30 of the Best Art and Design Books of 2020

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Got some shelf space?

We hope you have a lot of it. Because the amount of great design books that were published this year is daunting. (Really—as I glance to my left, I see a teetering column of hardcovers that’s a Darwin Award in the making.)

But to start: disclaimer time! When we write “The Best Books of 2020,” what we really mean is “our favorite design books that we came across in 2020.”

Though many publications might be hesitant to admit it, lists like this are wildly subjective, and there are no doubt brilliant books that we didn’t come across. But these are the ones we did, and these are the ones we fell in love with this year as we’ve hunkered down in quarantine.

Herewith: Our annual Best Art and Design Books of 2020 list, representing a broad swath of visual culture, from the high to the low to the ephemeral to the essential to the vital, and all manner of ground in between.

Buy ’em up for the holidays (ideally, from your favorite independent bookstore that is likely struggling right now). They just might be the poultice you need to keep calm and carry on in your creativity as 2021 comes (mercifully!) rolling around the corner.

Airline Visual Identity 1945–1975 by M.C. Hühne

From the publisher: “Airline Visual Identity 1945–1975 reconstructs the visual language of 13 pioneering airlines at different points in time. The visual identity of airlines was the most complex of all industries in this era, made up of hundreds of items for each carrier, ranging from timetables and print advertisements to aircraft interiors and liveries of the aircraft themselves. A series of case studies analyzes the most important design developments for each airline and the strategies behind them, accompanied by carefully curated work of famed designers and advertising icons, taking the reader back in time to witness the glamorous days of the airline industry. The book provides unique insight into the design and advertising methods of an era when airlines were considered the most esteemed business sector and quality was the main criterion for selecting a flight. Conceived by some of the best creative minds of the time, such as Massimo Vignelli, Otl Aicher, Academy Award winner Saul Bass, Ivan Chermayeff or advertising titan Mary Wells Lawrence, the designs found in the book also illustrate the shift from traditional methods of corporate design and advertising to comprehensive modern branding programs.”

Read more from PRINT here.

All’s Fair in Love and War: The Ultimate Cartoon Book by Bob Eckstein

From the publisher: “The perfect gift for an anniversary—or your divorce lawyer—All’s Fair in Love and War will woo over hopeless romantics and cynical heartbreakers alike. Find wit and wisdom on love in all its varieties, from a first date to a third divorce. This curated collection features work by over 40 of the best and brightest New Yorker cartoonists, including Roz Chast, Sam Gross, Liana Finck, Bob Mankoff, Edward Steed and Danny Shanahan. Many of the cartoons appear in print for the first time.”

Avoid This by Brian Rea

From the publisher: “This collection of bad behavior from acclaimed artist and illustrator Brian Rea will make you cringe, snicker and compulsively turn the page for more. Rea's simple yet poignant scenes depict a version of life so close to our everyday that it's best to laugh so you don’t cry. Avoid This is made for millennials and lovers of black humor. The handsome textured hardcover gives only a hint of the dark delights within.”

Branded Interactions: Marketing Through Design in the Digital Age by Marco Spies and Katja Wenger

From the publisher: “Digital design plays a crucial role in how customers experience a brand. However, corporate websites and online shops are only part of interactive brand identity; complex user experiences closely interlink conception, design and technology, and integrate consistent prototyping and testing. The importance of mobile experience has grown exponentially in recent years, while interactive ads, chatbots and digital billboards are increasingly found in the real world. The interface is now the brand, and this changes the professional profile of designers. This extensively updated edition of Branded Interactions is a practical handbook for professional digital designers and those just starting out. It guides the reader through the process of digital brand design in five key phases: discovering a demographic, defining an action plan, designing an interface, delivering a quality product and distributing the design to the marketplace. Packed with case studies and real-world examples from brands such as Google, Amazon and Lego, this book interweaves a wealth of design theory and diagrams to help build a solid framework for any project—incorporating brand strategy at every stage while remaining flexible to leave room for creativity.”

Button Power by Christen Carter and Ted Hake

From the publisher: “From the campaign trail to the rock tour, Button Power collects a people’s history of American culture told through the pin-back button. Lively commentary from two of America's foremost button experts shows how the small but powerful button reveals the events and movements that outraged, amused and inspired us over time, from the solo flight of Charles Lindbergh to the Black Power movement.

“Artists, athletes, actors, politicians, punk and pop musicians, and mascots of the past 125 years make cameos, including Rube Goldberg, Muhammad Ali, the Ramones, Shirley Chisholm, Maratona the Snake Handler, and Ray Stevens, singer of “The Streak.” The first book of its kind, Button Power is a rich visual feast. Each colorful spread chronicles defining moments in history through photographs and artifacts.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom From Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors by Valerie Luu and Andria Lo

From the publisher: “Chinatown Pretty features beautiful portraits and heartwarming stories of trend-setting seniors across six Chinatowns. Andria Lo and Valerie Luu have been interviewing and photographing Chinatown's most fashionable elders on their blog and Instagram, Chinatown Pretty, since 2014. Chinatown Pretty is a signature style worn by pòh pohs (grandmas) and gùng gungs (grandpas) everywhere—but it’s also a life philosophy, mixing resourcefulness, creativity and a knack for finding joy even in difficult circumstances.”

Constitution Illustrated by R. Sikoryak

From the publisher: “R. Sikoryak is the master of the pop culture pastiche. In Masterpiece Comics, he interpreted classic literature with defining 20th-century comics. With Terms and Conditions, he made the unreadable contract that everyone signs, and no one reads, readable. He employs his magic yet again to investigate the very framework of the country with Constitution Illustrated. By visually interpreting the complete text of the supreme law of the land with more than a century of American pop culture icons, Sikoryak distills the very essence of the government legalese from the abstract to the tangible, the historical to the contemporary. Among Sikoryak’s spot-on unions of government articles and amendments with famous comic book characters: the 18th amendment that instituted prohibition is articulated with Homer Simpson running from Chief Wiggum; the 14th amendment that solidifies citizenship to all people born and naturalized in the USA is personified by Ms. Marvel; and, of course, the 19th amendment offering women the right to vote is a glorious depiction of Wonder Woman breaking free from her chains.”

Read more from PRINT here.

E. McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in Advertising edited by Caitlin Condell and Emily M. Orr

From the publisher: “Hailed in his lifetime as the ‘poster king,’ E. McKnight Kauffer’s designs for the London transport system, Alfred Hitchcock and others are an enduring influence on contemporary advertising and graphic arts. Kauffer (1890–1954) was a pioneering figure who transformed the field of graphic design between the wars. He drew upon the emerging visual languages of Cubism, Vorticism and Surrealism to create a modern graphic style that shaped the development of commercial art. Through collaborations with his avant-garde peers in art, literature and design, including the Bloomsbury Group, Marion Dorn, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Aldous Huxley and Man Ray, Kauffer expanded the scope and impact of his field. This groundbreaking publication is the first to address the full range of Kauffer’s career.”

Design School Reader: A Course Companion for Students of Graphic Design by Steven Heller

From the publisher: “In this wide-ranging compilation, art director, writer and lecturer Steven Heller shares his passion for graphic design with readers, whom he invites to consider that design can be discerned in all things natural and manmade. Developed as content for a class devoted to reading, this collection is not overtly about conventional design, but about a variety of topics viewed through the lens of design. Offered as a primer for undergraduate and graduate students, Design School Reader presents more than 40 essays on subjects such as the role of design in politics; visual culture and the social impact of design; key moments in the history of typography; technological innovations; the power of branding and logos; ethical considerations and dilemmas; and important figures in the design world.”

[Editor’s Note: PRINT’s Steven Heller did not participate in this selection of books—but with more than 200 books under his belt, it’s hard to browse the design aisle of a bookstore without bumping into a few essential new reads by him every year.]

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor

From the publisher: “A timely and urgent exploration into the ways artists have grappled with race and grief in modern America. … Featuring works by more than 30 artists and writings by leading scholars and art historians, this book—and its accompanying exhibition, both conceived by the late, legendary curator Okwui Enwezor—gives voice to artists addressing concepts of mourning, commemoration and loss, and considers their engagement with the social movements, from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter, that Black grief has galvanized. Artists included: Terry Adkins, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kevin Beasley, Dawoud Bey, Mark Bradford, Garrett Bradley, Melvin Edwards, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Charles Gaines, Theaster Gates, Ellen Gallagher, Arthur Jafa, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, Kahlil Joseph, Deana Lawson, Simone Leigh, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Okwui Okpokwasili, Adam Pendleton, Julia Phillips, Howardena Pindell, Cameron Rowland, Lorna Simpson, Sable Elyse Smith, Tyshawn Sorey, Diamond Stingily, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, Nari Ward, Carrie Mae Weems, and Jack Whitten.”

Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly by Guerrilla Girls

From the publisher: “Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly is the first book to catalog the entire career of the Guerrilla Girls from 1985 to present. The Guerrilla girls are a collective of political feminist artists who expose discrimination and corruption in art, film, politics and pop culture all around the world. This book explores all their provocative street campaigns, unforgettable media appearances, and large-scale exhibitions.”

Read more from PRINT here.

How Design Makes the World by Scott Berkun

From the publisher: “What is it about? Everything we use, from our homes to our smartphones, from highways to hammers, was designed by someone. How did they decide what was good for the rest of us? What did they get right and where have they let us down? And what can we learn from the way these experts think that can help us make decisions in our own lives?

“Who is it for? Anyone involved in the making of things, people who like excellent, fun books, people curious about how things work, designers, people who work with designers, engineers, marketers and more.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Kama Sutra A–Z by Malika Favre

From the publisher: “The ‘Kama Sutra A-Z’ was initially developed by Malika Favre in 2013 as an art project and exhibition. Seven years later, she decided to gather this body of work into a limited-edition book co-published with Counter-Print. The 26 letters are displayed as individual art pieces and accompanied by erotic excerpts, carefully curated by the artist, with a strong emphasis on female poets. The result is an eclectic and timeless collection of writings, from ancient times to today, including contributions from renowned poets such as Sandra Cisneros, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stephanie Burt, Vanessa Kisuule, Warsan Shire, Kyle Dargan and Michael Faudet, amongst many more.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink by Ralph Steadman

From the publisher: “Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink is the definitive career retrospective of this revered and provocative U.K. artist. Renowned for his collaborations with iconic American writer Hunter S. Thompson, he formed an unlikely duo that created ‘Gonzo’ journalism. This lifelong collaboration included the now-legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, originally published in Rolling Stone magazine, which has since become a cult classic. The book explores Steadman’s signature ink-splattered style; features a diverse body of work that includes satirical political illustrations; and includes art from award-winning children’s books such as Alice in Wonderland. Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink is a must-have celebration of the artist’s important and influential career.”

The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985–1993 by Jordan Mechner

From the publisher: “Before Prince of Persia was a bestselling video game franchise and a Disney movie, it was an Apple II computer game created and programmed by one person, Jordan Mechner. Mechner’s candid and revealing journals from the time capture the journey from his parents’ basement to the forefront of the fast-growing 1980s video game industry—and the creative, technical and personal struggles that brought the prince into being and ultimately into the homes of millio
ns of people worldwide. In
The Making of Prince of Persia, on the 30th anniversary of the game’s release, Mechner looks back at the journals he kept from 1985 to 1993, offering new insights into the game that revolutionized and redefined a genre.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole R. Fleetwood

From the publisher: “More than 2 million people are currently behind bars in the United States. Incarceration not only separates the imprisoned from their families and communities, it also exposes them to shocking levels of deprivation and abuse and subjects them to the arbitrary cruelties of the criminal justice system. Yet, as Nicole Fleetwood reveals, America’s prisons are filled with art. Despite the isolation and degradation they experience, the incarcerated are driven to assert their humanity in the face of a system that dehumanizes them.

“Based on interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists, prison visits and the author’s own family experiences with the penal system, Marking Time shows how the imprisoned turn ordinary objects into elaborate works of art. Working with meager supplies and in the harshest conditions—including solitary confinement—these artists find ways to resist the brutality and depravity that prisons engender. The impact of their art, Fleetwood observes, can be felt far beyond prison walls. Their bold works, many of which are being published for the first time in this volume, have opened new possibilities in American art.”

Midcentury Modern Design: A Complete Sourcebook by Dominic Bradbury

From the publisher: “A definitive survey of Midcentury modern design and architecture in an accessible compact edition, this book offers a rich overview of one of the most popular, collectable and dynamic periods of design. With rich and diverse examples of everything from furniture and lighting to ceramics and textiles to graphics and posters to interior design and architecture, this sleek compendium of Midcentury style includes over 1,000 illustrations representing classic designs and little-seen rarities, as well as entries on nearly 100 major creators, such as Dieter Rams, Robin Day, Isamu Noguchi, Lucie Rie, Charles and Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. An additional illustrated dictionary features hundreds more influential Midcentury designers, manufacturers, organizations, schools and movements.”

Modern Artifacts by Michelle Elligott and Tod Lippy

From the publisher: “Modern Artifacts features all 18 installments of the eponymous series that appeared in issues of Esopus—several of which are sold out—from 2006 to 2019. The ‘Modern Artifacts’ series featured items reproduced in facsimile from MoMA’s extraordinary collection—ranging from documentation related to never-before-realized exhibitions to pages from the Museum’s first guest book—curated and introduced by MoMA’s Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections, Michelle Elligott. Six contemporary artists—Mary Ellen Carroll, Rhea Karam, Mary Lum, Clifford Owens, Michael Rakowitz and Paul Ramirez Jonas—have contributed projects related to a particular aspect of the archives. These contributions—many incorporating removable inserts—appear throughout the book, which also includes an introductory essay by Elligott and a foreword by Esopus editor Tod Lippy.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Norman Ives: Constructions & Reconstructions by John T. Hill

From the publisher: “Norman Ives: Constructions & Reconstructions is an in-depth chronicle of the spirit and genius of master fine artist and renowned graphic designer Norman Ives. This book introduces unseen treasures, showcasing the brilliant variety and vitality of his work. It fully defines Ives’ signature use of letterform fragments. These became the lyrical strokes of his abstract constructions and reconstructions.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Paula Scher: Twenty-Five Years at the Public: A Love Story by Paula Scher

From the publisher: “A larger-than-life figure in the design community with a client list to match, Paula Scher turned her first major project as a partner at Pentagram into a formative 25-year relationship with the Public Theater in New York. This behind-the-scenes account of the relationship between Scher and ‘the Public,’ as it’s affectionately known, chronicles over two decades of brand and identity development and an evolving creative process in a unique ‘autobiography of graphic design.’ New Yorkers, designers, and theater fans everywhere will be thrilled to find hundreds of Scher's posters, including those for
Hamilton, Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, and numerous Shakespeare in the Park productions, collected in this one-of-a-kind volume, along with other printed and process-related matter.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks by Adam Nayman

From the publisher: “An illustrated mid-career monograph exploring the 30-year creative journey of the eight-time Academy Award–nominated writer and director. Paul Thomas Anderson has been described as “one of American film’s modern masters” and “the foremost filmmaking talent of his generation.” … In Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, Anderson’s entire career—from Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017) to his music videos for Radiohead to his early short films—is examined in illustrated detail for the first time.

“Anderson’s influences, his style, and the recurring themes of alienation, reinvention, ambition and destiny that course through his movies are analyzed and supplemented by firsthand interviews with Anderson’s closest collaborators—including producer JoAnne Sellar, actor Vicky Krieps and composer Jonny Greenwood—and illuminated by film stills, archival photos, original illustrations and an appropriately psychedelic design aesthetic. Masterworks is a tribute to the dreamers, drifters and evil dentists who populate his world.”

Read more from PRINT here.

The People Shall Govern! Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster edited by Antawan I. Byrd and Felicia Mings

From the publisher: “Formed in the late 1970s, Medu Art Ensemble forcefully articulated a call to end the apartheid system’s racial segregation and violent injustice through posters that combined revolutionary imagery with bold slogans. Advocating for decolonization and majority (nonwhite) rule in South Africa and neighboring countries, Medu members were persecuted by the South African Defense Force and operated in exile across the border in Botswana.

“The People Shall Govern! features nearly all the surviving posters that Medu created between 1979 and 1985. These objects are exceedingly rare, as they were originally smuggled into South Africa and mounted in public places, where they were regularly confiscated or torn down on sight. Offering new insight into the conceptual framework of Medu’s working practice and featuring a beautiful silkscreened cover, this volume examines the continuing relevance and impact of its poster production.”

Posters for a Green New Deal: 50 Removable Posters to Inspire Change by Creative Action Network

From the publisher: “Posters with a purpose. A clarion call for our time, the Green New Deal is a bold and far-reaching legislative plan to fight climate change, create millions of good-paying jobs, promote economic and racial equality, and so much more. In its ambition, it’s a vision that mirrors President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped pull the country out of the Great Depression. And just as WPA artists mustered support for the New Deal with their work, here are 50 powerful posters to champion the Green New Deal. The posters are original, colorful and visually striking, with text on the back that explains each issue and how the Green New Deal seeks to address it. Perforated pages make them easy to tear out and hang or use as signs at marches and demonstrations, because it’s not just a book to flip through. Climate change affects everything: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the places we call home and the people we love. And the time to act on it is now.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, curated by Barbara Heller

From the publisher: “This deluxe edition brings to life the letters exchanged among Jane Austen's characters in Pride and Prejudice. Glassine pockets placed throughout the book contain removable replicas of 19 letters from the story. These powerful epistles include Lydia's announcement of her elopement, Mr. Collins's obsequious missives, and of course Darcy's painfully honest letter to Elizabeth. Nothing captures Jane Austen's vivid emotion and keen wit better than her characters’ correspondence. Each letter is recreated with gorgeous calligraphy. Letters are hand-folded with painstaking attention to historical detail. Perusing the letters will transport readers straight to the drawing room at Netherfield or the breakfast table at Longbourn. For anyone who loves Austen, and for anyone who still
cherishes the joy of letter writing, this book illuminates a favorite story in a whole new way.”

Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights Memorial by Jessica Ingram

From the publisher: “At first glance, Jessica Ingram’s landscape photographs could have been made nearly anywhere in the American South: a fenced-in backyard, a dirt road lined by overgrowth, a field grooved with muddy tire prints. These seemingly ordinary places, however, were the sites of pivotal events during the Civil Rights era, though often there is not a plaque with dates and names to mark their importance. Many of these places are where the bodies of activists, mill workers, store owners, sharecroppers, children and teenagers were murdered or found, victims of racist violence. Images of these places are interspersed with oral histories from victims’ families and investigative journalists, as well as pages from newspapers and FBI files and other ephemera.

“With Road Through Midnight, the result of nearly a decade of research and fieldwork, Ingram unlocks powerful and complex histories to reframe these commonplace landscapes as sites of both remembrance and resistance and transforms the way we regard both what has happened and what’s happening now—as the fight for Civil Rights goes on and memorialization has become the literal subject of contested cultural and societal ground.”

Studio Culture Now edited by Mark Sinclair

From the publisher: “Studio Culture Now features in-depth interviews with a host of leading design studios. The interviewees share their experiences, insights, fears and joys, and reveal how they deal with the fundamentals and aspirations of studio life. Candid and generous, these extensive Q&As form a blueprint for anyone planning a studio practice, or anyone struggling with maintaining one. Topics covered include: getting jobs, working with clients, balancing creativity with profitability, accounting, hiring, promotion, wellbeing and much more. The interviews, mostly conducted in the past few months, also reveal how studios are adapting to the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Read more from PRINT here.

Takenobu Igarashi A–Z edited by Sakura Nomiyama and Haruki Mori

From the publisher: “In the mid-1970s, designer Takenobu Igarashi began a prolific, decade-long exploration into the possibilities of three-dimensional typography. His first experiments with lettering—heavily influenced by the avant-garde typography of the 1920s—appeared on magazine covers, posters and record sleeves. Timeless and technically dazzling, Igarashi’s signature style demonstrates his mastery of three-dimensional forms and perspective, refined long before the introduction of computers into the design industry. Takenobu Igarashi A–Z offers a comprehensive guide to Igarashi’s experimental typography, featuring not only his most celebrated works, but also a first look at archival plans, drawings and production drafts for his iconic designs. From his early print works and hand-drawn experiments to self-initiated sculptural pieces and high-profile 3D identities for international clients and institutions, this book is a long-overdue survey of one of the most ingenious graphic designers of the 20th century.”

Seymour Chwast: Inspiration and Process in Design by Steven Heller

From the publisher: “Seymour Chwast is an American graphic designer known for his diverse body of work and lasting influence on visual culture. He has authored more than 30 children's books, four graphic novels and several typefaces. In 1954, he co-founded Push Pin Studios (changed to The Pushpin Group in 1985), whose revolutionary work altered the course of contemporary graphic communication in the 1950s and ’60s and continues to inspire the field of design worldwide. Chwast’s work as a humorist is plainly felt in this biting collection of illustrative work. Sketches from his vast portfolio of unpublished children’s books and his cartoon work, such as Karma for Kats and 1,001 Beards, are accompanied by interviews by Steven Heller, which explore Chwast’s motivations and process.”

[Editor’s Note: PRINT’s Steven Heller did not participate in this selection of books.]

Vintage Graphic Design: Type, Typography, Monograms & Decorative Design from the Late 19th & Early 20th Centuries by Steven Heller and Louise Fili

From the publisher: “Any type user and enthusiast will doubtless derive joy from the letters and ornaments in Vintage Graphic Design, gathered from the rare and forgotten sources that authors Steven Heller and Louise Fili have collected over the years. As type gourmets, Heller and Fili savor type in many forms—especially the aesthetically idiosyncratic and the printed artifacts of which historical or retro typefaces are samples. A period of rapid innovation and growth in printing and type technology, the late 1800s and early 1900s saw type foundries in Europe and America burst into wellsprings for bold composition
s and arresting typefaces. However, this is not a history book; rather, it is a sampler of tasty typographic confections or so-called eye candy. The curated selection here reflects this era’s printing material, including stock pictorial cuts, filigree borders and cartouches galore.”

[Editor’s Note: PRINT’s Steven Heller did not participate in this selection of books.]

What is Color? 50 Questions and Answers on the Science of Color by Arielle Eckstut and Joann Eckstut

From the publisher: “Arielle and Joann Eckstut, authors of The Secret Language of Color, offer a thorough, readable and highly visual exploration of the science of color. Organized by 50 of the most essential questions about color across a variety of fields—physics, chemistry, biology, technology and psychology—this book examines how and why we see color; how color relates to light; what the real primary colors are; how biology, language and culture affect the colors that we see; and much more. Full of clear and elegant infographics, What Is Color? is a must-have for artists and designers, scientists, students and decorators, and anyone else whose work or play involves color.”

Read more from PRINT here.