8 Captivating Design History Books

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Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.”

This concept certainly applies to graphic design, a field in which innovators have shaped the appearance of our world. Design history traces the lines of our culture, from the media we consume to the products and brands we see every day—even the technology we use to create new design work.

Delve into the work of iconic, influential creatives in this collection of books that explore how design has helped shape our history and culture. In these books, you’ll find insights and creative work from the greatest minds in design history.

Perhaps of note: You can find a few of these resources in the Design History Collection from MyDesignShop, which includes 6 of our favorite design books.

8 Captivating Books on Design History

100 Years of Color

By Katie Greenwood

This beautiful book showcases 100 carefully chosen images from the graphic arts, each representing a color palette from every year of the 20th century. The selection includes images from magazines, book covers, advertisements, posters, illustrations and postcards. Every image has a distinctive, inspirational color scheme, and the book displays these on the facing pages as a practical reference. Get it here, or get it as part of the Design History Collection.

100 years of color

Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design

Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design

By Jean-Christopher Horak

Graphic designer and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Saul Bass (1920-1996) developed an iconic style evident throughout his expansive repertoire. His style, and especially his influence on the storytelling potential of opening credits, has influences numerous films and television series.

In Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design, author Jan-Christopher Horak examines the life, work, and creative process of this prominent designer. Discover the humble beginnings of Bass’s life, his collaborations with prominent directors like Robert Aldrich, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese, and learn more about his personal style, like his appreciation of modern art and subsequent incorporation of it into his body of work. Get it here.


Read about Saul Bass’ film title design for Alfred Hitchcock.

Naïve: Modernism and Folklore in Contemporary Graphic Design

Edited by R. Klanten, H. Hellige

Naïve documents the extraordinary renaissance of Classic Modernism, from the 1940s to 1960s, in contemporary graphic design. This compilation introduces a new wave of young designers who are rediscovering the stylistic elements reminiscent of classic graphic design such as silkscreen printing, classical typography, hand lettering, woodcutting and folk art and integrating them into their work. Inspired by 20th Century American legends such as Saul Bass, Charley Harper and Alexander Girard, the burgeoning designers and their work showcased this in this book are inspiring, ranging from illustrations, poster art, editorials, book covers and record sleeves to stationary and textiles. Get it here.


20th Century Design: A Decade-by-Decade Exploration of Graphic Style

By Tony Seddon

Relive graphic design of the 1900s with 20th Century Design by Tony Seddon, an exploration of the graphic style throughout the decades of the 1900s. Each chapter contains an expansive overview of graphic design in one decade, with information about influences from other areas like politics, architecture, technology, and more. Each chapter also provides profiles of prominent designers, as well as a timeline of graphic design and other relevant fields. Discover even more about design of each decade with a look at the typefaces and color palett
es that define each one, and find out how to recreate the look, feel, and style of each of them using modern software with included step-by-step guides. Get it here, or find it in the Design History Collection.

Tony Seddon's book - 20th Century Design

Read an excerpt from 20th Century Design on the history of the International Typographic Style—a.k.a. Swiss Style—at HOWDesign.com.

An old favorite of mine:

Fifty Years of Illustration

By Lawrence Zeegen, Caroline Roberts

Delve into the vibrant history of contemporary illustration with Fifty Years of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts. Whether you want to learn more about the flagrant idealism of the 1960s, the austere realism of the 1970s, the superfluous consumerism of the 1980s, the digital eruption of the 1990s, or the rapid diversification of illustration in the early 2000s, get an in-depth look at the historical contexts pertaining to the important artifacts and artists of the illustration industry in the latter half of the 20th century. Get it here.

Introductory essays and profiles of prominent practitioners, as well as examples of their work, detail the influence and impact of contemporary illustration on design and popular culture. Explore the historical, sociological, political, and cultural factors that influenced contemporary illustration, and let full-color works from leading illustrators bring each decade to life.

Fifty Years of Illustration By Lawrence Zeegen, Caroline Roberts
Fifty Years of Illustration By Lawrence Zeegen, Caroline Roberts

Here’s something a bit more off the beaten path if you’re looking for oft-unexplored design history:

Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl — Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design

What should Lolita look like? The question has dogged book-cover designers since 1955, when Lolita was first published in a plain green wrapper. The heroine of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel has often been shown as a teenage seductress in heart-shaped glasses—a deceptive image that misreads the book but has seeped deep into our cultural life, from fashion to film.

Lolita—The Story of a Cover Girl reconsiders the cover of Lolita. Eighty renowned graphic designers and illustrators (including Paula Scher, Jessica Hische, Jessica Helfand, and Peter Mendelsund) offer their own takes on the book’s jacket, while graphic design critics and Nabokov scholars survey more than a half a century of Lolita covers. Get it here.

Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl — Vladimir Nabokov’s

Here are a few of the contemporary covers from the book, originally featured in this article from The New Yorker.

yuko shimizu
lyuba haleva
lyuba haleva
xavi garcia

Design Issues By DK Holland

Design Issues: How Graphic Design Informs Society

By DK Holland


Based on the popular “Design Issues” column in Communication Arts, this anthology of brilliantly-conceived mind-teasers explores how design communicates with, rubs itself against, and sometimes stumbles around the “real” world. Here are some of the column’s most intriguing and provocative selections, taken from an unorthodox mix of over 20 contributors.

Covering a range of subjects from designing a corporate identity to the philosophical dimensions of art, this guide takes a look at 21st century design in a critical, educational, ethical, historical, social, and often humorous way. Upbeat and entertaining, it’s sure to capture the attention of artists, illustrators and designers. Get it here.

While this book isn’t wholly dedicated to the past, its examination of design history is both in-depth and incredibly insightful:

Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design

This book is chock full of stories about the graphic icons and idols of design culture, past and present. The more than 125 thought pieces in this design book offer a vast taste of the aesthetic, political, historical, and personal issues that move today’s global design community and fans, from the ubiquitous (shooting targets, the swastika, anti war posters) to the whimsical (Dwiggins jackets, Japanese matchboxes, the interior design of the Dr. Strangelove set).

This revised and expanded edition of Design Literacy reflects trends in graphic design such as the impact of graphic design on popular visual communication, aesthetic changes in type and typography in the digital age, reflection and analysis on designs most cherished and curious artifacts, and the nexus between graphic design and wired culture. Get it here.


The essays range from the late 19th century to the present and are organized into eight thematic categories—persuasion, media, language, identity, information, iconography, style, and commerce–which follow a loose chronological order. The one-to-three page pieces are perfect for a quick stimulating read as well as for design students looking for a compact self-study course on the practice and appreciation of graphic design.

design-literacy atomic age
design-literacy - franz kafka amerika

And a download in case you’d like to read more from Print Magazines past on design history:

Print’s Guide to the History of Propaganda Design

This download includes a wide range of articles covering recent political design strategies, Nazi Germany propaganda, the impact of the Group Material art collective and much more. Read about what defines propaganda, explore Steven Heller’s insights into various examples of propaganda design and engage with the experiences of designer Mirko Ilić with an excerpt from Print’s “Mirko Ilić: Fist to Face” book. From World War II magazines to the Obama campaign’s impact on design, this download will satisfy your interest in modern and historical political and propaganda design. Get the download here.

history of propaganda cover