Brain Pickings

Bibliographic: The 100 Best Design Books of the Past 100 Years

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What James Bond title sequences have to do with the secret of happiness and the evolution of public signage.

Design is an incredibly self-referential for of expression, and that’s quite alright, as I deeply believe creativity is combinatorial — everything borrows from what came before, everything is a remix, all creative work is essentially derivative work. So knowledge of what came before greatly enriches and empowers our creativity. And, over the past century alone, countless books have been published to make sense of the landscape, language and legacy of graphic design, each exploring a specific facet of this complex ecosystem of visual communication. But how does it all fit together? That’s exactly what Jason Godfrey set out to investigate in 2009 in Bibliographic: 100 Classic Graphic Design Books — yes, it’s a graphic design book about graphic design books, and it doesn’t get any more meta than this, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Godfrey culls the 100 most influential design books of the past 100 years, contextualizing each with succinct background text on what makes it exceptional and important. The collection spans an incredible range of style, genre, subject matter, geography, and cultural concern, from the stories of the pioneering type foundries to vintage Polish film posters to classic graphic design manuals by László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Müller-Brockmann to contemporary design visionaries like Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher.

A foreword by none other than Steven Heller adds an irresistibly delicious cherry on top.

These vintage books are untapped repositories of design knowledge, as relevant today as they were when first published.” ~ Steven Heller

What makes Bibliographic all the more valuable is that the majority of the books featured have entered collector’s-item status and are quite hard — not to mention expensive — to get on their own.

A few of my favorite titles in the anthology:

  • Long before there was The Visual Miscellaneum or Data Flow, there was Graphis diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data — a seminal vision for the convergence of aesthetics and information value, originally published in 1974. Features work by icons like Saul Bass, Leo and Diane Dillon, Milton Glaser, Richard Saul Wurman and many more.
  • Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes and her Make It Bigger, titled after the most resented yet prevalent client frustration of all, looks at design’s role in corporate culture, exploring what it is that makes design a powerful and effective business tool.
  • As a big fan of found typography and architectural lettering, I can’t stress the delightfulness of Words and buildings: The art and practice of public lettering enough — a fascinating convergence of architecture and graphic design that preceded recent treats like Store Front and Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by four decades, exploring the evolution of public signage and typographic wayfinding.
  • He may be known as the granddaddy of grump, a professional curmudgeon, but iconic designer Paul Rand is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of design both as a creative discipline and a business philosophy — his Thoughts on Design, originally published in 1947, is a philosophical treatise on the role of design and the importance of “function-aesthetic perfection” in modern art.
  • Stefan Sagmeister is easily one of my top three favorite designers alive today, and his Things I have learned in my life so far is quite possibly my favorite design book of all time — a poetic reflection on life, the meaning of happiness, and the human condition by way of Sagmeister’s unique, playful, irreverent visual language.

As much an incredible primer for those just dipping their toes in design as a rich and lavish treasure chest of beloved allusions for the polished design nerd, Bibliographic is an absolute gem from cover to glorious cover.

Thanks, @kirstinbutler

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