There are so many great books for designers out there, teaching you working techniques, giving you historical lessons, analyzing the trends that shape your field.
But let’s face it: reading them feels like work. In the summer you want a book you can read on your porch, at the beach, in bed. A novel, a page turner, or something that opens your mind. You don’t want it to be boring.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be relevant to your identity as a designer, though. On the contrary, we’ve put together a list of great design-oriented books that are also great summer reads. Some of them have designer protagonists; some are mémoires by brilliant artists; others are just great literature that is sure to get your creative juices flowing. Enjoy!
1. Designer heroes
Designers have always made great protagonists, especially underdogs. This is certainly true of Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), which take place in mid-century Britain and America, respectively.
A more recent update is Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2013), which tells the story of a web designer who takes a job in a bookstore during the recent recession years.
2. The art world
Art world shenanigans never get old, especially when we’re talking about the swinging ’60s and gritty ’70s New York, as we are with Andy Warhol’s POPism (1980) and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013), respectively. Or post-punk 1990s London, brilliantly satirized by Michel Houellebecq in The Map and the Territory (2010).
3. Chip Kidd
Chip Kidd is a designer best known for his book covers—he has designed literally hundreds of them for Random House. At a certain point he decided he’d take a stab at writing some, and what resulted were The Cheese Monkeys (2001), which takes place in design school, and The Learners (2008), which follows up in the working world.
4. Artist protagonists
Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976), Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard (1987) and Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988) are wildly different books in style, but they share a few things in common: they are all excellently written, and they are all have an artist in the leading role.
5. Daniel Clowes
Since the early 1990s, Oakland, California-based illustrator Daniel Clowes has produced an amazing series of graphic novels that are as funny as they are philosophical and thought provoking. Pussey! (1995), Ghost World (1997) and The Death-Ray (2011) are three of the best.
6. Great mémoires
When it comes to artists as brilliant as the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, the writer and political commentator Gore Vidal and the rock musician Patti Smith, you want to hear their stories straight from the source. That is exactly what you get with their top notch mémoires, Speak, Memory (1951), Palimpsest (1995) and Just Kids (2010).
7. Steve Jobs
Books and films about former Apple CEO Steve Jobs have become a cottage industry in itself, and for good reason. The man was a compelling figure whose life story yields unending insight into the rise of the now all-powerful tech industry.
Two good places to start are Walter Isaacson’s official biography, Steve Jobs (2011), and Rick Tetzeli and Brent Schlender’s Becoming Steve Jobs (2015), which focuses on the subject’s life outside of the office.
8. Page turners
Don’t thumb your nose at Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code (2003); that book is insanely entertaining. The same can be said of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch (2013), all of which can be described as page-turners with substance, and stories that happen to unfold in the domain of art.
9. Design greats
Milton Glaser: Graphic Design (1973), Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist (1998) and The Vignelli Canon (2010) all fall under the “designer history” category, as they cover the life and work of three 20th century greats, but their tone is more autobiographical, humorous and fun than your typical designer bio.
10. Old masters
The Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini was born in 1500 and died in 1571 and, boy, what a life he led. His autobiography, published in 1558, is way more R-rated than you would expect. Irving Stone is another great writer who allows readers to dive into the minds and lives of master artists like Vincent van Gogh and Michelangelo in his books Lust for Life (1934) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961).
11. Visual writers
We could have added any number of authors to this section, which is meant for books that are written in a manner specifically meant to trigger the visual cortex with intensely evocative description and attention to visual detail.
You certainly can’t go wrong with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur (1955), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), or W.G. Sebald’s illustrated The Emigrants (1992).