Know your design giants.

If we want to build, we have to know about our foundations.

The standard of work was very high at last year’s graduate exhibition for the Tractor Design School in Melbourne. Some of it was exceptional. Tractor is getting good work from its students and, obviously, from its faculty.

I asked the graduates I spoke to the same series of questions I always ask young designers: What are you excited about? Where do you think the next three years will take you? Which designers have been an influence on you so far?

The last question always flummoxes people. Only one graduate had an answer for that question. That’s not good enough. It’s akin to saying you want to be a writer but haven’t read a work of Shakespeare, or a physicist who can’t be bothered learning the rules of thermodynamics.

It’s ignorant (which is bad) and we must address it as a problem (which is good, because we love solving problems).

Design is a profession with a rich history from which you can learn and from which you can steal. Even if you only want to limit your timeline to the 20th century through now, the vein of knowledge, experience, and understanding is phenomenally well-supplied. Mining that vein will make you a better designer than your peers and help you see solutions others may not. That could help you get a better job. But more, it could help you put better work into the world.

You may already be a good designer. You may even be a potentially great one. But you have to know how the profession got to where it is now if you want to meaningfully add to design’s future.

So read. Read books if you can find them, or read online if you must, but make sure that you take the time, because it’s essential.

It’s no use hectoring people about this without suggesting somewhere to start. The following is a list of some of the designers, books, and movements that have influenced my approach to design. It’s a sample in no order, but I hope you find it useful.

Harry Beck
Designer of the London Tube Map

Carol Twombly The typographer who adapted Roman letterforms into the typeface Trajan.

The Bauhaus
The many-storied school of design, architecture and art.
Herbert Bayer is most interesting to me, but there’s an incredible amount to learn from the entire graphic design approach that emanated from the school.

Ellen Lupton is a wonderful writer on design practise and theory. Her book Design, Writing, Research remains an essential resource for me.
Lupton also wrote one of the most accessible books on Bauhaus graphic design.

A counterpoint to my love for the Bauhaus comes in Tom Wolfe’s excoriating From Bauhaus to Our House.

Eric Gill
You know the typeface on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters? That’s Gill Sans. It was designed by a man who abused his children, slept with his sister, and experimented sexually with his dog. How do you like those posters now? And when I think of all the work I set in Perpetua…

International Typographic Style
The Swiss Style has recently been dragooned back into service as the fundamental framework of what you might know as iOS 8.

Paula Scher
No introduction required.

Shigeo Fukuda
What happens when International Style and Japanese culture collide.

Neville Brody
Art Director of The Face and ARENA. You can argue his work from the 90s hasn’t aged well, but you can’t say it didn’t define the era. Show me a designer who didn’t use too much of Brody’s typefaces in the 90s and I’ll show you a liar who probably used too much Bauer Bodoni instead…

Jeffrey Zeldman
The tireless champion for a better web, founder of Happy Cog, and generous promoter of other thoughtful designers. Come out to Australia already, Jeffrey.

Garry Emery
To my mind the Australian Grand-master. I had a meeting with him when I was in my late 20s and I’m still sweating.

George Lois
Currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to interest in the Mad Men era of advertising, Lois was Art Director at US Esquire in the 60s and his covers for that era represent the high-water mark for magazine Art Direction. My 60’s Lois-designed Esquires are among my most prized possessions. George Lois has also been regarded as one of the greatest thieves in advertising history.

Vaughan Oliver
Ever buy a Pixies record? Then you’ve seen his otherworldly graphic design.

Robin Boyd
The Australian Ugliness — Boyd’s evisceration of Featurism in Australian Architecture — sadly remains worthwhile today, 54 year years after its initial publication.

I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours.

Ross Floate is the creative director of Floate Design Partners, a firm that creates digital products and processes that help to provide lasting benefits to clients and their customers. He’s also co-host of The Nudge, a podcast about being better designers.

Originally published at on December 2, 2014.

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