20 Pivotal Books for Designers

The canonical books for Product Designers at Pivotal

As the Design Practice Lead at Pivotal Labs, I work on aligning, iterating, teaching, scaling, and documenting our design process across 17 design teams worldwide. We currently have more than 90 designers across four continents. This means I’m on a lot of planes and I have a lot of long conversations and sticky note sessions about building strong, happy design teams with common core practices. When I’m not on a Google Hangout at all hours of the night, you can find me reading a newly discovered book. I’m obsessed with books.

Over the years, we have collected many books across many shelves without much order. One night at work with a few other designers and a few glasses of wine, we decided to review our book list. We asked ourselves: how should we organize these? Alphabetically? By topic? By date? What would Richard Saul Wurman, the father of information architecture, tell us to do?!

We limited the space for important books to the top shelf of the bookcase, near the squishiest of chairs. After a bit of sorting (and more wine), we selected the 20 books below to occupy the shelf. Not because we wrote them, or read all of them, or even agree with everything they say. But because we refer to them constantly and find them to be helpful resources.

This list is comprised of foundational books we recommend our designers have on hand at their offices, and sometimes we give them to clients. We then realized other designers might find this list useful, which brings us to this post.

What is Design?

At Pivotal, designers advocate for user’s needs, and constantly ask “why are we solving these problems?” These books explain design from a high, almost philosophical level, and then link to business strategy.

Working in Agile

Learning to work and thrive in an agile environment is important to all Pivotal designers. These books explain high-level software-making philosophy as well as the details of day-to-day actions designers take to support an agile process.

At Pivotal, we have everyone read the first seven chapters of Extreme Programming and then they immediately start implementing those practices in their work.

“We’ve found that magic happens when we use big whiteboards to solve problems. As humans, our short-term memory is not all that good, but our spatial memory is awesome. A sprint room, plastered with notes, diagrams, printouts, and more, takes advantage of that spatial memory. The room itself becomes a sort of shared brain for the team.”
— Jake Knapp, Sprint

Working with People and Organizations

Even when we want to work in a hole all alone, it is important to remember that other people exist, and serve important roles in an organization. Forming good relationships with healthy conflict and understanding how the business makes decisions is important to successful product outcomes, client outcomes, and maintaining good work-life balance. These books cover those topics.

“People almost never change without first feeling understood.” — Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations
Well worn books are the sign of well-loved books. “Universal Methods”was written by a professor of mine.

User Research

Truly understanding a user while creating products that serve their needs is core to our offering and point of view at Pivotal. These books cover user research with best practices for both time intensive studies and more timeline restricted studies, with a focus on how to explain the value of user research to those who have not experienced it.

Visual Design

Designers at Pivotal aren’t hired solely for visual design, though it is something we expect all our designers to thoroughly understand. The books we have in this domain are more geared to the work we do on the implementation side. That being said, I’d love some more suggestions for this category.

User Experience and Information Architecture

When designers have gained a sense of user needs and scenarios to solve for, it is important to understand the foundation of how people experience software. These books cover the basics of the psychology of information architecture as well as common interface patterns. We refer to the Human Interface Guidelines and Material Design for mobile, which of course, are not available in book form.


What’s on your shelf?

Here’s a list of all of these books on Amazon if you want to add some of them to your own library.

These are not the only books we have at Pivotal offices about design, and we know there are more out there. Designers, I’d love to hear about any book that’s inspired you (yes, you reading this) or been helpful in your work. Tell me about it in a response to this post.

Happy reading!

This article is part of Built to Adapt, a publication by Pivotal that shares stories and insights on how software is changing the way society and businesses are built.