Up Your Design Game

What’s on a designer’s bookshelf

Glynnis Ritchie
By Glynnis Ritchie
January 17, 2024

Every now and then I hear someone say something that reminds me how much design and what designers do can seem like a black box to people outside our profession. How do designers know what looks good? Isn’t design just one of those things that people are innately good at—either you have a feel for it or you don’t?

Well, no!

Design is a skill. Designers learn principles and best practices. We acquire knowledge about how best to design something just like anyone else—through curiosity, reading, educational resources, and lots and lots of practice.

Sharpen your design skills and nerd out with some of my favorite design books:

The Anatomy of Type by Stephen Coles

Ever want to learn all those nerdy words about type? Develop your typographic eye with visual diagrams of letters and come away with vocabulary like “shoulder”, “tail”, and “aperture” to describe typefaces. The book examines 100 typefaces and their full character sets, annotating key features and anatomical details that make them distinct. Learn to separate Humanist Sans from Gothic Sans and how different styles can impact designs when choosing a typeface.

Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton

More concerned with type decisions like layout, font type, size, alignment, and spacing? Thinking with Type zooms out from the anatomy of a character and provides guidance for working with typography—whether on the page or the screen. Lupton provides key design principles to guide your decisions as a designer working with type.

Design for Hackers by David Kadavy

As a user experience designer, I often work with folks who are not designers, but who want to better understand design as a discipline without jumping into the deep end. This book is a great 101-style, high-level overview of things like proportion, color theory, composition, typography and other Big Topics designers concern themselves with, but in a highly digestible, skimmable format. It’s a great book to use as a jumping off point for deeper study.

In Progress by Jessica Hische

You’ve probably seen Jessica Hische’s lettering work before on movie posters, Wes Anderson film credits, Penguin Classics books, postage stamps, or Starbucks and Target gift cards. In this book, she shares her creative and technical processes for lettering and vectorizing hand-drawn letters. Loaded with images from pencil sketch to computer screen, this one’s essential for understanding how to move from concept to vectorized file efficiently without losing the magic that makes hand-drawn lettering special.

Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

Design isn’t just how something looks, but how it works, how it’s used, and how humans interact with it. This book will forever change perceptions of your designed surroundings. For example, have you ever pulled a door handle only to discover it’s a “push” door with a label that says so? That’s a “Norman Door” (named for this book’s author). You made the mistake not because you weren’t paying attention, but because the door’s design was bad. You’ll never look at doors the same way again!

The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

A narrative history of pigments and how humans have discovered and used them throughout time. Stuff your brain with trivia about expensive dyes, toxic hues, and weird ingredients for making color. Imperial purple extracted from the tiny mucus glands of snails! Green wallpaper that might have killed Napoleon! When we finally stopped grinding up mummies to make Mummy Brown! Learn about all these weird color facts in this book.

If you’re looking for a team to help you discover the right thing to build and help you build it, get in touch.