October 11, 2008
I’m very excited to kick-off our new Goodness blog with this little project. I asked a group of outstanding graphic designers to…
Please recommend a book that you have found particularly inspiring or meaningful to your development as a creative person.
The one restriction: Please no books on graphic design.
I had a feeling that these artists would lead me to some new favorites. I enjoy following up on cross-referenced suggestions that lurk about in a lot of pop-culture. Watch almost any Scorsese film, and you’ll catch little snippets of his favorite movies. I found out about The Jazz Singer by watching Goodfellas. This sort of thing happens all the time once you keep your eye out for it. When you really connect with a source, you often appreciate what they like as well.
The responses I received from these artists formed an unexpected and intriguing reading list. One that should keep me busy for the next year or so. Also fascinating are the personal statements reflecting why their books are so meaningful to them.
Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion
This is a sparse and beautifully crafted novel set in the emptiness of Los Angeles, and following themes of despair and detachment. It is the writing style that made a huge impact on me when I first read the book as a young designer. It made clear the power of nothingness, or minimal language. There are no unnecessary words, plot devices, or characters. It is stripped down to its bare core.
The discoveries we make are not our own. The seeds of every art are implanted within us, and God our instructor, from hidden sources, develops our ability to create.
—The 1851 London Great Exhibition Catalog
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
There are so many books that have influenced me, both as a human being and one who tries to be creative. But, perhaps because he just died, I would say David Foster-Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A sad, funny, huge book that deals with the vast fuckedupness of our society. It is prophecy of where we are today. Corporate America trying to suck the very soul from us while squeezing every dollar from our wallets. Drugs, celebrity, loneliness, life, death…you know…all the important stuff. It is like a peep hole into the world, that sadly, is the world we all live in. I can understand in many ways why he found it so hard to live in this world. He was truly a great artist.
Roget’s International Thesaurus
I’ve been mulling this question over, and I’ve decided on Roget’s International Thesaurus. Roget’s Thesaurus is not just a list of synonyms, and I personally find it much superior to an “A–Z Thesaurus”, particularly for wandering through language. In fact, Roget’s is a bit like the internet, how one thing leads to another and another. First you look up the word in the index. It will then have various alternate meanings (often in lists exceeding 10 different meanings or nuances of the word)—so to take an easy one, I start with “SAPPY” and from there I have a choice of “sentimental,” “immature,” “foolish,” or “fluid”.
So let’s say I meant “sentimental”, so i go to the referenced section, which is 93.21: in that section I see many words such as “maudlin, cloying, schmaltsy, gooey, mushy, bathetic …” etc. But the entire section of 93 is about “FEELING”, and if I browse around I see 93.1 “feeling” lists words such as “emotion, affect, sensibility …” etc.; 93.2 are words related to “passion”; 93.3 “heart” … and on through to 93.27 “sentimentally”. So i get a much broader range. Then, more interestingly, the sections surrounding each section are related in meaning. So the section 94 deals with “LACK OF FEELING”; 95 “PLEASURE”; 92 “PSYCHOLOGY”, so you see it’s easy to wander off and find all sorts of interesting and semi-related words. What does this have to do with design? Well … I’m not sure, except that everything writing has to do with design, and that’s that.
Act One, by Moss Hart
It is not the best book I’ve ever read. But it is my favorite. Most people to whom I recommend it have never heard of it, or of its author. But on about my fifth rereading I realized why I like it so much: it’s the best, funniest, and most inspiring description of the creative process ever put down on paper.
The Acme Novelty Library, by Chris Ware
Has anybody nominated any of the Chris Ware ACME Novelty Libraries yet?
Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse
I have a bad tendency to over-explore things; to sometimes think that in order to find the right answer, one needs to look at EVERYTHING. Anything that reminds me that the answer is always nearby…grab it and keep moving…is good for me – visually and personally.
All Consuming Images, by Stuart Ewen
It helped me understand my own relationship with fashion.
This book keeps getting better the older I get. I appreciate his restraint and style more and more.
Ways of Seeing, by John Berger
It’s corny, but in college I read this and it seemed like a revelation to me.
Robert Massin’s visualization of The Bald Soprano, by Eugene Ionesco
The one book I can recommend above all others is Robert Massin’s “visualization” of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano”. When I found that book in my college library back in 1972, I finally understood that what I was interested in doing was graphic design. I never looked back.
A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
I have been in awe of E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” from my early years to revisiting the book several times in my life as a designer.
Why? Because the characters who are present in “A Passage to India” have different voices and come from different places in life. They make me as a designer a better listener and being a good listener is at the core of design, understanding and responding to other people’s problems.
To cut through myth, hype, clichés, narrow-mindedness, and bullshit, to come out at the other end with perspective, long-term views, and responsible action is what life and design is all about.
Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
I read this the summer I graduated from college. It tells the story of a struggling writer. He lives day to day, meal to meal, not sure what the future holds for him. Through his struggles he does not lose sight that his writing is his salvation. At least that’s how I remember it.
The Color Kittens, by Margaret Wise Brown
At first your question stumped me, because there really haven’t been many books, per se, that I can point to as being particularly inspiring to my development as an artist. But then I started going back, and even further back in my life and remembered one children’s book in particular that has always stuck with me (don’t laugh): “The Color Kittens” by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. This was one of those little Golden Books. I cannot tell you in terms too strong how profound an influence the words and images of this book had on my artistic development. For me color is almost the most important element of my work, and I can definitely trace back my fascination with color to the images and words of this children’s book. Whether a children’s book like this could be recommended to adults is questionable at best, but nevertheless I could not avoid the importance of this book to me personally, and feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to it’s creators.
Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
It follows the life of a young girl, a singer, who discovers her own voice, and the powers and the problems of having such a voice. Gorgeous Americana, and a fabulous story of coming of age as a creative person. Enjoy!
The Art of Donald Duck
Like many designers, I have a weak spot for books. Many have influenced my development as a creative person. Given that I’m about five weeks away from being a dad, I can’t help but think about books from my childhood. The book that I remember most from my childhood was The Art of Donald Duck. Donald was always my favorite Disney character, and I recall drawing and redrawing his image over and over. I must have copied that book page by page, numerous times. I’m not sure what affect this tracing had on my career, but to this day, I can draw a damn good Donald Duck.
On Photography, by Susan Sontag
It was one of the first books that made me think I had to forget everything I thought I already knew. The first of many.
Proust Was A Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer
It’s a fascinating way to describe how the brain works and how artists define reality.
Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin
Helprin’s magical realism captures the way New York feels, not is.
Circles of Confusion, by Hollis Frampton
This book showed me that an artist (filmmaker) could create smart, engaging films write about time, perception, and beauty as fluidly as he could write engaging essays about these same ideas. Frampton’s book impressed me as a student because of the continuity between these two aspects of his work, and the fact that there was such a strong underlying thread between them.
Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges
I would say that the book that most affected and changed my way of thinking about creativity, long before I thought about being a creative person (that’s debatable), was “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges. Not only does Borges tell stories that read more like essays (though they are fiction), his way of seeing the world through lanuage and of putting the reader in a prominent position had lots of implications to me for how stories are made and what they come to mean.
Go Dog Go, by P.D. Eastman
My favorite childhood book had a big impact on me as an artist/designer: “Go Dog Go” by P.D. Eastman. I want to believe it’s the very first book I read. The fun illustrations of the dogs having a good time probably did more for my creative development than any other book I’ve read since. I wanted to be at the party in the tree with all those dogs so I started drawing my own “dog party”. I also like “Harry the Dirty Dog”, but I’m starting to see a pattern so I’ll stop.
Thinking Course, by Edward DeBono
Most usable to coming up with ideas.
Most influential on my life as a designer.
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
A fairly depressing argument to quit everything you are doing. Highly recommended!!!!
Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin, by Lawrence Weschler
It’s a tiny book with a long title, but manages to beautifully explain how an artist can develop and build his obsessions into the work he does. By the end, you feel as if you know Irwin personally and fully understand why he makes that odd, experiential work.
Something Happened, by Joseph Heller
Particularly a chapter entitled “The Office in which I Work”. It seems to describe an advertising agency or the like, and while you have no idea what they create in this place, you understand absolutely everything about the office politics. It is a perfect lesson in human behavior for anyone who has to work with groups of people in hierarchies in corporations and institutions. Though the book is over 30 years old, the description of the office could have been written yesterday.
Where the Suckers Moon, by Randall Rothenberg
I don’t have time to read too many, but I would have to say the book I found most pertinent to design/business was “Where the Suckers Moon” by Randall Rothenberg. It sort of peels back the curtain behind certain mythic design figures (Kalman)
The crossword is always stimulating.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
Both are books on craft (writing and film making) and make perfect sense to a designer. And are also excellent reads.
Short Stories, by Franz Kafka
I was, and still am, fascinated by the amazing results of the smallest small changes in our perception.