The 11 Best Art and Design Books of 2011
From the Periodic Table to Craigslist, or what the greatest graphic designer of all time has to do with Moby-Dick.
By Maria Popova
After last week’s look at the 11 best illustrated books for (eternal) kids of 2011, this year’s best-of series continues with a look at the finest art, design, and creativity books of 2011 — tomes that capture your imagination and encapsulate the richest spectrum of what it means to be a thoughtful, eloquent visual creator.
Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics. In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: Radioactivity and love. It’s a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.
It’s also a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.
Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.
Saul Bass (1920-1996) is one of the most iconic and influential visual communicators of the 20th century — possibly the most famous graphic designer of all time — having broken out of the conformity of the 1950s to shape the aesthetic of generations of designers and animators with his bold and lively film title sequences and graphic design. (His insights on creativity and advice on doing quality work are also a timeless treat for any creator.) Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design is the first and highly anticipated definitive monograph on the creative visionary. Designed by Bass’s daughter, Jennifer, and written by renowned design historian Pat Kirkham, the formidable 428-page volume features more than 1,400 of Bass’s illustrations, many never before published, that offer an unprecedented look at his legacy and the creative process behind his most celebrated posters, title sequences, and logo designs.
I want everything we do to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything, or that the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” ~ Saul Bass
Publisher Laurence King put together this epic video of the making of the book, to give you a sense of the scale and ambition of the project:
From his iconic title sequences…
… to his unforgettable posters…
…to his legendary logos for mega-brands like AT&T, Quaker Oats, and United Airlines, the monograph contextualizes his most significant works and analyzes each film project individually to dissect its graphic elements and motifs.
Had Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design been released before the publication of this selection of the 100 best graphic design books of the past 100 years, it would most certainly have been included, and quite possibly would have topped the list — it is, truly, one of the most beautiful, inspirational, important design books you’ll ever lay eyes and hands on.
Full review here.
You might recall Sophie Blackall, known for her distinctive children’s book illustration, as one of the brains and brushes behind these brilliant design makeovers of the mundane. Since 2009, she has been capturing Craigslist missed connections in her delightful illustrations and unmistakable style of Chinese ink and watercolor, brimming with charm, romanticism and soft whimsy. Now, Blackall joins our running list of blogs so good they became books: Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found collects the best of these poetic visual what-if love stories, each told in a shorthand “missed connection” ranging from the lyrical (I Gave You My Umbrella but the Wrong Directions) to the warm-and-fuzzy (We Shared a Bear Suit) to the shared love of the tragicomic (Ice Skating in Central Park We Collided).
Every day hundreds of strangers reach out to other strangers on the strength of a glance, a smile or a blue hat. Their messages have the lifespan of a butterfly. I’m trying to pin a few of them down.” – Sophie Blackall
Both playful and profound, Blackall’s delicate drawings — many of which are available on Etsy as prints — immortalize the ephemeral with a wink and a wand, breathing into these mundane encounters a kind of magic that transforms them into open-ended modern-day fairy tales.
In the book’s fascinating introduction, Blackall explores the history of missed connections, both her personal fascination with them and our larger collective memory across time:
For centuries the lovelorn have carved messages in tree trunks and rolled letters into bottles and cast them out to sea. On the 19th of January, 1862, the following appeared in The New York Times:
‘If the young lady wearing the pink dress, spotted fur cape and muff, had light hair, light complexion and blue eyes, who was in company with a lady dressed in black, that I passed about 5 o’clock on Friday evening in South Seventh Street, between First and Second, Williamsburg, L.I., will address a line to Waldo, Williamsburg Post Office, she will make the acquaintance of a fine young man.’
Some of the illustrated messages were written by their smitten authors moments after the encounter took place, and others decades later. Some are written to an impossible love interest, a person famous or dead or forbidden for one reason or another, and some lament the loss of a familiar lover. Hopeful, pensive, lonely, drunken, optimistic — they span the entire spectrum of human emotion.
Original review, with more images, here.
These days, news of the Middle East is a frequent staple of our daily media diet, but these media portrayals tend to be limited, one-dimensional, and reductionist. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. Cultural Connectives, a fine addition to my favorite books about language from my friends at Mark Batty, aims to bridge this gap though a cultural cross-pollinator in the form of a typeface family designed by author Rana Abou Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture.
Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.
The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic:
We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” ~ Gibran Khalil Gibran
Full review, with more images, here.
344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment was the most popular book amongst Brain Pickings readers this year — a delightful pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists to help you figure out life’s big answers by ever-inventive designer Stefan G. Bucher, he of You Deserve a Medal and Daily Monster fame.
Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved creators across various disciplines, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Doyald Young, and Jakob Trollbäck.
Let’s be clear: I want this book to be useful to you. There are many great how-to books and biographies out there, and even more gorgeous collections of current and classic work to awe and inspire. But looking at catalogs of artistic success won’t make you a better artist any more than looking at photos of healthy people will cure your cold. You’ve got to take action!” ~ Stefan G. Bucher
(Sure, this may be somewhat remiss in overlooking the basic mechanism of combinatorial creativity, but it’s it’s hard to argue with the need to make ideas happen rather than just contemplating them.)
This gem is also one of my favorite creativity-catalyzing activity books for grown-ups.
Page images copyright © 2012. Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders
Though Bucher designed the book as a sequence, it also works choose-you-own-adventure-style and, as Bucher is quick to encourage, asks for hands-on interaction — dog-earing, marginalia, doodles. “If you keep this book in mint condition, I’ve failed,” he says.
We are all different people, but we face a lot of the same questions. The point of this book is to give you lots of questions you can use to look at your life — in a new way, with a different perspective, or maybe just in more detail than you have before — so you can find out how you work, what you want to do, and how you can get it done in a way that works for you. Specifically.” ~ Stefan G. Bucher
Originally featured here.
Data visualization is a running theme of visual literacy here, and Manuel Lima has been one of its biggest champions since 2005 when, shortly after graduating from the Parson School of Design, he launched VisualComplexity — an ambitious portal for the visualization of complex networks across a multitude of disciplines, from biology to history to the social web. This year, Lima released the highly anticipated Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information — a rigorously researched, beautifully designed, thoughtfully curated anthology of the world’s most compelling work at the intersection of these two relatively nascent yet increasingly powerful techno-cultural phenomena, network science and information visualization. It’s a winsome addition to these essential books on data visualization and a powerful tool in your visual literacy arsenal for navigating the Information Age.
From the sacred meaning of trees and their age-old use as classification systems to the science behind network thinking to the stunning and visually expressive products of cutting-edge digital visualization, Lima — author, designer, and deep thinker — not only explores the multiplicitous allure of networks, but also crafts an important analog artifact to contain these rapidly vanishing digital ephemera. (You know, in case you were wondering why computational creativity should belong in a book.)
As the book gained shape, it quickly became clear that it was not just about making the pool of knowledge more accessible, but also saving it for posterity. As I reviewed projects to feature in the book, I was astounded by how many dead links and error messages I encountered. Some of these projects became completely untraceable, possibly gone forever. This disappearance is certainly not unique to network visualization — it is a widespread quandary of modern technology. Commonly referred to as the Digital Dark Age, the possibility of many present-day digital artifacts vanishing within a few decades is a considerably worrying prospect.” ~ Manuel Lima
From the Bible to Wikipedia edits to the human genome, the gorgeous and thought-provoking visualizations in the book will make you look at the world in a whole new way, and the insightful essays accompanying them will vastly expand your understanding of the trends and technologies shaping our ever-evolving relationship with information.
(More on Posavec’s brilliant project here.)
Reviewed in full, with more images, here.
Iconic designer Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes, her thoughts on combinatorial creativity a perfect articulation of my own beliefs about how we create. Since the early 1990s, Scher has been creating remarkable, obsessive, giant hand-painted typographic maps of the world as she sees it, covering everything from specific countries and continents to cultural phenomena. This month, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing Paula Scher: MAPS — a lavish, formidable large-format volume collecting 39 of her swirling, colorful cartographic points of view, a beeline addition to my favorite books on maps.
I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about the world from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. These are paintings of distortions.” ~ Paula Scher
(Cue in cartograms.)
A foreword by Simon Winchester contextualizes Scher’s maps as cultural objects, and an introduction by Scher herself offers a peek inside the mind and personal history that sprouted her cartographic creativity.
A Paula Scher map is both detached from reality and yet at the same time becomes an entirely new reality, one that manages to be useless and essential all at once. What follows here is cartography as living art — fun and whimsical, obsessively made, and knowingly offered, lovingly, to be read… Maps such as these are never ever to be replaced by the cold blinking eyes of the GPS. Use them, enjoy them, glory in their madness.” ~ Simon Manchester
Cherry on top: The cover jacket folds out into her legendary colorful map of the world.
Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
Artful and opinionated, MAPS is a beautiful antidote to the sterile objectivity of location-aware apps and devices, reminiscent of Ward Shelley’s analog data visualization and the poetic subjectivity of You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, but presaging both and shining with Scher’s own distinct, quirky, visionary voice.
Originally featured, alongside Scher’s fantastic 2008 Serious Play talk, here.
“We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.”
These words of wisdom come from legendary inventor and futurist George Dyson, who in a recent interview contemplated the growing disconnect between information and meaning in the age of data overload. Over the past several years, our quest to extract meaning from information has taken us more and more towards the realm of visual storytelling — we’ve used data visualization to reveal hidden patterns about the world, employed animation in engaging kids with important issues, and let infographics distill human emotion. In fact, our very brains are wired for the visual over the textual by way of the pictorial superiority effect.
It would be ridiculous to try to express by curved lines moral ideals, the prosperity of peoples, or the decadence of their literature. But anything that has to do with extent or quantity can be presented geometrically. Statistical projections which speak to the senses without fatiguing the mind, possess the advantage of fixing the attention on a great number of important facts.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of Spain, 1811
Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, from the fine folks at Gestalten, gathers the most compelling work by a new generation of designers, illustrators, graphic editors, and data journalists tackling the grand sensemaking challenge of our time by pushing forward the evolving visual vocabulary of storytelling.
From hand-drawn diagrams to sophisticated data visualization, by way of graphic design, illustration, photography, and information architecture, this magnificent volume of contemporary and experimental visual storytelling explores what it means to convey information with equal parts clarity and creativity, speaking with remarkable aesthetic eloquence about the things that matter in the world today.
Every field has some central tension it is trying to resolve. Visualization deals with the inhuman scale of the information and the need to present it at the very human scale of what the eye can see.” ~ Martin Wattenberg in The Economist, 2010
Originally featured, with plenty more images and excerpts, here.
THE MAD FOLD-IN COLLECTION
Al Jaffee’s magnificent anti-authoritarian fold-ins, gracing the inside covers of every MAD magazine since 1964, have been a longtime favorite around here. For the past half-century, Jaffeee, just as brilliant today at 90, has been poking fun at the established political order with his clever satirical cartoons that made no topic, ideology, regime, politician or pop star safe from skewering as the reader simply folds the page to align arrow A with arrow B and reveal the hidden gag image. Now, from Chronicle Books comes The MAD Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010 — the definitive treasure trove of Jaffee’s genius, a formidable four-volume set featuring 410 fold-ins reproduced at original size, each thoughtfully accompanied by a digital representation of the folded image so you wouldn’t have to actually fold your lavish book.
Essays by Pixar animator Pete Docter, New York Times cultural critic Neil Genzlinger and Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer contextualize Jaffee’s work and the tremendous influence it has had on generations of artists, comedians and ordinary people.
Here’s Jaffee on how his iconic fold-ins began — and confirmation that creativity is combinatorial:
In 1953, TIME magazine referred to MAD as a ‘short-lived fad.’ And now, fifty-umpteenth years later, MAD is still around, and I don’t think TIME magazine is doing too well.” ~ Al Jaffeee
Explore some of Jaffee’s gems in this excellent New York Times interactive feature from 2008 — a fine teaser for the full glory you’ll find in The MAD Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010.
Originally featured here.
MOBY-DICK IN PICTURES
Since 2009, former high school English teacher and self-taught artist Matt Kish has been drawing every page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick, methodically producing one gorgeous, obsessive drawing per day for 552 days using pages from discarded books and a variety of drawing tools, from ballpoint pen to crayon to ink and watercolor. Kish’s ingenious project joins our running list of blogs so good they became books with Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, collecting his magnificent lo-fi drawings in a 600-page visual masterpiece of bold, breathtaking full-page illustrations that captivate eye, heart, and mind, inviting you to rediscover the Melville classic in entirely new ways.
I’ve read the book eight or nine times […] Each and every reading has revealed more and more to me and hinted tantalizingly at even greater truths and revelations that I have yet to reach. Friends often question my obsession with the novel, especially since I am not a scholar or even an educator any longer, and the best explanation I have been able to come up with is that, to me, Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism […] I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book.” ~ Matt Kish
Originally featured, with many more images, here.
It’s hard not to love Edward Gorey, mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Between September 1968 and October 1969, Gorey set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer and, over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.
This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art.
In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer
Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.
There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:
This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”
Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.
From the intellectual banter to the magnificent illustrations, Floating Worlds, is quite possibly the most heart-warming art-and-so-much-more book this year, and certainly among the all-time favorites of my personal library.
Originally reviewed here.
- Art of the Hobbit — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors.
- As Little Design As Possible: The Work of Dieter Rams — a fantastic new book by British design historian Sophie Lovell, titled after the tenth principle of iconic product designer Dieter Rams, “Good design is as little design as possible,” and exploring with unprecedented intimacy both his designs and his ethos, the creative process and the cultural legacy of his elegant, timeless work.
- Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists — a voyeuristic visual journey into how artists doodle, brainstorm and flesh ideas out, and one of our 5 favorite peeks inside creators’ sketchbooks.
- Everything Is Going To Be OK — an absolutely lovely pocket-sized anthology of positive artwork from a diverse lineup of indie artists, designers and illustrators, the second most popular book among Brain Pickings readers this year.
- PANTONE: The Twentieth Century in Color — exploring 100 years of the evolution of color’s sociocultural footprint through over 200 works of art, advertisements, industrial design products, fashion trends, and other aesthetic ephemera, thoughtfully examined in the context of their respective epoch.
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A big part of what makes great art and design books great is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s finest?
Published November 28, 2011