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  • Writer's pictureJonn Galea

Desert Island Design Books

As a relative design old-timer who is quite well-read, I challenged myself to pick one book to represent some of the main aspects of design — So you don't have to. The onus here sways more towards digital rather than traditional design, but there should be some tips for all tastes.

Even with a raging pandemic confining most of us to our homes (for those of you reading this in the future, are we looking back and laughing yet?), finding the time to sift through the plethora of design books out there is tricky. I hope the following will give some of you ideas on where to start, especially if you are new to interaction or experience design and just getting started on a personal library.

I should specify that the idea here was not to find the most niche books that would make me look smart and fancy, but rather the ones best suited for the job. Many of the titles here will be familiar and perhaps even obvious for many of you.

That said, I understand, and even hope, that many of you will disagree with some of my choices, I'd love to hear your opinions either in the comments or reach out to me directly.


1. Design Principles:

Universal Principles of Design William Lidwell, Kristina Holden & Jill Butler

Depending on where you are headed in your design career: branding; advertising; service design; UX and product design; and so forth, you will find some great books that cater for that specific field. This book, on the other hand, covers 100 (125 in the revised edition) principles pertinent to design in general and regardless of field. This lack of specialisation is perhaps why it is often overlooked by many designers.

I myself only came across Universal Principles of Design a few years back and it helped cement my views that so many design norms, such as the Baby Face Bias and the Golden Ratio, are based just as much (if not more) on human evolution and biology, as they are on creativity and problem-solving. That's a very personal take and I'm sure this book can help you create your own connections.

As a side note, there are two meticulously detail-oriented (and, unfortunately, diminishing) fields of design that I feel definitely deserve more extensive reading should your passions lie there. These are typography and editorial design. I'm not really best suited to recommend reading for either of these but, at a push, I'd put forward Ellen Lupton's Thinking with Type and the marvellous Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann (Did you know that raster simply means 'grid' in German?).


2. Design Thinking:

Change by Design — Tim Brown

In all honesty, there are some great design thinking books out there these days so I almost hesitated to put this on the list, but then caught myself. Not only was this one of the first proper books on design thinking for the modern era, but in Tim Brown — longtime IDEO legend — we have one of the key people who made the concept what it is today.

Few design books have had quite the impact that Change By Design has done on both my professional and personal life, I find it difficult to not see any potential project, process or strategy through the three constraining lenses: feasibility; viability; and desirability.


3. Usability & Human-Centred Design:

The Design Of Everyday Things — Don Norman

Again, I have certainly not gone against the grain for this one. With this book — which has been quoted to me by folks from a multitude of disciplines, not just designers — Don Norman was a pioneer of HCD and many attribute the term user experience (UX) to him, which unleashed a fundamental industry that employs millions (including myself and, most probably, you).

Whilst perhaps obvious today, this was the first book to state that the key to designing intuitive products is to put the user first regardless of what designer and technology are capable of. It was one of the first books I read that blurred the line between design and psychology, making way for the most overly used word in design lore: empathy.

If you are new to product, Interaction or experience design and had to read just one book in this list, make it this one (but the revised edition). It will help you lay down a great foundation.

I'll be cheeky here and say that The Design Of Everyday Things is best served with a side of Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think!. Another classic that's short, to the point and still surprisingly valid despite being over 20 years old.


4. Design Research:

Just Enough Research — Erika Hall

Boutique publishing house A Book Apart create titles that are like Pokemon for designers, we simply must collect them all. In Just Enough Research, the 9th Book from the firm, they have arguably created the most compact design research reference book available, encompassing everything you need to start gathering data from users and customers, researching your competitors, incorporating analytics, and finally, how to evaluate it all.

The book beautifully distils the immense knowledge of the highly influential Erika Hall and it speaks volumes that I have purchased it multiple times either as a gift to fellow designers and researchers or simply because I lent out my own copy and never saw it again.

Top tip, this title is regularly out of print and getting your hands on a physical version can be difficult. However, the ebook of the second edition (with an added chapter all about surveys) is readily available.


5. Design Management & Leadership:

The Making of a Manager — Julie Zhou

All cards on the table, this book is not about design management per se, but about management in general and, more precisely, about becoming a manager. However, Julie is a design manager herself and she wonderfully chronicles her progression towards becoming one from a junior designer at Facebook.

I read this book whilst I was undertaking a similar journey myself and the way she managed to pinpoint all the wired thoughts that were going through my head at the time helped me shake off my imposter syndrome and feel more at ease. The fact the book is peppered with comics by the awesome Pablo Stanley is a delightful bonus.


6. Habit Building & Motivation design:

The Power of Habit — Charles Duhigg

This one is perhaps a tad weird in that the title is less a design book and more a self-help one, but should we really be surprised? As mentioned above, there is a very thin line between design and psychology — particularly UX design and behavioural and cognitive psychology. When read with the simple intent of understanding the modals proposed within a problem-solving context, this books can be super powerful for a designer.

As someone fascinated by activation and engagement in digital products, I've read a ton of habit and motivation books. Duhigg's Habit Loop (cue → routine → reward) coupled with Daniel Pink's model for intrinsic motivation as described in Drive (good summary here) has pretty much formed the basis of my own thoughts and process.

Some may wonder why I didn't go for the more renowned Hooked or Reality is Broken, both massively insightful books, but my opinion is that the theories described in these titles can lean towards patterns on the darker side of the spectrum when considered in a vacuum.


7. Strategic Design:

Creative Strategy & the Business of Design – Douglas Davis

This is a young (though increasingly important) field within design that has precious little material to work with at the moment. It's a toss-up between Creative Strategy & the Business of Design and Micheal Janda's Burn Your Portfolio, and whilst the latter is extremely pertinent (especially for designers entering the workforce), I had to go with the former simply because Douglas Davis does a great job in explaining business concepts to us creatives.

Especially helpful for designers looking to move into more managerial and leadership roles, it is worth noting that this book is more aimed at designers working in more traditional agency structures. However, with a little open-mindedness, learnings can be translated for those of us working in tech, or in-house design teams.


That's my list at the moment, no doubt it will evolve over time. Again, I'd love to hear your thoughts, do you agree, disagree, or have I blatantly missed something? Are there any books you would recommend? I'm always looking for new material to sink my teeth in (next on my list is Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner).

Finally, A big thanks to all my design friends and colleagues over the years who have recommended many of the books you see listed above. I hope the above serves as some form of remittance for your help.

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