How, exactly, do you become a graphic designer without losing your soul? How do great graphic designers think? Thankfully, not that many graphic designers are the strong, silent types, and plenty of them have chosen to impart the wisdom they’ve garnered throughout their careers in the pages of an educational book or two. It’s rare to find a writer get 10 or 20 years into their careers and suddenly decide to take on a couple of visual identity projects, yet hordes of designers decide to write books later in their working life. But what makes them worth reading?
The audience for books about graphic design is pretty niche: graphic designers. Where art books serve more than just artists—they also provide inspiration to those prone to frequenting the Met, who aren’t necessarily part of the “art world” (and they’re handy, classy go-to for gift ideas). The same applies to photographic volumes. It’s really only design books that preach to the choir.
For Michael Johnson, co-founder of London branding consultancy Johnson Banks, his book Branding. In Five and a Half Steps looked to bridge a gap between “academic branding books that are incredibly dry and hard to follow,” and “identity books aimed at designers that act as little more than logo eye candy for creatives a bit stuck for inspiration.” He explains, “Branding is a specialized industry with its own unique language and methods, but it’s an industry split in two. On one side, there are strategists wielding impenetrable charts, proprietary methods, and PowerPoint decks, whose job it is to research, distil, and provide insight. On the other, the designers and communicators who interpret the strategic ideas and bring a brand or a campaign to life.
“The books available tend to be written for one side or the other… by opening up the process, especially the early stages, I could be doing everyone a big favour, from foundation students to clients and peers. It’s fair to say, however, that those who want to protect their smoke, mirrors, and proprietary processes aren’t so happy with me!”
His concern is that by being so open about the process, he’s made himself redundant. Designer Radim Malinic, of the agency Brand Nu, says similar things about his Book of Ideas. “I wanted to open the door wide open and show the world how I arrived at where I am today,” he says.
“The creative industry can be quite a tricky beast, and we need to know how to tackle it.”
It seems natural that in an era in which everyone shares the minutiae of their lives and careers online, that books would begin to offer a similar promise of lifting the curtain (albeit a very carefully constructed one) and showing a designer’s personality as well as their portfolio.
This was an important consideration for Kate Moross when writing her book, Make Your Own Luck. “I like design books when they have advice and anecdotes, so you can get to know someone. Personally I’m not a fan of pretentious or austere design books, which are just about concept and execution,” she says. “I like to see someone’s personality in a book. Alan Fletcher’s books are a perfect example of an educational book that’s full of personality.”
For Moross, making a book was all about speaking to young designers like herself about an industry that’s rapidly changing. “I wanted to show how accessible everything is, and not make it into this mysterious and unobtainable career,” she said.
“I took the DIY and punk attitudes and applied that to trying to make it as a designer or illustrator. I wanted to light a fire under people, and get them out of that cycle of fear that they aren’t good enough; that all they need to do is go out there, make work and show it off.”
Naturally, a designer writing a book isn’t simply doing so as a philanthropic way of imparting wisdom to the world. It will (or so they hope) have an impact on client work in the future. The easiest projects to get image clearance and offer insight on are, of course, your own; so for all their eye-opening, designers’ books will almost always act as a neat little portfolio of case studies, too.
This was certainly the case for Stefan Sagmeister and his book, Things I have learned in my life so far. “The series [of typographic works in the book] had an enormous impact on our regular client work. The studio has never been the same. If you look at our early work for the department store Aizone, you’ll see the impact immediately. And both the Happy Show and the Happy Film came out of it.”
Sagmeister’s approach to that publication was rather different, serving almost as a miniature monograph. He went about taking entries from his diary and turning these aphorisms into typographic works that later appeared across the world on billboards (in France and Portugal), in a Japanese annual report, on German television, in an Austrian magazine, as a New York direct mailer, and on an American poster campaign. These were then gathered into the book.
But why that format? “Initially I had integrated some of these projects in my regular design talks, and the feedback was good, so I ultimately held talks exclusively about them,” says Sagmeister. “Again, the feedback was good. This is where the idea came to make a self-contained book out of them.” He says that he felt he wanted to show that “it is possible to use the language of graphic design and express much more personal content. And of course, as I had written these maxims at one point into my diary, I really did believe in them. No cynicism here.”
This seems to be a common trait among designers turned authors; finding a way to journal and take stock of themselves, but in a very public forum that feels at once masochistic and cannily promotional. There’s nothing wrong with that—if you’re a graphic designer who doesn’t promote yourself or show your work to others, it’s unlikely much work will come your way, but there’s something interesting in the idea of getting to a certain point in your career and having to both remind yourself how far you’ve come, and examine where you want to go next.
“I wrote the book for myself so I don’t end up making the same fuck ups over and over again. It’s somewhere between a design book, monograph, self-help journal, and biography of mistakes and mishaps,” says Malinic. “Many design books are manuals or instruction guides offering a set of rules to follow. I wanted to question common problems, ethics, and philosophies with my own take on them while offering open-ended questions to let the reader make up their own mind.”
Tellingly, Malinic’s book doesn’t always offer answers to these questions. Maybe as with authors of fiction, prose, journals, or essays, designers’ books can be as much a personal sense of figuring things out as a way of showing how much the author knows.
“Thus far, I haven’t been very interested in a record of my work and would query quite how useful that would be,” Johnson muses. “I’m more interested in the patterns and process of what I, and others do, not the printed equivalent of the ‘my work’ lecture.”
Everyone I spoke with bemoaned the sheer hard work that it takes to write a book, especially when balanced with client work. For Johnson, it meant “about a year of almost constant weekend working, plus a punishing period of 5:30 a.m. starts to allow for a stretch of writing before my ‘proper’ day would start.” For Malinic, “I wrote most of the copy on my iPhone while travelling to and from meetings… It affected my project workflow but I got the work done.” Sagmeister sums up his writing process rather neatly: “It was scary in the beginning, fine in the middle and joyful at the end.”
While assessing any creative endeavour is entirely subjective, a few designers’ books are referenced time and again as not only useful and well designed, but well written. Many reference Pentagram partner Michael Bierut’s book How to… and 79 Short Essays on Design; Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways; the more image-led design classic Visual Comparisons by Forbes, Fletcher Gill; Design, Form and Chaos, by Paul Rand. The obvious link between this little metaphorical library is that these books were all penned by design heavyweights. Hindsight allows us to see they they were destined to be classics, given the enduring legacies of their authors’ work. The quality of their design also means they look stunning, too.
So if you’re a designer considering sharing your wisdom, work, and process, our advice is to make it look amazing, have something new and original to say and, again, make it look amazing— heck it’s a book for designers, after all. You could also do worse than to keep Sagmeister’s words in mind:
“A good book either helps or delights other people. A bad book does not.”