video interviews and other media content.

Our full review, complete with sample pages, quotes, and a video interview of Ira Glass, can be found here.

TRESSPASS

We have a soft spot for both Taschen books and street art, so it’s no surprise that Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art — the fantastic new book by WoosterCollective founders Marc and Sara Schiller — made us swoon. From Guatemalan guerrilla gardeners to icons like Banksy and Barry McGee, the visually astounding anthology is as much an exhaustive compendium of compelling artwork as it is a modern manifesto for activism, democracy and freedom of speech.

On a related note, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the controversial and critically acclaimed Banksy documentary, is out on DVD this week and we’re giving away 10 copies!

MAD MEN ILLUSTRATED

Two years ago, we featured the wonderful work of NYC-based illustrator, designer and comedian Dyna Moe, whose Mad Men illustrations eventually charmed AMC into launching the popular Mad Men Yourself app, which has since populated countless Twitter streams with Mad-Menified avatars. This fall, Dyna Moe released her dynamite work in Mad Men: The Illustrated World — a truly, truly fantastic book that captures not only everything we love about Mad Men, but also the broader cultural landscape of the era, from fashion and style to office culture to lifehacks like hangover workarounds and secretary etiquette.

Mad Men Illustrated

We reviewed it in full here. (And for a fitting companion, try Sterling’s Gold — Roger Sterling’s priceless fictional memoir.)

THE EXQUISITE BOOK

In the 1920s, a collective of Surrealists invented exquisite corpse, a game-like collaborative creation process wherein each contributor tacks on to a composition either by following a strict rule or by being only shown what the last person has contributed. This year, a collective of Brooklyn-based designers replicated the exquisite corpse idea in The Exquisite Book: 100 Artists Play a Collaborative Game — a brilliant collaborative illustration project, two years in the making, that enlisted 100 of today’s most talented visual artist and designers to co-create a book by building on each other’s work.

Sample this gem of a book with a few wonderful spreads in our full review.

DATA FLOW 2

You didn’t think we’d go without a data visualization book, did you? And nothing hit the sweet spot this year better than Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design — the brilliant sequel 2008′s now-iconic Data Flow, a compelling anthology of work in all of data visualization as a broad and cross-disciplinary creative medium, from static infographics to dynamic interactive visualizations to physical data sculptures and beyond. The book is equal parts visual indulgence and conceptual intelligence, with artwork from and interviews of the leading creators in this field of increasing cultural relevance, as information continues to proliferate and overwhelm.

Our full review features juicy spreads from the book and an exclusive quote from data viz superstar Aaron Koblin.

BARK

Tree bark may not sound like the most exciting or relatable of subjects but, in fact, it is both. Not only do we come in contact with it constantly in our daily lives, from cinnamon to cork to chewing gum to rubber, but it’s also a hauntingly beautiful, textured piece of living matter that looks like the skin of some magnificent mythical dragon. French photographer Cedric Pollet travels the world to capture this beauty and has documented it in his gorgeous new book, Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees. The book is as much a stunning visual treat for color and photography lovers alike as it is a visceral manifesto for biodiversity and reforestation, two of today’s most pressing issues in preserving the amazing world we inherited.

Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), a flowering deciduous tree native to South America's tropical forests

Image by Cedric Pollet

The full review, which features a gallery of stunning images from the book, is one our most-shared articles on Facebook this year.

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