A well-rounded collection of design books includes so much more than basic how-to guides.
From deep dives into the ins and outs of design, to books for pure inspiration, we’ve broken our recommendations into five categories so you can build a balanced bookshelf that will keep you intrigued, challenged, and inspired:
- Color, typography, and structure
- Business and professional development
- Inclusive design
- Books that make you think
- Books to get you excited about the power of design
Let’s dive in.
Design books about color, typography, and structure
Start strong by adding these design books to the reference section of your personal library.
1. The Designer’s Dictionary of Color
This is not your basic color wheel from primary school. The Designer’s Dictionary of Color by Sean Adams includes an in-depth analysis of 30 colors that are considered crucial in art and design. Sean breaks colors into four categories — warm, cool, neutral, and specialty — and uses examples to demonstrate how different colors and shades evoke certain emotions.
2. Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students
The second edition of Thinking with Type builds on the already strong foundation Ellen Lupton created in the original. Ellen uses a mix of essays, real-world examples, theoretical concepts, and exercises to explain how typography affects visual communication.
The updated version addresses web-specific typography challenges such as font pairing and licensing, image captions, and styling for the web. As the title suggests, this is a must-have guide for anyone who deals with text.
3. Geometry of Design
If this title is making you sweat over math class flashbacks, don’t worry — Kimberly Elam’s book won’t ask you to take a pop quiz. Instead, Kimberly explains the role geometry often plays in making great designs visually appealing. Geometry of Design includes examples ranging from architecture to painting. Plus, some pages include transparent overlays that demonstrate the geometrical structure of a design.
4. Drawing Type: An Introduction to Illustrating Letterforms
If you learn by doing, Drawing Type: An Introduction to Illustrating Letterforms by Alex Fowkes is for you. This book is part guide, part workbook so you can try your hand (literally) at hand-drawn typefaces in the practical exercise portion of the book. Alex introduces a variety of letterforms through interviews with type-designers, snippets of sketchbooks that demonstrate the process, and real-world examples.
5. The Secret Lives of Color
Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color takes you through the colorful histories (pun intended) of 75 different shades.
Ever wonder how particular hues got their name or why certain colors evoke different emotions? This collection of essays and historical stories has those answers and more. Pick up this book for an exploration of the significance of color.
Design books for business and professional development
Ready to make art that also makes money? Check out these books that focus on the business side of design.
6. How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul
If you’re new to the business side of design, How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy is a solid resource. Adrian shares advice on winning projects, interpreting briefs, working with difficult clients, and more. While it’s not as philosophical as the title implies, it does encourage newer designers to think about the projects they take on. Plus, you’ll get to learn from experienced designers through the interviews included in the book.
7. Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits
Author and designer, Debbie Millman explores the connections between branding and design in Brand Thinking and other Noble Pursuits. This book is a collection of interviews with a variety of respected designers, marketers, and authors — making it easy to read in spurts. Let Debbie’s conversations with other bright minds inspire you to think about branding and design from different perspectives.
8. Copy this Book: An Artist’s Guide to Copyright
If you want to protect yourself and your work, Copy this Book: An Artist’s Guide to Copyright by Eric Schrijver has the guidance you need. With the help of legal editor, Julien Cabay, Eric explains the basics of copyright law including how to copyright your work, how long those rights last, and how copyright functions across different mediums.
9. Freelance, and Business, and Stuff
Twin sisters Amy and Jen Hood provide a wealth of practical advice in Freelance, and Business, and Stuff. Anyone hoping to turn their talents into a paycheck can benefit from Amy and Jen’s guidance, humor, and hands-on worksheets. This book covers important topics such as freelance finances, contracts, and growing your client base.
10. Branding: In Five and a Half Steps
Author and graphic designer Michael Johnson explains the crucial role that design plays in branding. Branding: In Five and a Half Steps is a blend of illustrations and well-researched case studies that help the reader understand how brands become successful.
Michael’s breakdown of the brand development process will help you approach branding through the lens of design.
Design books about inclusive design
Beautiful design is for everyone. These books teach you how to make design accessible, inclusive, and diverse.
11. Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design
In Mismatch, author Kat Holmes challenges the notion that designers should design for the majority and address “mismatches” later on. Instead, Kat argues that designing with inclusion in mind from the start leads to more creativity and innovation, not to mention more functional design for everyone. She supports this argument through stories of designers whose own experiences of exclusion-by-design motivated them to create more inclusive solutions.
12. Cross-Cultural Design
The internet is global and multicultural, so your designs should be as well. Cross-Cultural Design by Senongo Akpem provides a framework for conducting user research across different cultures and then explains how to incorporate that research into thoughtful, inclusive design. This book serves as a reminder to challenge your Western assumptions so you can create experiences that are accessible to a wider audience.
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13. Don’t Make Me Think
In Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug explores the web development side of design. Steve discusses the principles of intuitive navigation and web usability in a conversational tone, making this a quick and easy read. Plus, the second edition includes new chapters on mobile usability and web accessibility along with clear guidance for usability testing.
14. A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences
A Web for Everyone by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery is a go-to resource for anyone designing for the web. Sarah and Whitney present accessibility as a way of thinking about and approaching design — not just a couple of checkboxes you look at during the final stages of a project.
15. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision
As the title suggests, The Senses: Design Beyond Vision edited by Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps challenges the reader to think about more than the visual aspects of design. The book is the result of a museum exhibition of the same name, which invited visitors to explore a variety of tactile design experiences.
Throughout the book, you’re treated to beautiful illustrations, photographs, and thought-provoking essays by respected designers. If you need some think-outside-the-box inspiration, grab a copy of this book.
Design books that make you think
Challenge your mind with design books that encourage you to learn the cognitive, psychological, and functional aspects of design.
16. The Art of Looking Sideways
Clocking in at 72 chapters and over 1,000 pages, The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher is an extensive collection of quotes, illustrations, musings, science, and more. This hefty coffee table book is less of a guide and more of a source of inspiration. Its format is perfect for dipping in and out of the book whenever you need a creativity boost.
17. I Wonder
Marian Bantjes is both the writer and typographic illustrator behind I Wonder — a book that is itself a piece of art, with gold and silver foils shining throughout the pages. In a series of essays, Marian shares her thoughts on topics ranging from pasta shapes to the letterforms of the English alphabet
18. The Shape of Design
In The Shape of Design, author and illustrator Frank Chimero discusses design through a more philosophical rather than practical perspective. Through a series of essays, Frank encourages readers to consider the how and why of design, the root cause of creative blocks, and the impact of design. And because Frank self-published this book, you have the option to read it for free online.
19. The Design of Everyday Things
If you’ve ever marveled at or grumbled about how a product was designed — The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman will intrigue you. Don explores what makes a design succeed or fail, then shares design principles and methods that lead to user-friendly designs. While some examples are a bit dated — rotary phones, for instance — the psychology and experience behind the advice are still solid.
Books to get you excited about the power of design
While not all these books belong in the design section of a bookstore, they still deserve a spot on your personal bookshelf. This mix of fiction, graphic novels, and even kids books will inspire you to think about design in new ways.
20. Self-Portrait as Your Traitor
Debbie Millman gets a second mention on this list with her collection of illustrated essays and poems, Self-Portrait as Your Traitor. Debbie gives you a look into her own mind with stories told through thoughtful typography. Pick up a copy of this book if you’re looking for a visually engaging way to get your creativity flowing.
21. Invisible Cities
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino takes you on a fictional but inspiring journey through 55 different cities. Instead of focusing on plot and characters like traditional fiction, this book centers on the design and desires that shape cities. Think of it like a trippy version of user research. While this book is short enough to be a quick read, you may find yourself savoring the visual descriptions throughout.
22. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Delve into the visual language of comics in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. Whether you’re a long-time comics lover or new to the art, this book will draw you in. Scott explains how our minds process comics and touches on how visual storytelling has shown up in cultures throughout history.
23. The Longest Day of the Future
Cartoonist Lucas Varela’s book, The Longest Day of the Future, proves that you don’t always need words to tell a compelling story. This wordless graphic novel delivers a critique of consumerism through the lens of sci-fi tropes. Grab this book to see how amazing visuals can convey a message just as well as written content.
24. Aaron Becker's Wordless Trilogy
One story told across three wordless books — Journey, Quest, and Return — all illustrated by Aaron Brecker. While these books technically belong in the children’s section, the enchanting visuals are a delight for all ages. The trilogy features children armed with markers that they use to draw entirely new worlds for them to explore.
Which design books have earned a spot on your shelf?
Hopefully, you’ve already added a few of these books to your cart or decided it’s time to head to your local library or bookstore. We can’t wait to see what these books inspire you to create. If you have any suggestions of helpful or inspiring books for designers, add them in the comments below.