The Best Design Books of 2021

Illustration by Beatrice Sala

Graphic Life by Michael Gericke (Image Publishing Group)
Books on design are rarely written with the literary flourish found in novels, memoirs, and creative non-fiction. Even more, they’re rarely personal, preferring an analytical, critical, or practical position. Justin Beal, an artist and writer, does away with all of this with his hybrid personal memoir and biography of World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki. Released around the 20th anniversary of September 11th, Beal, writing in fragmentary, almost diaristic prose, parallels the story of Yamasaki designing and building the World Trade Center with his own story of moving to New York, becoming an artist, falling in love, and becoming a father.

Caps Lock by Ruben Pater.

Based on a conference held last year, the book features writers like Arturo Escobar, Danah Abdullah, and Cheryl Buckley exploring new ways to think about design history, its relationship to social issues like the climate crisis and migration, all through the lens of decolonization and intersectionality. Blending essays, roundtables, interviews, and papers, this book serves as a survey of the issues facing the contemporary designer.
Gericke joined Pentagram in 1985, first as a designer for Pentagram founder Colin Forbes, before becoming partner himself a few years later, making him the second longest-service partner at the studio. Over his nearly 40 year career, Gericke’s work has focused on three broad areas, revealed in the monograph: places, stories, and symbols. At 519 pages, the monograph calls to mind the equally massive monographs like Rem Koolhaas’s SMLXL or 2×4’s 2009 it is what it is. With this size, filled with immersive, full-bleed photography, Gericke creates an experience that is architectural in its own right, making an object that allows the longtime Pentagram partner to step into his own spotlight.
Baseline Shift by Briar Levit (Princeton Architectural Press)

Baseline Shift, edited by Briar Levit.

The collection builds upon Martha Scotford’s wrote her now-seminal 1994 essay, “Neat History/Messy History: Towards An Expanded View of Women In Graphic Design,” a critical appraisal of who gets included in design history books and who gets left out. Scotford wrote that “messy history” avoids linear narratives and genius stories in favor of a distributed history that would include women whose work is often overlooked. (In Meggs History of Graphic Design, Scotford noted, only 15 designers mentioned were women and only nine of those women had their work reproduced in the book!) This work still needs to be done. Fortunately, there are many scholars who are doing it, uncovering the forgotten women from graphic design history and bringing them to a new audience. Thanks to Baseline Shift, these stories are no longer untold.
Black, Brown Latinx Design Educators by Kelly Walters (Princeton Architectural Press)
Ruben Pater’s 2016 book The Politics of Design arrived at the perfect moment: just preceding the 2016 election and the reckoning that came alongside it about the designer’s role in society. In The Politics of Design, Pater, a designer and researcher, dissects notions of design from typography to color to layout revealing the biases and political nature of the work designers too often like to think of as neutral. 

Design Struggles, edited by Nina Paim and Claudia Mareis.

In many ways, graphic design publishing has never been more exciting. From big publishing companies to independent presses, academic journals to highly-visual monographs, there’s a near-constant stream of books about and around graphic design that we can engage with. 2021 was no exception. There’s a handful of books this year that I found myself returning to frequently as they challenge my understanding of design, present design history in new ways, or tell stories that were once overlooked. The selections below are a few favorites from the year. They skew to my own interests and peculiarities, and the list is in no way comprehensive (there’s a stack of books, as always, on my desk I haven’t even gotten through yet.) but there’s still a range here, from the monograph to the memoir, the provocation to the celebration. All of them, I hope, find their way to teenagers somewhere in the world and introduce them to the ever-changing, ever-exciting field of graphic design.
A confession: academic design writing can be a slog (and I’m speaking as an academic). It can be overly verbose and poorly written, too abstract and disconnected from the realities of contemporary practice. This is a blanket statement, I know, but the stereotype is rooted in some truth. Design Struggles, edited by Nina Paim and Claudia Mareis, avoids the cliches of academic writing in favor of an accessible, theoretical, and relevant collection of essays and texts on design history, education, and practice.
Caps Lock by Ruben Pater (Valiz)

Graphic Life by Michael Gericke.

At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020, institutions around the country were faced with calls from students to decolonize their curriculums and move away from a strictly white, Euro/Western-centric lens of design. The design faculty at many elite schools in the country is still, unfortunately, mostly white, despite a student population that’s never been more diverse. The unique insights of BIPOC designers—as well as students and educators—are helping reshape what it means to teach design today.
Sandfuture by Justin Beal (MIT Press)
Caps Lock, Pater’s follow-up book, continues this critique with a specific focus on the development of graphic design alongside the expansion of capitalism. A revisionist history of sorts, Pater looks at the role of labor, reproduction, branding, marketing, and social media in how they transformed the design industry. Pater isn’t interested in artifacts or celebrity designers as much as systems; especially the often invisible systems that have an outsized influence on the work we make. I always hesitate to declare something required, but upon finishing Caps Lock, my first thought was: “this should be taught in every design program.” 

Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educator by Kelly Walters.

Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives by Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim (editors) (Valiz)
As a teenager growing up in the suburbs who was interested in graphic design, the design section of my local Barnes and Noble was my only connection to the profession (like many smaller suburbs around the country, there were no graphic design studios in the area). I treasured these books because they opened a world up to me, providing a path into the profession I’d eventually enter. Almost 20 years later, working in a city alongside other designers, my love for design books has not waned. It may have even increased, as books continue to open up new insights into both this field and my own work.
In this concise book of interviews, Kelly Walters, a professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, talks with design educators around the country who identify as people of color on a range of subjects, including how they approach education, their position in the classroom, what decolonization means to them, and the unique challenges they’ve faced in their career. The educators featured here teach at private schools and public universities, community colleges and HBCUs. Each of these positions comes with its own challenges and opportunities, and it’s clear that the conversations Walters has in the book are only the beginning of the work required to expand the graphic design field for the next generations of designers. 

Sandfuture by Justin Beal.

I read this book over the course of a few days, waking up early to read a few pages while I had my coffee. I was often unable to put it down, pulled into the narrative Beal was crafting and dazzled by his poetic sentences. It’s a great example of a book that is both personal and universal, about design and life, analytical yet moving. It’s unlike any design book I’ve read, but I’d love to read more like this.
In this concise collection of essays, Briar Levit recenters the stories of women from graphic design history. From Bea Feitler, whose typographic covers for Ms. look as fresh today as they did in the ’70s; to Angel De Cora, the Ho-Chuck artist whose work is still taught in Native American schools but without attribution, and Margaret Larsen, the San Francisco designer who captured the midcentury aesthetic, Levit and her contributors both correct decades of lost recognition and reframe the design history canon to be more expansive, diverse, and lively. 
I’m fascinated by monographs, as a concept, but generally find most underwhelming, self-aggrandizing printed portfolios. A successful monograph could and should recontextualize a body of work, revealing the threads that connect otherwise unrelated client work, and allowing the designers’ voice to illuminate the often faceless projects. Pentagram partner Michael Gericke’s new monograph, Graphic Life, does all these things and more. 

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