Whether you want to be a designer or are in a professional role, here’s my rough idea on a plan. Let us go from 6th Kyu - Light Blue Belt - Beginner, to 1st Dan - Black Belt - Ninja Badass.
Designer-san, stop sketching in the back of your math book and pay attention.
6th Kyu - Light Blue Belt - Beginner
Toothpicks & Logos and The Language of Things are easy reads. They’re put together to cover the fundamental ideas of object design. Even if you never design and object, they’re just as interesting for everyone from consumers to UX designers.
Shady Characters and Just My Type are again easy reading. Hear the back stories of the letters you use every day, find out what an ampersand is, and pick up some design jargon along the way (without realising it).
Modern Typography is a history. More technical than the first reads, but enjoyable. You’re going to get a lot of names and jargon thrown at you. Don’t try to pick it all up now, just read through and get moving in the right direction.
Typography and Layout by Ambrose and Harris will show you rather than tell you things, feeding you the fundamental information you need. (As a side note, contrasting these with the other books, you will soon realise Brits and Americans use different words for a few things.)
Additionally, watch the Helvetica film.
5th Kyu - White Belt
Designer-san, now that you can see the difference between serif and sans-serif, lets see what we can do with the knowledge.
With Pentagram Marks and The Design Book you can just flick through from time to time when you are feeling lost. How has chair design changed and why? What makes a good logo? Learn to see the nuances Designer-san.
Take some initiative. Walk into the Newsagency and see what is happening. Wallpaper will inundate you with ads, but look at those as well! But pick out whatever calls to you. Slanted is expensive unfortunately, but unlike other magazines, you won’t ever be throwing these away.
Head into the second hand book shop. After you’re initial reading some of it will start to make sense to you. There is a great deal of value in looking to the works of masters, not just what is on trend.
Typography in Magazines is easy to look through, full of eye candy, and has details on why things look the way they do. After earlier learning a bit about layout, see how people are actually using it.
The Elements of Typographic Style is a more heavy read. You may not get it all in one reading, but it can live on the shelf forever. It is my most referenced book.
Classroom in a Book is exactly what it sounds like. Where are the tools located, what do they do? Be patient, your designs look nothing like you want right now, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Learn the shortcuts now so you don’t have bad habits later. There are benefits to getting these fundamentals from a book rather than sporadic undirected tutorials online in the beginning.
Rawsthorn is a writer you will see pop up from time to time. You don’t have to buy into all of her opinions, but you will begin to get a grasp on what the industry is thinking about.
The Design of Everyday Things deals with why things are the designers fault, not the users. Can’t figure out how a can opener works? Assembled something only to have to take it apart because you missed a step? Think from the consumers point of view to make your design better.
4th Kyu - White Belt
That’s right Designer-san. I am not buying you a new belt.
Designing Type goes through the tiny details of type. You learn what makes a serif different from and sans-serif, now learn what makes one sans-serif different from another sans-serif. You can always reference this book when working on the tiny details of type yourself.
Lefteri has a couple of great books that work as references more than reading. What does it cost to produce a chair? What process do I need for a small run of toys?
What is this art thing? This isn’t a command, like the others, but art knowledge is not so far from design knowledge and it can be invaluable.
100 Artist Manifestos is a misleading title, but Art and Design Manifestos is not as catchy, or popular typically. Learn why people have changed approaches so much over time. This gets very political, very philosophical, and so it should. Design is about more than pretty things and selling things.
Get some general knowledge. Who Owns The Future says a lot you may not agree with, it talks a lot about things that don’t directly relate to what your concept of design may be. And that’s a good thing. You can learn a lot about design from other disciplines, as design interacts with pretty much everything.
Calligraphy has many stories. This book is on the Australian tradition. There are differences between cultures and practices. Learning to see these differences will teach you as much about lettering as modern typography studies.