The Stacks

by Jack Curry. Average Reading Time: almost 15 minutes.

Very rarely will you see me out and about in the world without something to read. Perhaps it’s the result of growing up with a house with two English literature majors, but I cannot—for the life of me—imagine going a day without reading something new. I’d estimate that I probably have a backlog of 4 or 5 books and just about as many magazines and periodicals at any given time; I don’t think I’ve ever ‘caught up’ on my reading. The upside, I suppose, is that I’ll never be wanting for activities; a good read is never but an arm’s length away. It also means that—at least once a day—I get posed the perennial question: ‘Whatcha reading there?’

At my BFA degree show this past December, I displayed my Biblio bookends. To achieve this, I jury-rigged some store-bought bookshelves with nails and 80 lb. test fishing wire to fashion a floating display. Of course, the bookends wouldn’t live up there on their own, so I threw some of my books into the mix to add context. The books I selected were just a small sampling of what I have on my stacks at home, but they are certainly some of my favorite books; not only to read, but also as objects in and of themselves.

At the show, I got many questions about what I read and why. Besides that, more than a few times (especially in the past month), colleagues have asked for book recommendations, be it on typography, design thinking, or just something that designers might find enriching. I figured, then, that I might put together a short list (quite different from a shortlist) of what I consider to be—while not necessarily required—essential reading for designers.

Typography / Type Design

While the author has dubbed it ‘an essay’, this little tome is a condensed history of writing and reading, as well as the interrelationship of scripts to one another. Moreover, the book itself is just a marvelous artifact: wonderfully tactile laid paper that you can’t help but run your fingers over; a sumptuously letterpressed cover with some tasty Chinese, Arabic and Cyrillic glyphs; and bright, crisp printing. Not to mention, Bringhurst is absolutely lovely with words; witness:

Drop a word in the ocean of meaning and concentric ripples form. To define a single word means to try to catch those ripples. No one’s hands are fast enough. Now drop two or three words in at once. Interference patterns form, reinforcing one another here and canceling each other there. To catch the meaning of words is not to catch the ripples that they cause; it is to catch the interaction of those ripples. This is what it means to listen; this is what it means to read. It is incredibly complex, yet humans do it every day, and very often laugh and weep at the same time. Writing, by comparison, seems altogether simple, at least until you try.

Like Bringhurst, Noordzij (pronounced ‘Noord-sigh’) has produced a deceptive looking book; while small and compact, it is a dense read—at times impossibly—that really forces you to concentrate. I think the fact that it is a translation from Dutch might mean that some intrinsic meaning has been lost a bit; little idiosyncrasies that make sense in the mother tongue may not carry over as well. All the same, The Stroke has become a must-read in recent years for anyone looking to gain understanding into one of the more prolific theories of 20th century typography. And when you realize that Noordzij influenced a good two or three generations of type designers (and even beyond) during his tenure at KABK, you begin to see his theory at work in the hands of his students.

This was the first book on typography and type design that I ever purchased. In the fall term of 2007 I was enrolled in my first typography class, so that summer I bought this book on a whim and quickly found myself enthralled for hours on end at the sheer magnitude that designing a full typeface entailed. Cheng has tons of informative figures that give a good starting point in figuring out proportion, as well as useful comparisons of type families. While I haven’t found myself referencing Designing Type during any of my type design projects, I think that for anyone beginning in design type, this book’s a fantastic starting point.

Nearly a year ago, the world of lettering and typography lost someone who I consider to be one of its last true gentlemen. Like any good teacher, it seems that Doyald wrote his books much—I imagine—as he would teach a class: meticulous, straight-forward, always talking to you, and not down at you. Indeed, his final (and yet to be published) book—Learning Curves—is essentially his entire teaching philosophy distilled into a single volume. I truly hope that we will yet have a chance to read it. Buy his books; they contain invaluable lessons from one of lettering’s master craftsmen.

One of the perennial type books; Bringhurst has steadily updated this book since its first printing in 1992. Since then, he’s updated it to include all manner of digital typesetting, bringing us into modern times with the advent of OpenType and all the joys (and perils) that it brings with it. With a keen eye towards historical and contemporary models, Bringhurst discusses everything from page composition and the fine tuning of commercial typefaces, to the nuances of mixing different scripts. Elements is the granddaddy of all typographic reference books, and it’s still as fresh today as it was 20 years ago.

As the title implies, this book is an overview of the evolution of printed typography. Beginning with a brief survey of the methods of type production, papermaking, and the import of the printing press from Asia, Chappell throws us right into the evolution of the Latin alphabet and all its major forms of representation: Roman capitals, Rustic capitals, uncial and semi-uncial, through to the advent of the Carolingian minuscule, textura, and beyond. The book also goes in depth into the old methods of punchcutting and typecasting (an art that—for the better part of 300 years—was shrouded in secrecy; apprentices were hand-chosen so as to keep the tricks of the trade secret). A wonderful survey for those that wish to know more about the history of typemaking.

Design Thinking

Now in it’s second edition, Shaughnessy manages to cover a lot of ground that would be of interest to the fledgling graphic design student (and perhaps even seasoned designers, too). I read this in my first year of design school and found it to be an invaluable look into the world beyond university. Shaughnessy hits everything from finding an appropriate place to intern (and why you should never intern for free) to how to land that first job. He also goes into the pros and cons of working freelance versus working for a firm (both large and small); and the prizes and pitfalls of running one’s own firm, as well. Along the way, we get to read the thoughts from many leading designers from around the world. A must for any design student, freelancer, or those looking into opening up their own shop.

One of the reasons why I bought How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul was the fact that John Warwicker was an interviewee. I didn’t come up in the 90’s, so I know nothing about tomato or their relationship to Underworld, and in fact only learned about tomato after I had seen Quantum of Solace and found that they had done the location cards (by hand, no less!). All the same, I attended a talk of theirs here in LA in late 2009 and found their work to be bracing, visceral, and unorthodox. Much the same could be said about this book; Warwicker essentially gives us a glimpse into his process, and does so in a way that is not only beautiful, but challenges the idea of linearity as it relates to the idea of ‘The Book’—Warwicker deftly utilizes hyperlinking to the point that you find yourself an hour into reading, wondering where the time went (a creative Wikipedia in book form). It’s chalk full of gorgeous printing, vivid photography, and heaps of tasty typography. A perfect book to tuck into with a cup of coffee on a cold night.

I bought this book on a whim during a trip to NYC a few years back. I had heard of Hara in passing, but knew nothing else of him other than his role of art director at Muji. But as I delved into the book, I came to find that Kenya Hara is probably one of the most original and refreshing design thinkers currently working today. Very rarely am I able to plow through a book in a matter of days, but the combination of Hara’s prose and the serenity of the content (one of the chapters is simply named ‘White’) made it one of the most enjoyable and engaging reads that I’ve had in a long time.

I thought I might be able to resist putting a Sagmeister book on this list, but Things I have learned in my life so far is just too good to leave out. Love him or hate him, Stefan Sagmeister never ceases to produce thought provoking work with exacting production values to match, and this book (well, collection of pamphlets would be a more accurate description) is no exception. Much like Designing Design, this is a book that I absolutely devoured; again, there’s a type of serenity inherent in Sagmeister’s writing style (as well as his choice of projects) that just makes this book such a joy to read.

The Manual is a serialized publication about web design, but you would never guess by looking at it. Rather than being all glossy web 2.0 with rounded corners and ‘look at me!’ gradients, The Manual is honestly clad in simple (uncovered) bookboard teamed with lovely letterpressed graphics and a vivid bookcloth-bound spine. While ostensibly about web design, each essay—written by new authors every issue—speaks more to larger issues concerning design and its place in the world. Substitute ‘web design’ with ‘graphic design’, ‘product design’, or even ‘architecture’, and every essay would still speak to fundamental issues concerning those fields. Perhaps then, the designations between different ‘designers’ are not so clear-cut as we make them out to be. The inputs and outputs are different, yes, but the overriding philosophy—the desire to create something great, something that people will use, derive value from, and cherish—is a constant across all fields. The Manual is proof that we have much to learn from one another’s thinking.

Much like Warwicker, this was Fletcher’s labor of love, taking the man nearly 18 years to complete. Replete with all sorts of visual goodies and interesting tidbits, you’ll never cease being delighted every time you crack it open. While seemingly lacking any organization at all, the book is actually divided into 72 loose “chapters”, each of which revolves around a single concept or idea (“color”, “culture”, “paradigms”, etc.). These are so wonderfully varied that you can find yourself reading about the case of Scandinavian artifacts from the 14th century being discovered in Minnesota one minute, and the next minute be looking at a diagram of every breed of dog recognized by the American Kennel Club (arranged from smallest to largest). A wonderful tome, then, for the insatiably curious.

  • Silence John Cage (Wesleyan, 2011)

Going back to my sentiment of The Manual, I’ve always felt that the cross-pollination between fields will always prove fruitful in some measure—no bigger case could be made than with John Cage. Cage’s experimentations dealt with music, yes, but to look at him on the page is to derive a sense of cadence, rhythm, intonation, and tone—all from the printed word. After reading a few of his lectures and essays, I thought to myself: “This guy isn’t a musician—he’s a typographer!” There’s nary a note on the page. Only words. Cage was a musician expressing himself and his work through the use of extremely deft typesetting; he was a musician that—through the mode of expression of his works—became a designer. Perhaps there’s something that we can find in that.

Studios / Branding

For anyone interested in the early days of what we consider to be modern branding, Ben Bos offers a fantastic glimpse into the Dutch powerhouse founded by Friso Kramer, Benno Wissing, Wim Crouwel and the Schwarz brothers (Paul & Dick). Looking back through some of the early identity work, one gets a real sense of optimism and glee from the work they were doing in the 1960’s—the work that Total did for the De Gruyter supermarket chain is particularly lovely. Total also further made the case for the large agency model that is predominant today; Henri Kay Henrion may have been the one to note that “institutions prefer to work with institutions”, and both his firm and Total really proved that point. TD 63–73 is a fascinating look into those early days.

  • Identify Geismar, Haviv & Chermayeff (How, 2011)

If Total Design was the European embodiment of Modern corporate identity design, then Chermayeff & Geismar is certainly their American equivalent. With an economical, case study-like approach to writing, Identify is a book that sheds some serious light on C&G’s practice, spanning from the early days up until the present. It offers insight into some of the most enduring corporate identities (who knew the amount of sweet-talking that it would take to gain the adoption of the Chase logo?), as well as illustrates that Modernist thinking and principles can still more than hold sway in a world in which identity is becoming more visceral and “authentic” (whatever that means).

  • Studio Culture Adrian Shaughnessy & Tony Brook (Unit Editions, 2009)

For those that always wondered how other firms run their house, Unit Editions talks to a smattering of firms—both big and small—all over the world. The interviews—while largely performed via email—are still fantastic looks into how differently firms operate. From tightly operated firms (such as Pentagram), to husband-wife shops (such as Build), to single man operations that tap freelancers completely digitally (Matt Pyke of Universal Everything), Shaughnessy and Brook manage to pose questions to a very wide cross-section of firms that are currently doing some extremely interesting and engaging work. Some takeaways I got from reading all of the interviews:

  • It’s easier to work for someone else and learn what they do right and (what you think) they do wrong before going it alone
  • The business and book-keeping side (invoicing, collections, et al) is something that you will have to pick up very quickly if you’re operating as a one-man shop (see above)
  • The internet is a huge resource. Matt Pyke might be the “the founder and creative director of digital art/design studio Universal Everything” (his words, from the website), but in fact he constantly pulls collaborators from all over the world—if he needs an animator, he calls the guy he knows in Russia; if he needs a programmer, he shoots an email to a buddy he knows in San Francisco. The decentralization of the “studio” is coming to the fore bit by bit (witness studio spaces such as Grind or Studiomates), and the example of Universal Everything was a real eye-opener for me.

While the visuals might be a bit dated, the writing found in The Compendium is still a rich resource in terms of the writings of some of the original partners of the firm. The true cross-disiplinary nature of Pentagram—especially when such a practice was unheard of in the early days of modern design—means that the writings in such a book approach problems, solutions, and ways of working completely differently.

For example, I won’t materially benefit much from the writings of Theo Crosby; as an architect, he was approaching his profession from a massively different angle than I would approach mine (not to mention that he had to deal with many more restrictions in his day-to-day). But I love reading what he has to say all the same—who knows what I might be able to transpose from the lessons he is imparting onto my own work. That cross-pollination is certainly what set Pentagram apart in the early days, and it’s what still does.


Magazines probably consist of half of the space on my bookshelves. As a peek into different slices of culture, industry, and ways of thinking, they are an invaluable resource to anyone in the business of cultivating and accessing culture. While the ones listed below mostly deal with design in particular (and are ones that I subscribe to), I’m always discovering that the random finds in bookstores offer a lateral view on my world that I’m always on the look-out for (and I hope you’ll be too).


One comment on ‘The Stacks’

  1. nel says:

    The top shelf is still my favorite. I think people sometimes underestimate the power of children’s books. And I’m happy to say that I’ve read/own at least half of the books on this list. And thanks for lending me Designing Design! It made my obsession with white sound a little less crazy. 😛

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