The books I recommend to designers
These are the books I recommend to designers — to my students, clients, coworkers, and friends. I think they each have something important to say to new designers.
#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 to make clean, modern user interfaces
Refactoring UI from the makers of Tailwind seems to be the go-to for this. If you’re just starting out and struggling to make things look nice, but this first.
#If you want a quick overview of important design concepts
Universal Principles of Design is an OK lightweight reference. Most of these principles are good to know.
#If you want to learn how design works in “real companies”
Designing for the Digital Age is a big ol’ brick that describes 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 is a 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.
#If you want to learn how to build product at a startup
The Lean Product Playbook is probably 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 is a must-read for packing a lean product design process into one week.
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).
#If you want to improve your creative process
I really liked Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It’s just short chapters on the daily routines of artists, scientists, and philosophers from modern day into history. 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 is probably my favorite book, and the reason I became a designer. 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.
Chapter 3 of Notes on the Synthesis of Form 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…
- 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.
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.