The books I recommend to designers

What to read when you’re learning (or struggling with) design

Books are a surprisingly good way to learn about design.

I say “surprisingly” because it’s easy to assume digital design is best learned with digital tools. But I always seem to learn the fundamentals best when reading paper books.

These are the books I recommend to designers — to my students, clients, coworkers, and friends. With a few exceptions noted below, I’ve actually read all of these books (no Tufte), and I think they each have something important to say to new designers.

This list skews towards product design and creative process. If you have recommendations for books on graphic design, industrial design, or design history, let me know!

If you’re curious about UX/design

The Design of Everyday Things is the classic “first book” people read about design and user experience. I found my mom’s dusty copy on a bookshelf as a teenager, and it’s what got me interested in becoming a designer. I still roll my eyes every time I see a Norman door.

If you want a quick overview of important design concepts

I really wish I could recommend more books in this category. If you know of some, let me know.

If you want to learn how design works in “real companies”

  • Designing for the Digital Age — a big ol’ brick of a book that describes in detail how professional “Design with a Capital D” is done. Includes research, project planning, testing, etc. Good for managers or junior designers looking to level up.
  • Design is a Job — Helpful and very funny book about the realities of dealing with clients and the “work” side of being a designer. This really helped me when I went independent. I recommend the audio version read by the author.

Bonus: if you want to books about startup disasters to make you feel better about your stressful job, read Bad Blood and Disrupted.

If you want to learn how to build product at a startup

  • Lean Product Playbook — The best practical description of how to actually do product development (research, prototyping, deciding what to build, etc). Good for founders, designers, and PMs alike.
  • If you’re not comfortable doing usability tests, buy the very readable Don’t Make Me Think. See especially the chapter on how to do hallway and guerilla usability testing, which includes a good testing script.
  • Sprint — Great book on packing a lean product design process into one week… or so people keep telling me, I haven’t read it yet. (Soon!)
  • Getting Real from the founders of Basecamp is great, and the PDF is free to download. From what I can tell, people seem to either love or hate the Basecamp approach (I love it).

Neither are books, but Paul Graham’s startup essays and Design doesn’t deserve a seat at the table should be required reading for anyone at a startup.

If you want to improve your creative process

  • Bird by Bird, On Writing, and Writing Down the Bones are three classic, charming books on the messy and anxiety-ridden process of writing (everything translates perfectly to design).
  • Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — Short chapters on the daily routines of great artists, scientists, and philosophers. I found their schedules and habits fascinating; this book genuinely helped me change my work process for the better.
  • Quiet and Deep Work will give you permission to create a productive space and focus. If you’re a self-identified introvert, buy one for yourself (and maybe one for your partner/spouse). See also So Good They Can’t Ignore You, also by Cal Newport, for career advice.

If you want some next-level design theory

Here are two books by Christopher Alexander that fundamentally changed how I work.

  • A Pattern Language — My favorite book, and the reason I got into the field. APL is hippie architecture book from the 1970’s, and the way it describes composable patterns was hugely influential to programmers. Its bible-thin pages describe hundreds of patterns for staircases, cities, and sleeping nooks. This book still feels like magic to me.
  • Notes on the Synthesis of Form — Chapter 3 describes design as the process of creating a form to suit a context, which fundamentally changed how I think about the work. (I don’t think I ever got past Chapter 4.)

If you want to learn more about…

  • UI design — People ask me about good UI design books all the time. I wish I had something to recommend, but I don’t! About Face and Designing Interfaces are both popular, but they both seem far too long and fairly outdated now.
  • Typography — The Elements of Typographic Style is a classic, but honestly you should just read this web version instead.
  • Drawing — I’ve heard Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is good, but I lost my copy so I’m not really sure.
  • Visual storytelling — Understanding Comics is a wonderful comic book about making comic books. It describes visual storytelling better than any design book I’ve read.
  • Branding — Here are two recommendations from my friend Matt MacQueen: The Brand Gap and Zag. The style is a bit over the top, but they’re a great introduction to branding.
  • Writing code — I’d spent months (years?) bouncing between online tutorials trying to learn to code. Programming finally “clicked” for me while staying near Crater Lake with no internet, working through my paper copy of Javascript: The Good Parts in my hotel room. I wish I could still recommend it, but Javascript has changed so much since 2011 that it might not be worth it. (If you already write code and haven’t read Pragmatic Programmer, go buy it.)

Someone once told me that creatives should be frugal — except when buying good tools and a good education. Great design books are both.

If something on this list catches your eye, buy it, or rent if from your library. Many of these books have been important to me. I hope they can be important for you too.

Also posted on Medium

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