Someone asked at Design:ES for a list of must-read design books, and instead of writing a long reply on Slack, I thought I’d share it here in case it helps others out there.

The original request specifically asks about books on:

  • Design in general
  • User Experience
  • Design Methods / Process
  • Design Management
  • Business Design
  • Service Design
  • Strategic Design

I’ll skip the last three since it’s not my area of expertise, and I’d rather shut up than give a half-assed answer.

I want to publish this post quickly, otherwise I’ll spend too much time on it, get bored, and forget about it forever. But there’s a higher than zero chance that I’ll revisit the post and update it from time to time, either with new books, or with comments to existing recommendations.

Here’s my random, unsorted, incomplete, and mostly outdated, list of books you should totally read if you’re a designer (or want to become one):

Last update: 2021-03-02

Design in General

  • Design for the Real World, by Victor Papanek: A classic. If you haven’t read it, stop whatever you’re doing and go enjoy it. The first line is already a punch in the face: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them”. It only gets better from there.
  • Designerly Ways of Knowing, by Nigel Cross: Ever wondered how a designer thinks when working? Does the mental image of “thinking with a pencil” make you nod in agreement? Are you one of those weirdos that spends too much time thinking about how you (and others) work? You’re going to love this book. Pro tip: there are two editions of this book. The one by Springer is super expensive. The one by Board of International Research in Design (BIRD) is cheaper, but really hard to find. But there’s a paperback book called “Design Thinking”, by the same author, that is basically a rehash of the same ideas.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Rober Pirsig. What is a book about philosophy doing here? Great question. If you’ve spent any amount of time examining good design, you’ll know the good stuff has something…. Pirsig calls that “the quality that cannot be named”, and the concept flows through the whole book. So it’s not really a book about philosophy. Or maybe it is, after all.
  • Dios lo ve, by Óscar Tusquets. An architecture book that is also a philosophy book, which also talks about that “quality that cannot be named”.
  • Universal Principles of Design, by William Lindwell. This is a no brainer, even if you’re not a designer. It is a compendium of principles that apply, not only to design, but to Art, Architecture, Engineering, Marketing… If you’re an experienced designer you probably know all this stuff, but it’s still useful as a refresher / conversation starter. Also, if you’re a self-taught designer, you’ll finally learn the name of some of the things you learnt along the way. The only negative point, if I have to mention one, is that the book does not go into any depth about the principles. But with a whole internet to search for more stuff on any topic, I appreciate the brevity.
  • 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, by Susan Weinschenk: For some reason this book gets a really bad rap. Maybe because it was published at the peak of the “Neuro-design” hype, and the author published a book called “Neuro Web Design” a few years earlier? I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a pretty good book, and a great introduction to human-centered design and psychology if you’re a designer that works in other areas and are intrigued by UX. And even if you’re not, there’s a lot of common sense advice in it that is useful for all areas of design.
  • Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty, by David Kadavy: I always recommend this book to developers and engineers who want to get closer to the design discipline. But the truth is it’s a great primer for anyone who’s getting started in design (especially if you’re a self-taught designer).
  • Designing Information, Human Factors and Common Sense in Information Design, by Joel Katz
  • Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers
  • The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher
  • In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, by Leonard Koren
  • Detail in Typography, by Jost Hochuli: This book is absolutely delicious. If you ever need an argument to convince people of the need to have physical books, this is it. It’s a small book, but it oozes quality and attention to detail (how appropriate, right?). It also contains one of the best explanations ever of how to properly kern typography.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst
  • Design is a Job, by Mike Monteiro

User Experience

  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman: A seminal work on user experience, from an industrial design standpoint. Yet 90% of the content applies to digital design. It’s one of those books where immediately after reading it, you think: “well, that was pretty obvious” (to make that clear: that’s a compliment in my book).
  • Don’t make me think, by Steve Krug
  • Designing for Interaction, by Dan Saffer
  • Seductive Interaction Design, by Stephen P. Anderson
  • Just Enough Research, by Erika Hall: A superb intro to user research. Read it, and you will know enough about UX Research to not embarrass yourself talking about it. A must read if you work with researchers.
  • Badass: Making Users Awesome, by Kathy Sierra

Design Methods

  • Universal Methods of Design, by Bella Martin and Bruce Hanington
  • How do you design?, by Hugh Dubberly
  • User Story Mapping, by Jeff Patton
  • Communicating Design, by Dan M. Brown
  • Communicating the User Experience, A Practical Guide for Creating Useful UX Documentation, by Richard Caddick and Steve Cable
  • Pair Design: Better Together, by Gretchen Anderson and Christopher Noessel
  • Shape Up, by Ryan Singer

Design Management

  • Designing Together, by Dan M. Brown
  • Lean from the Trenches: Managing Large-Scale Projects with Kanban, by Henrik Kniberg: Yes, this is a development book. Shut up and go read it.
  • Managing Humans, by Michael Lopp