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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The Modernist: Graphic Design’s Mid-Century Muse

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Celebrating the hot-and-heavy love affair between classical modern and contemporary graphics.

Designers and illustrators have been mining the motherlode of mid-20th-century graphics for years, and now there’s a beautiful record of their inspired explorations. The Modernist, the latest exquisite anthology by Gestalten, draws the genealogical lines of graphic design from the bold images of the 1960s and ’70s to their post-millennial progeny — what we see on album and book covers, posters, and websites today.

It’s easy to see why work by masters such as Gerd Arntz and Otto Neurath provide inspiration to contemporary artists, designers, and illustrators. Especially as web design has matured, younger generations turned to the striking work of classical modernism, transforming its deliberately minimalist colors and geometry with new vector graphics tools. (And, lest we forget, the basic language of this now iconic composition itself drew on previous artistic movements like Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus school.)

The Modernist puts all of these pictorial relationships in perspective, with gorgeous spreads of top-notch design from both eras.

Fifty years in the making, The Modernist‘s gorgeous artwork will delight your senses, and its smart connect-the-dots visual storytelling will satisfy even your most voracious inner design geek.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Pretty Big Dig: Construction Cranes as Ballet Dancers

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Mechanical grace, or how to never look at a construction hat the same way again.

When Canadian choreographer and filmmaker Anne Troake was passing by a construction site one day, she observed the incredible orchestration with which the enormous machines moved, a special kind of mechanical choreography. So she wondered what it would be like to actually choreograph these giant dancers into a graceful ballet. The result was Pretty Big Dig — a poetic 2002 short film that articulates the assimilation of machines in the visual language of dance, with Troake’s characteristic undertone of humor and irreverence. This ABC clip about the project is the last remnant of the film online — a hint at the tragedy of how much creativity gets lost in analog archives and buried in closed-access libraries — but what it lakes in completeness it makes up for in sheer charm and inspiration, a beautiful manifestation of the incredible creativity that thrives at the intersection of wildly different disciplines.

More of and about Pretty Big Dig can be found on FREEDOM — a fascinating documentary about Troake’s work and unorthodox, cross-disciplinary approach to dance, alongside more of the world’s most eccentric, extraordinary dancers, choreographers and urban performers.

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Dear Me: Letters by Luminaries to Their 16-Year-Old Selves

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What the renouncement of dieting has to do with love and buying shares in Google.

Some moons ago, I came across this installment in The Rumpus’ wonderful Dear Sugar advice column, which proceeded to dash right past my unforgiving cheesiness radar and settle into that Really Excellent Read place. In it, Sugar shares 40-something wisdom with her 20-something self, reaching for those hard-learned truths with remarkable humor, vulnerability and grace. The piece reminded me of Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self — an absolutely fantastic older anthology of retrospective letters by luminaries spanning just about the entire cultural spectrum, from Oscar and Pulitzer winners to doctors to comedians to musicians and more, envisioned and compiled by Joseph Galliano. The roster of contributors includes icons like Yoko Ono, Stephen Fry, Debbie Harry and many more, with proceeds from the book benefiting the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Elton John

Dear Debbie, Moon, Debeel, or Deb,

Just because you have a lot of different names, and maybe feel like there’s a lot of different yours, don’t be confused. Give yourself some time and all the ideas and possibilities that these names conjure up for you will become clear to you. The pieces of the puzzle will reveal themselves and all you have to do is keep finding out what makes you feel happiest and this oftentimes will be the easiest thing for you to do. This is remarkable in itself. That the most obvious is often the best choice and can lead to something wonderful and satisfying.”

~ Debbie Harry

Alan Carr

Actually, buy shares in Google. That should sort just about everything out.” ~ Danny Wallace

Emma Thompson

When he says he doesn’t love you, believe him. He doesn’t.” ~ Emma Thompson

Annie Lennox

Sandra Bernhard

Stephen King

Equal parts poignant and entertaining, Dear Me is an endearing reminder of how much we’ve grown and, perhaps far more importantly, that the only way we grow, the only way we get things right, is by getting them horribly, horribly wrong first — and that’s quite okay.

Thanks to the lovely Letters of Note for the reminder

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