Designers & Books Founder on the Best Book Lists
In the April issue of Print magazine, Rick Poynor discussed how he landed on the final choices for his book list for Designers & Books. While Designers & Books has been around for a few years (and we’ve drooled over Pentagram’s design of the site), we found ourselves wanting to know more about the behind the scenes and D&B‘s founder and editor-in-chief, Steve Kroeter. To feed our curiosity, we reached out to Kroeter to learn more about the origins and inner workings of D&B and his role in creating the site. In the interview below, he describes the process and the future of D&B — not to mention calling out several books lists that have left an impression.
D& B’s Notable Books of the Month. You can read more about “Shadow Type” in the April issue of Print, Grids+Guides column.
What was the motivation behind Designers & Books? Can you tell us a little bit about its origin, as well as your role?
I’ve worked as a consultant to designers for many years. During that time, I’ve had the chance to visit many different design studios. It began to occur to me that a common feature of every studio I visited was books. Books were everywhere, no matter what kind of studio I was in: architecture, fashion, graphic design, interior design or product design. And why all the books? Because designers need to be creative on demand—and they use books as inspiration.
With the increased interest in creativity and design these days, I thought that if people known for being creative were willing to share the sources of their inspiration, there might be an audience for that—a curiosity about knowing the books designers used as sources of inspiration. So that was the origin of the idea.
The mission of the site comes directly from that point: to advocate for books as important sources of inspiration for creativity, innovation and invention. The primary way we accomplish our mission is by asking internationally esteemed designers to send us the list of books that have been formative, important and inspirational to them.
The site was my idea. It brings together four things that are meaningful to me: design, designers, books, and idea. And I have put together the team that ponders our options and chooses which of them to follow up on.
How has D&B grown over the years?
We launched in February of 2011 with 55 book lists and 678 books. We now have over 200 book lists, and those lists include close to 2,000 books. Initially, all we published was book lists; now on the site you can find information about publishers, booksellers, bestseller lists, and a wide range of feature articles and interviews. Our audience is made up of seriously design-inclined and book-focused people. In terms of metrics, our most recent 12-month numbers are 359,000 visits; 246,000 unique visitors; and 782,000 page views. We have 19,000 Twitter followers.
The newest initiative we launched is the Design Book of the Year Award, which we just presented this month to Phyllis Lambert for her book Building Seagram. And there were two runners-up: The Houses of Louis Kahn by George Marcus and William Whitaker and Various Small Books: Referencing Various Small Books of Ed Ruscha.
Just a few of the contributors to D&B
Who are some other key players at D&B?
The original design of the site was done by Lisa Strausfeld and Takaaki Okada when they were at Pentagram. Then Brian Wu of Inside Out Design was responsible for our design work. Now John Kudos and his team do all the design work and also all of the programming.
The managing editor is Stephanie Salomon. She’s been working on the site from the very beginning and is involved in pretty much every aspect of what goes on. And she directs the work of our three editorial assistants: Katie Blumenkrantz, Ryan Kane and Tiffany Lambert. Melea Seward is our director of social media. She’s always helping us uncover new opportunities—like the ‘in-studio and on-line book signing’ concept we recently launched.
Then there are those in both the design and publishing communities who have taken a particular interest in our welfare: people like Michael Bierut, Irma Boom, Steve Heller, Debbie Millman, Rick Poynor and Stefan Sagmeister. And all the publishers who supported the launch of our Online Design Book Fair.
How do you find contributors for your site? Do they approach you?
Mainly we come up with the ideas for whom to approach. Occasionally, we get approached. What’s particularly nice is when a contributor enjoys the experience with us, and after his or her list is posted, recommends other designers who are highly connected to books.
From D&B site: Ken Carbone’s 2012 journal entry for Art & Fear
Have there been any lists that spoke to you, in particular, or are among your favorites?
As architects say about their buildings, “We love them all, especially the next one.” But each list we receive has something unique to recommend it. We’re grateful for each one that’s sent along, because they come from some of the busiest people in the world, solely out of the kindness of their hearts and their love of books and book culture.
From the over 200 book lists and nearly 2,000 book comments that are on the site, there are some that particularly resonate for one reason or another.
We asked Margaret McCurry to include a short introduction to her list, and she sent along an 1,100-word essay that included this sentence, which seems perfect for us in expressing the intersection of design and books: “A client of mine once very graciously referred to me as the Jane Austen of architects, saying, ‘She can create a small world out of a small space, a microcosm in a two-inch piece of ivory.’”
Instead of providing simply a list of “Books Every Architect Should Read,” Paul Goldberger wrote a 3,000 word article that included references to 33 of his favorite books about architecture. The lists from Jeanne Gang (16 books) and Warren Lehrer (22 books) are thoughtful and also thought provoking and notable for the wide range of books they include.
When it was first published, Rick Poynor’s list immediately was one of the most popular lists on the site. And it continues to be. His list of “Books Every Graphic Designer Should Read” functions as a sort of touchstone for anyone who wants a serious introduction to the discipline.
Peter Mendelsund caught our attention by saying: “I don’t believe I’ve ever read a ‘design book’ in my entire life. . . . I am completely virginal when it comes to the literature of art and design.” His list of books includes titles by Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and Joyce—and a book on haiku.
There are many individual book comments that are noteworthy, too, such as: Karim Rashid discussing Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences; Diana Balmori: on Max Bill’s Robert Maillart; Rudy VanderLans discussing Milton Glaser: Graphic Design; and Maira Kalman on Pride and Prejudice
In his column, Rick Poynor discusses some of the challenges he faced when compiling his list for D&B. What do you feel is the biggest challenge for contributors?
I suppose the biggest challenge for contributors is simply to find the time to do a list. Consequently, we’ve learned to be very patient. Sometimes it has taken a year or longer between when a designer says yes (most people we ask are enthusiastic about the project and predisposed to say yes) and when we finally receive the list. But the wait is always worth it.
A photo of “Richard Sachs’s ‘pile’ of books” from D&B site.
What’s the typical response to the lists? Is there one?
I’m not sure there’s a typical response. Some lists are received enthusiastically right off; others more quietly initially and then the attention to them builds. Some of our early lists, like Rick Poynor’s, are still among the most popular on the site. The other day someone emailed me saying that when she starts a new book, now she goes to the site to see if it’s on anyone’s list, and if so, what they’ve said about it.
What are some of the top picks from your Top 10 List?
Our Top 10 list gets updated several times a year. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown has been the most frequently chosen book on the site from day 1. For non-design books, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is the #1 pick—although for some time it was Ulysses by James Joyce.
Are there any other themes or trends that have emerged from the lists over the past several years?
What we see is that each creative person is inspired in his or her own unique way—and this is reflected in the books they choose. There are some designers whose lists only include design books. There are other designers who profess to never having read a design book. Some lists have books that were read as children; others will have a recently published title. Some lists are short; others are long; the occasional list is very long. Before we began requesting a minimum of five titles, we had one list that consisted of just one book (from the now-deceased Eva Zeisel). On the other hand, we never put an upper limit on the number of books comprising a list. Alexa Hampton submitted the longest list to date: 70 books. It’s the completely unpredictable nature of the lists that makes them both enlightening and entertaining.
The D&B Book Board
What directions do you see D&B moving? What are your hopes for the site?
It seems to me that if we are in the business of helping people to discover books, then we are also in the business of helping people acquire the books they discover. I don’t see us ever directly selling books ourselves, but I am excited about helping publishers and booksellers explore new ways for books to find their audiences.
With this in mind, we held an “offline” design book fair in New York City in the fall of 2012, and launched a year-round online version in 2013. We’ve just scratched the surface with what we hope to do in those areas.
We’ve also developed a “live online” approach to book signings that allows authors to sell personally inscribed copies of their books anywhere on the six continents that the US Postal Services delivers to.
And we’re in discussions with several potential collaborators that I hope will allow us later this year to launch a summit meeting. This idea is to convene the design book publishing community and provide a forum for discussing the key cultural and financial challenges we are all facing. And hopefully identify some possible answers.