8 Design Books You Should Own

Think back to when you first learned design. Where did you start? Likely it in some way was connected to a book, whether on your own or in a classroom. And you still need books today. Having a great stack of reference materials on hand as I work is a must.

Need a little inspiration? Grab a book. Looking for a color combo that you have not tried? Grab a book. Need a new way to present some information? Grab a book! Here are eight of my favorite resources – and items that I just could not work without.

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“Type Idea Index”


By Jim Krause
A variety of new online tools have made it really easy for designers to play with and pair fonts. But I still like the classic “Type Idea Index.” This handy guide may be pocket-sized, but it is exploding with ideas.

The book is set up in a series of themes to help you look at type examples based on the kind of project you are working on, and the examples are usable. Krause does not suggest going out on and spending a fortune on fonts for each project, rather offers suggestions for types of lettering that work in different situations.

My favorite part? This book contains a great glossary of type terms and jargon as well as a visual guide to the different parts of type. Not only does this guide help you understand the principles of type, it actually shows them to you.

I would also strongly recommended the other titles in the Idea Index series, although I only included one on this list, they are equally useful. (“Layout Index,” “Design Basics Index,” “Color Index,” “Photo Idea Index,” and “Idea Index.”)

“The Designer’s Web Handbook”


By Patrick McNeil
Designing for a digital project? “The Designer’s Web Handbook” has you covered. This super-easy to read guide breaks down all things web — from putting together a blog or full-blown website to designing an email newsletter.

The screenshots and samples used throughout are fantastic examples of best practices. Even better, the author makes sure to include plenty of links to the work online so that you can visit some of the sites he explains.

The best part of this book is how it is put together. It is essentially a planning guide for putting together a website, including all of the tools you need from conceptualization to execution.

“Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain”

By Stafan Mumaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield
Look away from your computer. Sometimes the best design practice is a jolt of creativity. “Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain” and its counterpart, “Caffeine for the Creative Team: 150 Exercises to inspire Group Innovation,” are full of ideas to spark imagination and brainstorming.

Yes, some of the exercises are silly. But sometimes the best way to work through a problem is to think about something entirely different for a while. Trying a creative exercise or two can be just the way to do that.

“The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook”


By Tim Harrower and Julie Elman
The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook” is a book for everyone – not just the newspaper set.

Tim Harrower and Julie Elman (both rockstars in the newspaper design world) break down the basics of design for anyone wanting to understand how it works. The examples are fresh and easy to understand.

Moreover, the book (there are seven editions to choose from) explains philosophies of modern design in a way that apply to almost every designer – from print to online to advertising and digital media. This is a great tool for beginners working in print or digital design and a time-tested reference material for the rest of us.

“Above the Fold: Understanding the Principles of Successful Web Site Design”


By Brian Miller
Above the Fold” is written with the web designer in mind. It emphasizes the concepts of good design online and what makes websites work.

Further, it provides a starting point and link between the key players in a site design project – designer, client or site owner and user.

The book is a great tool for refining the thought process and making sure a good-looking site is also a site that is user-friendly and well-planned and organized. The author’s explanations are simple, direct and easy to understand (even for designers who may not come from a web background). It is a great book to read and then come back to during different projects.

“Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide For Designers, Writers, Editors & Students”

By Ellen Lupton
Ellen Lupton is the authority on type theory and understanding, and “Thinking with Type” is a perfect guide for any designer. (The accompanying website is also full of great tips and information.)

What is great about this book is it provides a comprehensive understanding of type without being font specific – use Typekit or Google web fonts if you are only looking to match typefaces. The book explains type and how to use it as a visual element. It also provides great examples and context to help you make decisions about what types of lettering to use.

The other real bonus to this book is that it is very visual – one of the most visual books on type that I have seen. You can really see the examples and what they mean.

“Color Design Workbook: A Real-World Guide to Using Color in Graphic Design”


By Terry Lee Stone with Sean Adams and Noreen Morioka
Color theory is explained simply and in detail in this “workbook” that is a little more like a text book. “Color Design Workbook” includes everything from a glossary of color-related words to color theory and meanings to how people respond to color.

Further, the book is published in full-color and is filled with bits of inspiration for creating combinations and how different hues look together. My favorite part? The book showcases different printed materials and color palettes as a primer to starting with color and the CMYK mixes for each color.

Finally, one of the more interesting sections of the book includes case studies of different firms and materials, the colors used for certain publications (print and online) and how each worked. The examples are terrific and great for getting you thinking visually.

“The Elements of Style”

By William Strunk and E. B. White
No website is complete without text. The classic little book, “The Elements of Style,” explains the ins and outs of grammar and usage for even the most novice writer.

Some of the best chapters include lists of misused expressions and commonly misspelled words. (make sure to check and double check these items.)

This little book was first published in 1919 and has been the authority on writing since. From it you should take away two basic principles for writing and composition: “Make every word tell” and “Omit needless words.”

A Few More Titles

  • “Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills” by David Sherwin
  • “Eyetracking the News” by Sara Quinn, Pegie Stark, Rick Edmonds, Julie Moos and Anne Van Wagener
  • “HTML and CSS: Design and Build Websites” by Jon Duckett
  • “Logo Design Love” by David Airey
  • “Creative Stuff: An Activity Book for Visual Thinkers” by Dave Gouveia and Chris Elkerton
  • Conclusion

    It can take a little time to build up a reference library but it is well worth the investment. I also suggest buying actual copies rather than e-editions for working resources. That way you can just grab the book, thumb through (highlight and flag relevant sections) without having to navigate away from your work.

    Are there any other titles that should be on this list? Share your favorites with us.