Perfect Pairings: A Revised Reading List

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Remember flipping to the last page stapled in your syllabus packet for your introductory design class? Consider the following the beginning of a required reading list you wished you had been handed instead. Because design isn’t an insular endeavor, its texts deserve to live and breathe in relation to other words, other images, other ideas. To explore this further, I asked a simple question:

If you were to pair one design or art book and one non-design or non-art book together for “required reading,” what would they be? They should either complement or contrast each other. Whichever path you choose, the books should contextualize each other and fuel a more interesting discussion.


1. The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst withWhere the Sidewalk Ends by Shel SilversteinContributed by Amy Pastre and Courtney Rowson, Stitch Design

2. It Is Beautiful — Then Gone by Martin Venezky withThe Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America by Michael Ruhlman

“They are both about process from two vectors; first, the process of making the people (in Martin’s case, himself, designers, & students, and in Ruhlamn’s case, chefs & hospitality workers), and the process of making the work (Martin: design artifacts et al, Ruhlman: food, experiences.”Contributed by Mitch Goldstein

Jeshurun's Pick

3. Dangerous Curves by Doyald Young withThe Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate by Peter BrooksContributed by Jeshurun Webb (the author)

4. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change by Victor Papanek withThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“One describes how to design for rapidly changing ecological and social systems in a rapidly changing technological landscape and the other shows the brutal truth of how humans can be affected by such huge social and technical changes.”Contributed by Stewart Scott-Curran


5. Look Both Ways by Debbie Millman withWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl StrayedContributed by Brittany Loar

6. Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler withThe Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

“My first pick is a biography which is really a visual philosophy book—in it, Robert Irwin shows that there’s an entire universe beyond the things we can name and discuss. He demonstrates how artists and designers pose non-verbal questions with their materials and wait for answers in response—using visual inquiry to work beyond known territory. My other selection is Jane Jacob’s book on how cities work, which single-handedly launched a movement that challenged the misguided urban planning strategies of 1960s America. Completely untrained, Jane Jacobs sat on her stoop and carefully (logically) observed her subject matter to acquire knowledge that was both unconventional and true. Both writers show how we can access hitherto unknown knowledge about how the world works (and develop more inspiring, humane, and logical solutions) by looking directly to our subject for answers, rather than relying on received wisdom. This is also what good design does.”Contributed by Kelli Anderson

Larossa Pick

7. Pedagogical Sketchbook by Paul Klee withVehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology by Valentino Braitenberg

“These imaginative thought experiments are the inventions of one of the world’s eminent brain researchers. One of the most famous of modern art documents — a poetic primer, prepared by the artist for his Bauhaus pupils. They are both quick reads full of strikingly similar diagrams that beautifully illustrate the movement of the brain in different ways.”Contributed by Brian LaRossa

8. Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann withA.A. Gill is Away by A.A. Gill

“Both books are amazing examples of different approaches to exploring common subjects, and both authors clearly embrace the power of doing things differently. A.A. Gill turns typical travel writing on its head by personifying travel locales and creating compelling narratives and Erik Spiekermann talks about the power of pure, unadulterated and unfussy type and expresses this power visually, through editorial design and type exploration.”Contributed by Hamish Campbell, Pearlfisher

Jen's Pick

9. Early Watercolors of Andrew Wyeth withSongs for Coming Home by David Whyte

“Early Watercolors of Andrew Wyeth and this collection of poems by David Whyte both apply a starck view of beauty when observing an environment, each capturing and communicating the essence of a place. There is a sweet sense of familiarity in their different creative expressions. Both collections deliver incredibly intimate portraits of surroundings, as much as they are about the creator’s lens. Shades of light engulf the poems and the paintings echo with experience.”Contributed by Jennifer Lucey-Brzoza, Oat

10. Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist by Tibor Kalman with1984 by George OrwellContributed by Ira Cummings

11. New Engineering by Yuichi Yokoyama with1Q84 by Haruki Murakami“Yokoyama and Murakami portray the near-real to create captivating, sharply rendered, hallucinatory worlds. Murakami’s world is deceptively quiet, populated by the lonely and alienated. Yokoyama’s is brash, noisy, and active. After immersing in their made up atmospheres, we see the real world more clearly, and as never before.”Contributed by Rachel Berger

12. Unjustified Texts: Perspectives on Typography by Robert Kinross withMetaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark JohnsonContributed by Tina Smith

Ben's pick

13. The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design by Jan Tschichold withThe Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber by Nicholson Baker

“Tschichold, master typographer, suggests that there is an ethical dimension to a designer’s care and respect for the read
er. Baker, master miniaturist, writes essays that let us read him reading — on the history of punctuation, the evolution of the movie projector, the disappearance of the card catalog, and the act of thinking…Most importantly, they are about the importance of paying attention.”Contributed by Ben Shaykin

Thanks to all who contributed. Please add your pairing to the comments section below.Support your local independent bookstores if purchasing any of these books, I linked to Amazon for certain availability.

Looking for more design book recommendations? Check out these 8 Captivating Design History.