What’s the best first book on visual / graphic design?

I posted on twitter recently asking for recommendations. Specifically for non-designers who need some design literacy, but without the goal of becoming a professional designer. Not UI design, not UX, but focusing on aesthetics.

Often pro designers recommend books from their degree program, but that’s not quite what I’m after, as those books tend to assume you’re going to be a practicing visual designer and are willing to endure textbook experiences (which aren’t known for being good reads or for achieving any level of fun).

Here’s the list, annotated with my notes (as I’ve read some of them).

  • Non Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams. (recommended by 4 people) It’s also my current go to recommendation, and was glad to see it’s still popular for this scenario. Covers the fundamentals of making things look good, covering composition, color theory, layout, typography and more. Unlike many visual design books it’s practical and by example.
  • Go, by Chip Kidd (recommended by 4). Written for kids, but don’t let that stop you. I’m part way in and that seems to just mean it’s friendly and well written. I wish more books were. It’s FUN, so rare a thing for design books.
  • How To See, George Nelson. A fun and visual to thinking about design that uses a cityscape, streets, cars, buildings, as the way to start thinking about the design of things. But it’s not focused on visual design.
  • The Vignelli Cannon, Massimo Vignelli. A collection of one of the most famous graphic designers works. It would help someone new to design to understand what design is, but doesn’t teach specific concepts or how to start to critique designs experienced in everyday life.
  • Slideology, Nancy Duarte.  It’s primarily about presentation slide design, but it does thoughtfully introduce many basic visual design concepts).
  • Graphic Design: The New Basics, Ellen Lupton (new to me).
  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Tufte This book is recommended often but for the wrong reasons. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s focused on a narrow kind of design: visualizing data. It’s not easy to learn from for understanding design in general. It’s rare that most people will need to think about representing data visually, which is the focus of this book.
  • Thinking With Type, Ellen Lupton. Recommended twice. I’ve read her Design is Storytelling, which is excellent, but not this one.
  • Graphic Design Rules, Peter Dawson (new to me).
  • Graphic Design as a second language, Bob Gill (new to me).
  • Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, Erik Spiekermann, E.M. Ginger (It’s a friendly a short introduction, but focused on typography).
  • Design Basics Index, Jim Krause (new to me).
  • The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst. It’s a beautiful book but very focused on typography as the name suggests.
  • he New Typography, Tschichold. It’s apparently a classic, but this is the first time I’ve heard it mentioned.

2 Responses to “What’s the best first book on visual / graphic design?”

  1. Jacob

    Bruno Munari’s Design as Art and Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design are both essential reads from two design masters.

  2. Jaishree Borah

    Hello Scott Berkun! Thanks a lot for listing down the names of some best books on graphic design. I am a graphic designer myself and I am sure these books shall help and inspire me to come up with better designs that look more appealing and also help to solve problems visually. Looking forward to read more informational content from your end. Thanks again!


Leave a Reply

* Required