So there I was, minding my own business one morning when a colleague cornered me. “Hey Rich,” he asked with false nonchalance. “What are some of your favourite design books?” Phrased as friendly chitchat, little did I know he was hankering for a blog upload. 

But rather than respond with a tired list of the same old titles every designer trots out for these lists, I figured I’d do something different. Here’s a few books —not necessarily all about design — that have either inspired me, or simply yanked me out of a creative pit.


1. The Unknown Book

Let’s start with a bit of a mystery, shall we? This is an interesting one because I can’t remember the designer’s name, but I remember the work. Which I guess is actually the point, it’s about the work at the end of the day, right?

Anyway, two pieces of his work have stayed with me even after 20 years. As an intern in my first design studio they had the book perched among others on the shelf. I remember his works not because they looked fantastic, but because the ideas were so crisp and clear that they nailed the brief 100%. I actually didn’t like his stuff at the time, but I often think about these two pieces. They inspired me to see that the idea above all else is to ask yourself as a designer: Why am I doing this? Who am I doing it for?

I searched hard to try and track these pieces of work down, but numerous searches failed to dig anything up. I believe he was a British designer operating in the 1960s and ‘70s. I haven’t seen them in over 20 years so am going to recreate these pieces from memory. Here you go:


“An Unfriendly Coffee Shop

As I remember it, this illustration was flanked by a small tongue-in-cheek note from the designer: “New logo for my local coffee shop. The owner wanted a new one but didn’t want to attract any more customers.”

“Unorthodox Jazz”

“Record cover for unorthodox jazz music”, was the caption to this piece. With its off-kilter label, it nails the unorthodox angle.

If anyone can remember who this artist is, do let me know. And if he is some giant of the industry and you feel I should know better, then I can only apologise for my sieve-like memory.


2. It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be by Paul Arden

You can get this book on the self-help section of most bookstores. If you don’t own it, you should.

It is at once a solution to dissatisfaction and ennui, a friendly voice, a mentor, a big brother. Paul Arden’s masterpiece offers something new every time I delve into it. And that’s why I go back to it. It is lateral thinking at its finest. My favorite quote? “Don’t look for the next opportunity. The one you have in your hand is the opportunity.”

It’s a mix up of unconventional layout, random imagery and small takeaway lessons. Check out this bitterly humorous rethink on the ever-present shopping mall “sale”. Add two words, and a sale goes from unmemorable to unforgettable. 


3. 17 by Bill Drummond

A confession: I think that there is simply too much design out there. From a designer that’s probably an odd thing to hear. But that’s why I didn’t follow the brief 100% for this blogpost. I get sick of design blogs flaunting the top 10 design trends, 10 things all designers should learn. So I resolved not to add to that specific pile here.

Bill Drummond in his ‘autobiography’ feels pretty much the same about music. We take joy in finding people who feel the same as ourselves, so like Drummond I just want so desperately to do something different and am constantly disappointed that nothing I do is really surprising, fresh or new enough. Still, at least it pushes me to keep going and eventually birth some kind of magnum opus. In this book Bill Drummond goes on a mission to reinvent music and almost succeeds. 


4. Lingua Grafica by Mutabor

In 2001, when the book was released, icons and pictograms weren’t in the public consciousness — this was the pre-emoji era, after all. Now we have the outstanding Noun Project that even my young kids use at school as a visual tool. Borrowing icons from street signage and clothing washing instructions, this book (by the uber-hip German agency Mutabor) marked the emergence of iconography as an essential part of our visual culture. So danke schön to the lads at Mutabor.


5. The Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth

William Hogarth was a pure artist whose work touched theatre, literature, journalism and politics, painting and engraving. For me The Rake’s Progress is pure, documentary, visual storytelling. The eight-series paintings are a magnetically dark deep look into the sinful side of 18th century London.

It’s not a book, I know. But to me The Rake’s Progress is so deep in its narrative, so wonderfully rich in visual detail, it feels like a piece of literature. They manage to cover a full life in just eight frames; something that in our time-sensitive world is now even more apt.


My 5 Favourite Design-Led Books

BY Richard MacLean

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