It’s almost impossible to narrow down a “top 5” list of the best books on visual communication and design. I don’t claim that these books are, by any means, the only five that could or should be mentioned. But if you are serious about visual communication and you want a good place to start, I recommend starting with these five. If you don’t have any one of these on your shelf, go pick it up!
Yes, the first book you should own is, in fact, a comic book. Before you write me off, hear me out: inside this book lies true genius; unfortunately, the title of book is a misnomer—this book has so much more to say than just “understanding comics.” Believe it or not, I was first exposed to this book in a Master’s course on pedagogy (teaching theory). I was re-introduced to the book in a PhD course on cultural research methods. I know others who have used the book in classes on visual rhetoric, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the book is used as a foundational book for graphic designers and aspiring professional communicators. Scott McCloud, through a very engaging style and provocative theoretical insights, addresses fascinating issues like how closure and ambiguity increase participation and the strength of communication; how bleeds have the ability to express and expand time and place; and how the relationship between the word and the image affect the perceived value of art versus crass consumerism. Trust me, if you haven’t read this book, you’ll be amazed at how insightful a book on comics can be to visual communication and design in general.
Envisioning Information, by Edward Tufte.
If you haven’t heard of Edward Tufte, now is a good time to start. Tufte is widely recognized as the father of information design, a specialized field of visual communication that focuses on designing information for practical uses. Edward Tufte first became recognized in the design world after he wrote The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, a book that transformed the way researchers thought about the effects of visualizing their data. Envisioning Information provides a remarkable collection of complex visualizations that display anything from Japanese train schedules to Napoleon’s army. If for nothing else, this book is a wonderful coffee table book, excellent for starting great conversations. Not every visual communicator will agree with Tufte’s claims that the design of information is universal (“like mathematics,” he says), but every visual communicator should be familiar with his concepts about escaping flatland, avoiding “chartjunk,” and employing the concepts of macro and micro readings of visual information.
A fantastic reference book, this collection identifies 125 of the most widely recognized design principles known “universally” across the planet. In brief but insightful explanations of each principle (two pages are devoted to each of the 125), readers can go from knowing little about design theory to much about how human beings respond to design. Perhaps most useful is the foundational research that made the principles become so widely accepted that is cited next to the principles. In this book, you’ll get a clear understanding of some of the most fundamental and fascinating principles of design, including the Rule of Thirds, the Face-ism ratio, Highlighting, Figure-Ground Relationship, Mnemonic Devices, the Aesthetic-Usability Effect, the Red Effect, Horror Vacui, and so many others. After reading this book, you’ll sound like an expert when talking to your friends about how visuals communicate.
The Non-Designer’s Series, by Robin Williams (not the actor).
Technically not a single book, graphic designer Robin Williams has made (a very successful) living on her Non-Designer’s series. If you are new to design, her books are a must-read. The book I have highlighted to the left, the Type Book, covers a wide array of useful information about typography, including leading, kerning, tracking, line length, swash characters, ligatures, typography anatomy, typeface genres (like serifs, sans serifs, decorative, and script), oldstyle figures, and much more. Williams’ books address a novice audience but her very practical examples and rules of thumb make her series useful reference guides for anyone trying to create print documents. If you have really wanted to learn more about the basics of things like contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity, color, and typography, give her books a chance. You’ll come away feeling like an expert (relatively speaking) in no time.
Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World, by Carolyn Handa.
A theoretical, academic book, this collection of essays includes some of the most important works on visual communication in the last half-century. The wide range of topics (from photography to computerized simulations to punctuation) exposes readers to complex insights about the visual world. After reading this book, you’ll be familiar with some of the most important contemporary visual thinkers—including Roland Barthes, Rudolf Arnheim, Scott McCloud, and Richard Buchanan, among many others—and you’ll have a broad understanding of what informs designers today. The book was published in 2004, so a lot of the recent insight in visual technologies and internet are missed in this book, but that doesn’t detract from the importance of the articles included, some of which date back to the 1960s and 1970s.