Ian Lynam recommends 6 books that make you think, laugh, and cry


The Editors


Mar 19, 2024

Ian Lynam has two new books out: War With Myself: Essays on Design, Culture, and Violence and The Failed Painter, both available from Set Margins. Both books explore Ian’s design philosophy and interests and make the case that one’s work will sustain you if there is meaning behind it.

We caught up with Ian to recommend some of the books that have influenced him.

War With Myself is about why I write about design, aesthetics, history, political economy, and culture. It’s the second essay collection I’ve put out recently—the first being The Failed Painter. Each is telling: The Failed Painter has a meta-narrative about the supposed subservience of “commercial art”, whereas War with Myself bears an interwoven and very raw and honest message: no matter how awful things are, one’s work will sustain you if there is meaning behind it.

Both books serve as compendia of writing that I felt vital enough to not just live and die in their original vehicles. The essays in both books were published in books, journals and magazines in the United States, Hong Kong, Germany, Japan, and Korea. For example, the essay “Mother of Dragons” is about designer and design historian Lorraine Wild—it was published in the Japanese magazine Idea. “Life During Wartime” is an essay about posters at CalArts from the book Inside Out & Upside Down which literally went out of print the month it was published. No matter how big a fan of graphic design you are, most folks probably don’t have all of the originals and a bunch went out of print really quickly, so I felt that it was important to collect everything and collocate it.

Plus, there are essays that were only published in Japanese or were never published, so a lot of the book is new stuff, too. There are essays about writing, about Japanese design, about decolonizing design, and about the concept of authenticity. The essays cover are pretty wide range of territory, but they are about things that I’m interested in.

All of the books that I have been producing for Set Margins’ to date adhere to a design formula: the same dimensions, the same formats (each bears an exploded Table of Contents on a cover flap, not “in” the book, funky colored covers, monochrome interiors, etc), but very different typographic choices. I want them to line up and feel like a collection, but one that’s not constrained. I started with The Impossibility of Silence: Writing for Designers, Artists and Photographers and I want to bookend the Set Margins’ series with a title about how to write books for designers, artists and photographers in the future.

The book that most influenced you while writing War With Myself and The Failed Painter

When I was young I was an avid reader of Kurt Vonnegut and I wanted War with Myself to be my version of his book Palm Sunday: an autobiography peppered with essays. The thing is that Kurt Vonnegut probably wrote too much stuff in his lifetime, with a lot of it, being a pretty dubious quality. I write a lot, but I would never try to write as much as that guy did.

A non-design book that has influenced how you write

One of my very favorite books is Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson. It’s a book about Céline Dion, but also about the concept of taste from the perspective of a music journalist, critic and philosopher. The way that book is put together and just how it is written is so intriguing. I highly recommend it to anyone.

A fiction book that has influenced your work/thinking

One of my favorite books when I was young was this really stupid book called Bill the Intergalactic Hero by Harry Harrison. It’s just absurd—it’s kind of a genre precursor to the slapstick critique of Operation Desert Storm that was Starship Troopers. It’s a really fantastic paean to questioning militarism and blind obedience to authority, but also written as if a total moron wrote it. I reread it a couple years ago and it was a good reminder that it’s healthy to write like you’re an idiot sometimes.

A book more designers should read

The 1989 book Graphic Design in America is bonkers. Lorraine Wild’s section “Europeans in America” and Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller’s timeline-by-American President are feats of ingenuity. I returned to the book again and again. It is one of the most important books in graphic design history that I perennially see languishing in used bookstores for $5.

A forgotten book from your personal library you wish more people knew about

ZERRO by Yukimasa Matsuda is an amazing encyclopedia of dead, lost, mythic and little-known visual languages, syllabaries and symbol sets. It collects oft-forgotten families of visual communication like Japanese baseball symbols, Lilliputian, hobo signs, and so much more. Even though the book is only available in Japanese and Chinese, I think that, just as a lexicon, a lot of graphic designers would really love it.

A book readers should turn to next after yours

It is absolutely unrelated, but I wholeheartedly recommend the graphic novel Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart. It is a brutal autobiographic story about how the author lost his firstborn child. It’ll teach you to attenuate your approach to both irony and honesty. I couldn’t write a book with that much urgency because all of the shitty things that had gone on in my own life were largely self-inflicted.

Additionally, it is probably the most brave book to have been written by someone of my generation. Reading it will make you cry your face off. Not enough art makes us do that anymore.

An upcoming book you’re excited to read

My Néojaponisme collaborator W. David Marx and food writer Roni Xu have a new book coming out called Showa Tokyo in the Reiwa Era: A Guide to the City’s Remaining Establishments Opened Between 1926-1989. It’s basically a guide to all of the old-school businesses in Japan that are still around—restaurants, bars, cafés, and hotels. The book should be out in a couple of months and it’s going to be fantastic! Both of the authors are encyclopedic, and their knowledge of historic comfort culture in Japan.

War With Myself: Essays on Design, Culture, and Violence and The Failed Painter by Ian Lynam, are both available from Set Margins.