If you could recommend only one book (on graphic design)
December 22, 2008
Over the years I've read a lot of design books and I have recommended many of them here. But a lot of people have ask me if I would recommend just one book (proving again that the more choices you offer the harder it is to decide; the paradox of choice). It's difficult to recommend just one book for the non-designer interested in becoming more design mindful. But if you are looking to take a first step in learning about the fundamentals of graphic design with an eye toward becoming a better judge of what is effective visual communication and what is not, then I suggest The Non-Designer's Design Book, 3rd Edition (208 pages) by Robin Williams. This book has sold a ton over the years and is highly recommended by just about everyone. It's not an overly comprehensive book, but I like it because it's small and focused on a just a few fundamentals that, if understood well, can indeed make a difference.
If you don't mind a book twice as thick, then you could get The Non-Designer's Design and Type Books, Deluxe Edition (448 pages) by Robin Williams. This is a combination of the Non-Designers Design book plus the Non-Designer's Type book.
A bit more meaty
If you want something a little bit more challenging, but still very much accessible and engaging, I suggest The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architecture, and Type (160 pages) by Alexander white. I like this book too because it's relatively small and easy to take with you as you travel. This is one of my favorite graphic design books and is a good complement to Williams' books on the basics. White goes into a bit more depth on space, unity, type, etc. and features a discussion on "the seven design components (including Gestalt, etc.) which I summarize here on my website.
Right, so I said I would suggest just one book and then went and mentioned two (or three, depending on how you're counting). Another great book is Universal Principles of Design (216 pages) by William Lidwell et al. I love this book but it's a larger hardcover. At some point you will want to get this one for your bookshelf. So, do you have a design-related book that you can recommend? In other words, if you could suggest only one book on graphic design, what would it be? What one book has been the most useful for you?
My recommendation, from what I have used, is The Designer's Desktop Manual. It is a good starting point for anyone who has limited experience with desktop design processes and common design software. Many helpful hints in a clear and easy to follow format.
Posted by: Michael Eury | December 22, 2008 at 03:34 PM
I like Design Basics Index, by Jim Krause. It's a very good book covering all important concepts of graphic design.
The format of the book makes it easy to carry in a luggage.
Posted by: Pierre Morsa | December 22, 2008 at 03:58 PM
Slide:ology covers the basics for non-designers who just want to know enough to put together a decent-looking Powerpoint slide.
Posted by: Olivia Mitchell | December 22, 2008 at 05:47 PM
Thanks for this recommendation, Garr. I've just ordered it from my local independent bookseller and look forward to it gracing my resource shelf. I like the idea that it's written specifically for people like me who care a lot about design but don't have that background.
Posted by: Tammy Lenski | December 22, 2008 at 08:15 PM
I see you also recommend Edward Tufte's books. What I'd like to know is what you think of his one day seminar? For several years, I've thought of attending when it is offered close to where I live, but then I wonder if this is just one of those intellectual luxuries that is fascinating without a lot of application. Are the books better after the seminar than without it?
Posted by: Ed Brenegar | December 22, 2008 at 09:16 PM
I'd second slide:ology, it really is surprisingly comprehensive in its treatment of design fundamentals.
I also have a soft spot for Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style...but perhaps a bit print-oriented for this site?
Posted by: The Leadership Factor | December 22, 2008 at 11:13 PM
I have three of the four books you mention and many others but if I had to pick one book, my absolute favourite is Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual by Timothy Samara (Rockport).
The Elements of Graphic Design would be my second favourite but it's nowhere near as complete as Design Elements not does it contain as much actionable information.
Posted by: Peter | December 23, 2008 at 02:42 AM
There's two terribly written paragraphs. Sorry for the typos. Not=nor.
Posted by: Peter | December 23, 2008 at 02:44 AM
If you have read Tufte's books, you have attended his seminar. I went last year (only because work paid for it) and found the seminar interesting but providing nothing I couldn't get out of his books. The seminar felt like more of a demonstration of the concepts in his book. There was a lot of "go to this page and read." After you read the selection, he would discuss the concept in more detail.
The books are very good and the seminar is a good presentation of his work, but it is not necessary to go to the seminar to really grasp Tufte's ideas.
Posted by: Justin | December 23, 2008 at 04:06 AM
I think the "Design of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman is a great book. It is not about slides or layout or web pages. It is about designing everyday things (and everything) for easy and obvious use. I think this book is a must read for anyone interested in making things (software, web sites or otherwise) that people need to interact with.
Posted by: Dean | December 23, 2008 at 04:13 AM
Not really a contribution to this list, but something worth mentioning.
Following a discussion with my architect about our apartment refurbishment, he handed me a worn out copy of "The Modulor 1&2" by Le Corbusier. (Standard reading for architecture students).
The text of the book is impossible to get through (for the architecture layman): dense, sometimes unfocused, in short (* excuse me *) slightly boring.
However, the sketches and drawings are an inspiration. This obsession of trying to find/apply the perfect proportion, the perfect balance, the golden ratio, in everything (really everything) you design.
I am unlikely to become as obsessed with 1:0.618 ratios, but pay attention now when I can to play around more with pleasing proportions (and reducing symmetrical compositions as much as possible)
Posted by: Jan Schultink | December 23, 2008 at 05:37 AM
Good call on Robin William's book. As soon as I read the headline I was clicking through to suggest the title but you already caught it. I have recommended it so many times to so many people. Timeless, simple, easy to remember. It gives you the first 80% of being any good at layout and design. I wish that everyone read this book.
Posted by: Tim Maly | December 23, 2008 at 08:21 AM
Thanks everyone. All of the suggestions are excellent!
About Tufte, yes, I recommend his seminar if he is in your town. And yes, some people have said it was very interesting but in the end not so practical. But to be fair, this could be said of most 1-day seminars. In the end it is up to us to change.
Thanks again! -g
Posted by: Garr | December 23, 2008 at 12:33 PM