A Scratching the Surface Book Gift Guide

The Scratching the Surface podcast launched at the end of October and I’ve honestly been overwhelmed by the guests I’ve gotten to speak to and the response the interviews have received. Each of my guests have been people I’ve looked up to for years—designers, critics, writers who have influenced my own design work and thinking.

As a year-end-roundup, I wanted to put together a little reading list and gift guide of the books Scratching the Surface guests have written as well as books that have been mentioned in previous episodes. Below, you’ll find a list of books by my guests, books that have influenced my guests, and a few bonus books on criticism that I read this year.

Thank you for your support and for listening to Scratching the Surface. I hope you have learned about criticism from these interviews and get as much from these books as I have. So if you’re looking for gifts or something to read over the next month, these few are a good place to start. Happy Holidays.


Books by Scratching the Surface guests

Writing About Architecture by Alexandra Lange

Alexandra’s book, which is a really practical look at how to write about the built world, was incredibly helpful to me as I started writing more about graphic design. By looking at six famous essays by noted critics including Herbert Muschamp and Ada Louise Huxtable, she breaks down what the writers are doing and how they help us understand the building they are looking at. These close readings profoundly changed how I both read and write criticism and I can’t recommend it enough.

Buy Writing About Architecture

Listen to Episode 02: Alexandra Lange

Born Modern: Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller

Alvin Lustig was one of the early design polymaths. In addition to being a prolific designer, Lustig, wrote and taught frequently about his thoughts on design and its role in the world. Lustig has always been one of my design heros and this definitive biography/monograph from Scratching the Surface guest Steven Heller is the best introduction into both his work and thinking.

Buy Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig

Listen to Episode 03: Steven Heller

Multiple Signatures by Michael Rock

Michael Rock’s book Multiple Signatures unsettled me in the best way possible and has perhaps influenced my own design thinking more than any other book in recent years. Featuring a mix of essays, conversations, work from his studio, 2x4, and ruminations on design’s expanded role in the world, Multiple Signatures playfully jumps between the theoretical and the comical, the practical and the speculative. My own copy is well worn and frequently off the shelf.

Buy Multiple Signatures: On Designers, Authors, Readers, and Users

Listen to Episode 04: Michael Rock

79 Short Essays on Design by Michael Bierut

As I mentioned in my interview with Michael, I think 79 Short Essays on Design — Michael’s book of collected essays — was the first design book I ever read back when I was still a high school student. Michael’s writing is assessible and funny and his interests range from typographic history to politics to design competitions. This is a welcome addition to any designer’s bookshelf.

Buy 79 Short Essays on Design

Listen to Episode 05: Michael Bierut

Dexter Sinister: On a Universal Serial Bus

David Reinfurt (whose interview comes out this week) is one-half of Dexter Sinister, the curiously described “Just-In-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore”. On a Universal Serial Bus is a collection of the duo’s electronic writings over the last few years. If you’re familiar with the pieces they publish on their site, The Serving Library, you’ll feel right at home paging through this collection.

Buy Dexter Sinister: On a Universal Serial Bus

The Invention of Desire by Jessica Helfand

My interview with Jessica Helfand doesn’t come out for a few weeks but I wanted to include her new book, The Invention of Desire on this list because it is an excellent meditation on design and its role and the world. By repositioning design as an inherently humanitarian activity, she raises issues facing designers today like our preoccupation with innovation, an overstimulated visual culture, and the sometimes over-realiance on data. If there is a book that captures design’s role in our time, this one is probably it.

Buy The Invention of Desire


Books referenced by guests

Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan

In guest Sara M. Watson’s piece Toward A Constructive Technology Criticism, Virgina Heffernan says “When I stopped saying I wanted to be a cultural critic and started saying I wanted to be a tech critic, people wanted to give me more assignments.”. This book is a brilliant mix of cultural and technology criticism that looks at the aesthetics of the internet. As Watson writes in her own review of the book, “[Heffernan] sets out to convince us that the internet is humanity’s greatest collective art project. In a market saturated with books about the business, politics, or science of the internet, Heffernan’s cultural approach is a welcome contribution.”

Buy Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

Listen to Episode 06: Sara M. Watson

Design as Art by Bruno Munari

Guest David Reinfurt has written extensively on the work of designer Bruno Munari and is currently in Rome as the recipient of the American Academy in Rome Prize researching Munari’s work. Perhaps Munari’s most famous work is this small book, Design as Art, that looks at the expanded possiblities of design. I first read Munari when I was a junior in undergrad and have found myself returning to him again and again.

Buy Design as Art

The Program Era by Mark McGurl

Rob Giampietro’s essay School Days is a close-reading of McGurl’s book on the rise of creative writing programs in the United States. In preparing to interview Rob, I reread his piece (which we talk about in our interview) and last month, finally read McGurl’s book. As someone currently getting an MFA, it was a fascinating look into the history of graduate MFA programs in the United States and how they’ve changed creative writing. As Rob so elegantly explores, there are more than a few parallels one can make to design education.

Buy The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing

Listen to Episode 01: Rob Giampietro

A few random selections

Known and Strange Things — Teju Cole

Teju Cole is probably my favorite essayist working today and his photography column for The New York Times Magazine has consistently been some of the best criticism I’ve read this year. This summer, Cole released a collection of his essays into the book Known and Strange Things. Cole’s preoccupations range from photography to politics, literature to travel, and his intense passion is evident on every page. The way he writes about photography is the kind of criticism I’d like to see around design and every time I read one of his essays, I’m inspired to try to be a better writer.

Buy Known and Strange Things

Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

I honestly have mixed feelings about Scott’s — The New York Times film critic — book, but its overall message is one I can completely get behind: criticism allows one to enjoy art more deeply. Criticism, Scott argues, is a type of art form in and of itself. By thinking about not just what you like, but also about why you like it, you’ll find deeper enjoyment in it. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the important of a sustained criticical dialogue in today’s media landscape where everyone has opinions and hot takes.

Buy Better Living Through Criticism

On Photography by Susan Sontag

This is one of my all-time favorite works of criticism. Sontag’s extended essays on photography forced me to see the medium of photography and the act of taking a photo completely differently. First published in 1977, the book is described as “a progress of essays about the meaning and career of photographs” and can feel just as fresh today as I imagine it did when it was released. It is a short but deep read and I highly recommend it. Even if you have little interest in photography, I imagine you’ll find something for you within its pages.

Buy On Photography


Scratching the Surface is a design podcast about the intersection of criticism and practice hosted by Jarrett Fuller. Each week, Jarrett interviews designers, writers, critics, educators and those that operate between these fields about how writing, criticism, and theory informs individual practice and the graphic design profession at large.