Some Notes On Books for Designers

In my path of teaching, the question that I get asked the most is: “What books should junior designers read?” At first, it sounds easy to answer – naming a few titles should be enough, but in pondering the question, it turned out to be quite complicated.

Keenness for learning is a great sign from a young design community like Vietnam. More than just communicating knowledge, books also broaden our minds, helping us think on deeper levels. However, after much conversation, I believe most designers simply carry an unrealistic expectation of books.

If you ask junior designers why they read, 90% of them would answer: “To grasp the basics of graphic design”. This is where trouble sets in, “graphic design basics”. I don’t know how many times I have received confidences from others, that they lack in basics and are unsure of where to start, and so, they come to books in the hope that books will offer them the basic knowledge. Such is not wrong a decision, but it is difficult to do.

If you google “graphic design basics”, the results found are usually: elements of design (lines, shapes, etc.) and principles of design (contrast, repetition, etc.). And interestingly enough, should we go on googling “principles of design”, the results would be: 10 principles of design, 8 principles of design, 5/6/7 principles of design, etc. I have read numerous books on design basics, but have never found one that could explicate these so-called “elements of design” and “principles of design”. Everything is but the standardization by senior designers, in order to help who have just entered design, but it is because of these very inconsistencies that confusion arises. I once mentioned to my lecturer (who used to teach in RCA and Goldsmiths University, London) the issue of design education by means of principles and elements of design; he said, “Well, you can’t teach all principles of design. That’s not the core”. In other words, those things are not the foundation of design, no more than a tool. I do not suggest you not learn design elements and principles; they are a wonderful tool to know, but do not miss the importance behind it.

A few months ago, I read Michael Kroeger’s “Paul Rand: Conversations with Students”, a book about the conversations between the legendary designer Paul Rand and one of his students (currently a university lecturer). The lecturer asked, “How do we teach graphic design correctly?”. Paul Rand said, “Whatever is basic, do you know what is basic?”. “Hmm… design principles?”. “How the hell are you going to make people understand that?”, continued P. Rand, “Design is a relationship between form and content”.


And so I dug deeper into form and content to see what they are, and after a while I found the answer in a research by Köhler, 1929. In short, human has a certain association with things, events that even they could not comprehend at times. For instance, I’ll give you 2 nonsense words: “Maluma” & “Takete”, and 2 nonsense drawings. And I ask you which one is Maluma, which one is Takete. Would you know?


Of course you do. The majority of participants say that the word “Takete” better fits with the angular shape shown on the right, whereas the word “Maluma” fits better with the rounded shape displayed on the left. Even those individuals from cultures without any written language have been shown to exhibit this effect. Why? Well, no one knows, no one can explain, just sensation, but everyone agrees. And that, is the true basis of Design, of all Designs, from Graphic, to Interior, to Fashion, to Jewelry, etc. As a graphic designer, we have to learn how to “sense” those things – this poster looks fun, saddening, professional, etc. This bracelet suits this lady, or that madame? Does this shirt’s colour fit for these pants? The basis of design is such relationships. Without this skill, a graphic designer will not actually be a graphic designer, or said otherwise, just one who use graphic to make money.

Back to the matter of reading. Paul Rand, as in the above-mentioned book, concluded his answer, in design education, lecturers must, together with their students, discuss about graphic works (Kroeger, 2013). This helps people develop their interpretation and association capabilities. The book he (P. Rand) recommended for teaching materials is “Graphic Design Manual” by Armin Hofmann. This is a visual book, with graphic design pieces built on the most basic shapes, creating differing associations. In short, books are a tool, while the key factor is an environment to discuss one’s perception, in contrast to the others’, on a given piece of art.


In summation, I would like to leave three reminders to you. First, I am not against reading, but I am against the thought that pure reading can make you a designer. Second, when learning graphic design, what is required is we must know how to observe others’ designs, then discuss and feel. Third, do not be engulfed in pure on-paper knowledge which is lengthy and indigestible; language is not the direct means of expressing things, events, and phenomena. You may feel “angered”, but “angered” can never convey fully the angry feeling. A scientist may name a chemical element, but that name can never reveal its properties. A caveman in the North Pole cannot describe snow for an African caveman who has never seen snow, unless both hold hands traversing in the North Pole (Arnheim, 2011).

The case for designers is likewise.


Arnheim, R. (2011). Art and visual perception. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kroeger, M. (2013). Paul rand. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

Saussure Fd. Cours de linguistique générale. Bally C, Sechehaye A, Riedlinger A, editors. Payot; 1916.

Huy Ta