7 must-read books for design students

Heading off to uni this year, and looking for recommendations for graphic design books to keep you inspired? Maybe you're already studying and keen to expand your mind further. You might even already be a practicing designer.

Either way, these essential texts should be on your bookshelf. 

The following books will add real-world context to your studies, give you that extra spark of inspiration, and help you hit the ground running as a more rounded designer when you enter the industry.

01. Paul Rand: A Designer's Art

Branding legend Paul Rand explores the why of graphic design in this collection of essays

Branding legend Paul Rand explores the why of graphic design in this collection of essays

Held by many to be the father of modern branding, American art director and graphic designer Paul Rand is best known for his logo designs for big-name clients such as IBM, UPS and NeXT. His book Design, Form and Chaos is out of print – although it's worth seeking out for insight into some of his most famous identity work – but for the full Rand, you want his 1985 book, Paul Rand: A Designer's Art.

Over the course of 27 essays he explores the process of graphic design in general: why it's important; the impact it can have on society; what works, what doesn't, and most importantly, why.

02: The Art of Looking Sideways

Alan Fletch questions everything about design, and does it with style

Alan Fletch questions everything about design, and does it with style

Pentagram co-founder Alan Fletcher wrote a number of books over the course of his career, but this is the best known: an ultimate primer in visual intelligence, questioning the way designers think about everything from colour to composition.

Consisting of 72 chapters filled with anecdotes, quotations, images, curious facts and useless information, oddities, serious science, jokes and memories, it's an irresistible collection of wisdom and insight designed to delight and inspire anyone who appreciates the interplay between word and image.

03. How to be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul

Adrian Shaughnessy is a no-nonsense bible for design students

Adrian Shaughnessy is a no-nonsense bible for design students

Design consultant and writer Adrian Shaughnessy’s seminal text is a no-nonsense career manual to help lead you through the perks and pitfalls of the modern design industry. 

As the title implies, at the core is the premise that once you graduate and take your first steps into professional life, there’s a risk of settling into mindless and unfulfilling bread-and-butter projects if you’re not careful.

Shaughnessy’s book is a manual for independent-minded designers who prefer to work on something more meaningful and rewarding, and as such is packed with the kind of advice you won’t get taught at college. 

This revised 2010 edition includes chapters covering professional skills, the creative process, and global trends: including green issues, ethics and the rise of digital culture.

04. A Smile in the Mind

Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart and Greg Quinton update the seminal design guide of the 90s

Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart and Greg Quinton update the seminal design guide of the 90s

A Smile in the Mind was fast-established as one of the most influential design books when it was published in 1996, and was given an overhaul 20 years later under the watchful eye of The Partners’ ECD Greg Quinton.

While How to Be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul will shore up your business savvy and get you ready for the machinations of the industry, A Smile in the Mind is visual stimulation for the mind: a springboard for ideas-driven design.

Ultimately, the book establishes wit as the magic ingredient to develop a truly engaging brand, as illustrated by an extensive selection of inspirational projects from around the world over the last four decades. All told, a great reference for developing and strengthening your ideas.

05. Branding In Five-and-a-Half Steps

Track the process of a design mogul as he graciously reveals his process

Track the process of a design mogul as he graciously reveals his process

Johnson Banks’ recent ‘open-source’ rebrand of Mozilla put the award-winning agency’s thorough creative process firmly in the public eye, inviting comment and critique from the public at large.

In a similar spirit of transparency, creative director Michael Johnson lays bare the wisdom of over two decades at the forefront of the branding industry with his 2016 book Branding In Five-and-a-Half Steps – an invaluable manual about the creative process.

For Johnson, there was a perfect sweet-spot between the many dense tomes on brand strategy, and the equally prolific inspirational showcases. This book demystifies the links and overlaps between the two, and is both practical and inspirational.

In it, he breaks down the five steps in Johnson Banks’ branding process – including a fluid ‘half-step’ between strategy and design – and explains how it all works, from the perspective of a world-class studio.

06. How to

Michael Beirut: a man of few words

Michael Beirut: a man of few words

If the full 10-word title of Shaughnessy’s book isn’t quite wordy enough for your newly established design bookshelf, up steps Michael Bierut to triple it, with: How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world.

Published in 2015, the veteran designer and Pentagram New York partner puts a fresh twist on the conventional monograph by treating it as a combination of manual and manifesto.

Using 35 projects by way of demonstration, Bierut illustrates the varied role that graphic design plays in the modern world, from his own invariably entertaining perspective. 

By including rough sketches and rejected ideas alongside the finished work, he also makes the towering success of his career much more accessible to anyone at the start of theirs – and the book is packed with insights into the creative process.

07. Graphic Design Rants and Raves

Steven Heller's text explores design from a cultural and psychological perspective

Steven Heller's text explores design from a cultural and psychological perspective

Our final recommended book is a fascinating 2017 anthology of thought-provoking essays by art director, author and lecturer Steven Heller. These will help hone your critical edge and question the changing role of design in the wider world.

Covering the full spectrum of graphic design and related art and culture, Heller’s 40-plus essays cover everything from the relationship between design and sex to the role of design in the recent US Presidential race.

Read these highly-recommended books, and you’ll be well on the way to becoming a well-rounded, 21st-century designer when you graduate.

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