Why I picked these books
Overall, the web is mostly typography. I believe designers will want to focus on understanding the basics of how fonts work, and establishing a good visual rhythm with it.
You’ll also want to focus on grids. They’ll be keeping everything in alignment and help it adapt to various screens (aka responsive design). I wrote a little love note to grids in a Smashing Magazine article. It talks about a neat design program called Fireworks, too.
The third thing is usability. If you’re designing anything that a user would interact with (hint: you will), living and understanding usability is is critical. Usability, at its core, is caring about people. All the pretty pixels and amazing, sweet fonts with cool gradients in the world can’t save an unusable product. You could design the most elaborate castle in the world, but if users can’t find their way in and out, it’s not going to be good for business—same with websites and apps. I said living because you can’t just read a book and have done with it. It’s an evolving process that changes with technology. As technology gets better, usability standards change.
Good books for beginners in design
I worked at a startup and helped mentor some new designers. They didn’t go to school for design, so we had to help them build a foundation quickly. Using this book gave us some great results. Folks in design school will likely cover these topics more in-depth, but browsing through this could give students a head start.
This was one of the first books I had when I started designing, and it has solid sections on grid, color and typography. It’s full of beautiful examples, too (I confess I bought it in part because it had one of my favorite designers in there). I bought the first edition, and I’m not sure how much it’s changed with the second.
There’s a 3rd edition that’ll be published on Dec 20, 2013, and I’ll be getting it. This version is my bible for so much about usability. If you’re going to be designing things for screens, I easily call this book required reading—I even buy this and send copies to my clients. It’s not a tome, and you could get through it in an afternoon if you wanted. It helps you understand the value of testing your design, and using data to avoid what we call religious debates with your team (or client). What’s a religious debate? “We should make this blue, because the CEO likes it!” “Nah, red is amazing, and all the ladies will like it.” You could argue like that forever, because you’re just talking about what are essentially subjective feelings and assumptions. The only way to really know is to let data decide.
Written by a smart(y pants) designer, this book helps you keep (or develop) your backbone while designing for clients. It has applications for designers who work on in-house teams, but this was one where I found myself highlighting something frequently and wishing I had known that before I took on a certain job.
Depending on your area in design, you’ll find something good here. These are all written by Super Smart People™ and I’ve read a good amount of them.