The best books about effective graphic design

Don Glickstein Author Of After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence
By Don Glickstein

The Books I Picked & Why

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

By Edward R. Tufte

Book cover of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

Why this book?

Tufte, a former Yale and Princeton professor, made his reputation by challenging assumptions about how to present information graphically. The result is a series of gorgeous—I don’t use that term lightly—books that look at the hard evidence. This is his first. From the concept of density of information to his popularization of sparklines, from his insistence on graphical integrity to his devastating critique of PowerPoints and how they contribute to the downfall of civilization, Tufte has been the country’s leading voice for evidence-based design. It all began with this 190-page book that will never go out of print.

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Designing Web Usability

By Jakob Nielsen

Book cover of Designing Web Usability

Why this book?

Edward Tufte provided the intellectual framework to evidence-based graphic design, but Jakob Nielsen got down and dirty with web design. His lab research looks into stuff like eye fixations and click rates. But don’t get the wrong idea: He translates the research into practical suggestions about how to design web pages and web interfaces. While this book is ancient by tech standards, its principles remain unchallenged. His many other books report findings about facets of good design ranging from eye-tracking research to designing for cell phones.

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The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications

By Jeff Brooks

Book cover of The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications

Why this book?

If there’s anyone who cares about effective graphic design, it’s direct-mail experts and fundraisers like Brooks. Brooks devotes about one-quarter of his book to the “design of fundraising”—how to use graphics to improve response rates. If folks can’t read your pitch because of poor design, all the words you write won’t make a difference. “It doesn’t matter how great a piece looks if it’s hard to read,” he says. He deflates designs that make the designer feel good, but make the reader toss the communication because it’s just too much work to figure out.

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Ogilvy on Advertising

By David Ogilvy

Book cover of Ogilvy on Advertising

Why this book?

Ogilvy was the original “mad man” (to cite the 2007–2015 TV show), the foremost advertising executive of the mid-20th century. Although his book is about advertising, you’ll be able to see a theme here that runs through all my top 5 choices: Design should be based first on customer-focused communications research, not on how the designer feels. One of the ads Ogilvy cites was extraordinarily successful—and a graphic atrocity. How could that be? Ogilvy spills the beans.

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The Big Red Fez

By Seth Godin

Book cover of The Big Red Fez

Why this book?

Why are three of the five books I recommend about graphic design written by marketing types? They know that their livelihood depends on effective design. Godin is one of those smarmy marketing types—who else would name a book about web design after a fez?—but he knows his stuff. He argues that website owners shouldn’t take their cues from their IT people, who don’t know nothin’ about sales, customers, and web design. Tufte and Nielsen present the data dispassionately; Godin tells it like it is. This book expands on his legendary essay, “Really Bad PowerPoint,” which you can still find as a free download on the web.

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