Graphic designer Tracy Ma’s bookshelf is chock-full of gems

17 May 2017

New York-based Tracy Ma is a graphic designer who has previously worked as creative director of Matter Studios and was the deputy creative director of Bloomberg Businesweek. She’s currently teaching a class at Parsons, as well as creating work at Google Creative Labs. Her approach to design has always been bold and boundary-pushing.

When we last checked in with Tracy for International Women’s Day, she described what she does as "collecting and understanding and using as many codes of visual culture as possible”. She adds: “I’m not sure what that gets you – I think the goal is that you convey as best as possible and little by little the mood now as you encounter it.” This ethos has trickled down into Tracy’s bookshelf, which is a cornucopia of books from her past. From a designer’s guide to creating charts and graphs to a sports-themed manga book, there is something for everyone.

Creative Works of Shiseido

I purchased this book from a used bookstore in Tokyo’s Jinbōchō after seeing images of it on Mel Paget’s tumblr.

This luscious, oversized feast, published in 1984, is a compendium of the cosmetic brand’s graphic output from the 20s to 80s. The posters, billboards and packaging and their evolution through time give you a sense of the country’s rapid modernisation during this period.

As a brand, Shiseido positions itself as the champion of the Japanese “‘Modern Woman’… challenging traditional ideas of beauty”, as described in the book’s introduction. Perhaps it is because of this, it’s always seen itself as not just a makeup company, but a progressive purveyor of the look and feel and spirit of its time. That’s what makes its graphic works so seductive and so relevant still.

And indeed, looking through the pages of this book, the posters and advertisements show such avant garde uses of imagery, compositions, and typography, that makes today’s makeup ads look in contrast thoroughly thoughtless and uninspired.

Nigel Holmes: Designer’s Guide to Creating Charts & Diagrams

Nigel Holmes is an information designer. This book is amazing in how it’s a departure from every modern rule of information design, and I love it to bits. The illustrative charts in this book bend and bulge and stretch numbers in such imaginative ways that it’s impossible even to rip off (we’ve tried, several times all unsuccessfully, at Businessweek).

Graphic editors poo-poo this kind of work I think, preferring methods of showing data using information hierarchy, geometry and other “pure”, “objective” forms that “lets numbers do the talking”. Except for a few mind-blowing examples most graphics today are, in my opinion, boring or condescendingly opaque. I don’t mean that a bar chart need to be in a mouth (no) so that it looks like the teeth (no) of a man in a Keffiyeh (no no no no no) for me to understand Saudi Arabia’s oil exports, I just appreciate seeing something from the opposite side.

I think the main takeaway I was able to siphon through working adjacent to Jennifer Daniel (former graphics editor at the New York Times and my colleague at Businessweek for a number of years) is that the important thing is to communicate ideas. Sometimes adding a doodle or two (we coined “to doodad” to describe such an act) where appropriate, can help with that; other times, D3 wizardry can be as big of a detractor as a simple line graph re-interpreted as a pair of female legs in fishnet tights.

Takehiko Inoue: Slam Dunk

My family immigrated from Hong Kong in 1996, at the height of Slam Dunk’s sweeping popularity across most of Asia. My older brother and I loved it. I was seven or eight at the time, pre-internet, English literacy at 6.3%. We were in Toronto then, and our mom would drive us in like -15°C weather to a little Cantonese outpost to rent them out one at a time.

In my 20s one summer I rediscovered them in Kinokuniya Bookstore in New York. Besides my morbidly nostalgic personal relationship to Slam Dunk, they also happen to be incredible graphic works – a particularly stellar example of the manga form.

On my bookshelf they are a reminder for me that the printed composition has a unique ability to manipulate time and to create drama – not a precursive form to the “digital” or the “animated” plane, but its own form entirely, with its own art, rhetorics and power.

Maggie Nelson: The Argonauts

This book has become such the obligatory “art girls’ lit” that I’ve avoided touching it summer after summer, only to realise now that that’s just dumb and I need to get over it because it’s so so good. Her prose is magnetic, as is her creative soul – one that she probes and picks apart and articulates recurrently and in such a knowing way that makes me feel ashamed of how my own feels estranged to me. The episodic writing style (young writers will try to emulate it for years and years surely) plunges you here and there into detailed tellings of her life, to places at once both uncompromisingly personal and completely relatable.

Dorling Kindersley: Achieving Exellence

I return to Dorling Kindersley’s illustrated reference books for design inspiration again and again. This little one, called Achieving Excellence, is an amazing object in and of itself. It was given to me as a birthday present from my boss at the time.

In DK reference books, pieces of images and bits of texts are always jutted together in this seemingly haphazard way that’s actually quite precise. I’ve tried without success to replicate its placid lucid quality for years at Businessweek whenever a special issue would roll around. Eventually I realised that 100% of its charm comes from the fact that it’s completely 100% sincere and any attempt to poke at it ironically just creates a far inferior product.

Dick Jewell: Four Thousand Threads

I felt immediately compelled by this book when I came across it in Dashwood Books one afternoon. Jewell reminds me of my relish for “non-professional” photography – presenting all at once a collection many years in the making thoughtfully laid out with consistent through-line. He does so not with judgement (at least I’d like to think), but with a quiet, appreciative fascination.

The book basically spells out the aesthetics of “shareability”. When we create images we search for this quality; we release them into the wild believing these moments we’ve captured to be unique and interesting, when in fact these moments recur ad infinitum. Laying them out in these narrative “threads” reveals the tentpoles to the sort of images we create and proliferate and identify with as a society, which is irresistibly yummy to me both visually and as a concept. This book is a never ending treat.

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca Fulleylove is a freelance writer and editor specialising in art, design and culture. She is also senior writer at Creative Review, having previously worked at Elephant, Google Arts & Culture, and It’s Nice That.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.