The Graphic Design Idea Book: Inspiration from 50 Masters

Phosphorus Design

What existed before that simple graphic of the light bulb appearing above an individuals head once an idea struck them? Was it a candle? A lantern? The words ‘EUREKA’ in Greek? Or was it a phosphorus explosion? That effervescent spark that becomes a flash, becoming a frenzy of near inextinguishable force.

Ideas arrive like phosphorus blasts. They like the element don’t exist freely in nature. They are always there waiting to happen, but a number of other elements have to be mixed or absorbed before the creative alchemy happens. Thankfully as a species we have developed an incessant need to constantly search for these other elements and knowledge/understanding, which no doubt comes from our survival instincts, figuring out a solution to a present problem. That or watching multiple episodes of ’80s American TV series MacGyver, he had solutions for everything.


Graphic design is like alchemy, mixing all the various ingredients (brief, knowledge, message, target audience, budget etc) to a desired but initially unknown result. We trust the experience, experimentation, evidence and results of previous design alchemists and ourselves, but what will be produced today will be the evolution of our predecessors. But as in nature there’s always wonderful anomalies which seem to have come from different worlds.

In keeping with that theme of individuals burning brighter (however brief), the good folk over at Laurence King have added yet another publication to their expert design repertoire. ‘The Graphic Design Idea Book: Inspiration from 50 Masters’ is an incredibly erudite, wonderfully concentrated and fun collection of genuine innovators who create in the world of communication. Lovingly curated by the deft hands and eyes of Steven Heller (art director of the New York Times for 33 years and author of 170+ books) and Gail Anderson (director of design and digital media at the School of Visual Arts Press).


Divided across five chapters such as ‘Experiment with design’ or ‘Borrow from design history’ which again break down into subsections whose brevity belie their power and intensity of content. Each section represents an idea, concept or approach such as ‘Narrative’, ‘Geometry’ or ‘Monumentalism’ and aptly shows a piece of work by one of the 50 masters, providing a wonderful clarity of the approach in work and the end result.

At no point is the content telling you to mimic the work on show, as plagiarism rightly isn’t a badge of honour in the design world, unless it’s used in a very creative/fun way of course and actually adds or enhances the original. What it does do is give you a vast tool box of knowledge and problem solving, effectively a vast list of ingredients that can be remixed with your own abilities and expressed in yet a new way. The deliberate restriction of each topic (one page of words and supportive image) only adds to the clarity of the subject, and if anything the named creatives peppered throughout become a checklist of individuals who you’ll be wanting to seek out and investigate their entire body of work.


The book isn’t confined to graphic designers as their target market either. I’ve been a graphic designer my entire adult life and there were works I’ve never seen before, but the content and concepts are applicable to any form of creativity, and indeed as a catalyst for any individual who could be spurred on to embrace their creative dna residing in us all.

As you would expect in such representation of excellence, the book itself is wonderfully designed for clarity and simply just holding. This isn’t a ‘coffee table’ book just for display to your friends, this is a book whose yellow/orange covers screams to be picked up and flicked through. What is a particular nice/clever touch is the embossed images on the cover that at once echoes the frustration of the infinite blank page and the potential of the ideas that will fill it, the ghost images hinting future content. This book doesn’t give you the answers of what to put on the page, but it definitely gives you all the questions you should be asking yourself. And that is the true gift of knowledge.

‘The Graphic Design Idea Book: Inspiration from 50 Masters’ is out now from Laurence King.

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.