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The 8 Classic Books Every Vanguard Design Thinker Should Read

One of the questions I get a lot is what books to read if you want to get into design thinking. Design thinking has been around a while but I still consider the application of design thinking in various areas to be avant-garde. More and more businesses are getting into design thinking but as far as I see the future of design thinking, this is still early stage design thinking. I believe a solid foundation, a solid understanding of the underlying principles, is essential for long term success and maximum benefit from the approach. Most people discover design thinking in a workshop, talk or project. And although the basics are pretty easy and simple, mastery takes a considerable mind-shift and the development of new skills, attitudes, and knowledge.

Dennis Hambeukers
Jun 28, 2019 · 8 min read

There are a lot of books to be found on the subject if you Google the phrase “design thinking book”. It can be a good place to start to read one of these books that have the words “design thinking” in the title. But I found that most of these books have the tendency to stay on the surface and present design thinking as an easy way to innovate. Although it doesn’t have to be hard to start with design thinking, pretending it is easy is underselling its potential and overselling the simplicity. Design thinking is easy to understand but hard to master. Design thinking is somewhat of a hype today and that means there will be a lot of books on the market that might not be of the highest quality. This temporarily raises the percentage in Sturgeon’s law that states that 90 percent of everything is crap even higher.

“Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

— Sturgeon’s law

This is, of course, all personal opinion and everybody should read what they want. But if you ask me, I would recommend the following classics of which none has the words “design thinking” in the title and might not be found in your Google quest for design thinking books.

1. The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

This is probably the most “classic” book. In my view, three of the most important aspects of design thinking are in this book:

  1. Learning ability. The core of design thinking is learning. Complex problems cannot be solved without learning and design thinking is a great way to increase your learning ability. But understanding the importance of learning for business is crucial. That is the whole point of The Fifth Discipline: how to create a learning organization. If you don’t understand that design thinking is about learning, you miss the point.
  2. Business understanding. Design thinking for me is the transfer of the skills, tools, and mindset of the designer to complex problem-solving. Most people I get in contact with are, just like me, professionally interested in solving complex business problems. So it’s good to have a good understanding of business. There are many business and management books you can read and I definitely recommend reading more than just this one but The Fifth Discipline is one of the best management books ever written. Especially because it links to design thinking through the idea of learning (see 1.)
  3. Systems thinking. Peter Senge is famous for being one of the people who made systems thinking big. Systems thinking is about analyzing complex systems and finding the leverage points to create maximum systemic change with the least amount of effort. If you practice design thinking without systems thinking, you will not get the most out of it. With complex problems, there are many layers and disciplines/specializations involved. Design thinking is an excellent approach to navigate the complexity but you have to see the connections, learn to embrace the complexity. Systems thinking is the way to do that. I think of design thinking as the vehicle and systems thinking as the map: you need both to get somewhere.

2. Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen

User centeredness is crucial for the success of design thinking. In my definition of design thinking, user-centeredness is not a part:

Design thinking is the transfer of the skills, tools, and mindset of designers to complex problem-solving for which traditionally science-based approached are used.

But user-centeredness is crucial if you want to stay competitive in today’s market. And design thinking can give you the tools to integrate the needs of the users in your projects. I think that is why most people think it’s part of design thinking. A lot of designers are user-centered, but not all and it’s not necessary to design stuff. That might sound too semantic but I think it’s good to be clear about those things.

Becoming user-centered might sound easier than it is. Just ask your users and you’re done. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The trick is to find their jobs to be done: the real reasons they use your product. Christensen introduces and explains the concept of the jobs to be done concept. Understanding the jobs to be done concept is crucial for leveraging your interaction with users in your projects.

3. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup is a modern classic. For me this book is about the rigor of the prototyping mindset. Prototyping comes from the design world but Ries takes a fundamental scientific approach to it. Coming from design, prototyping might be seen and used as not being overly goal oriented, not rigorous, too soft. By integrating prototyping in the build-measure-learn loops, prototyping becomes a research tool with near scientific exactness. If you make a clear hypothesis and build a prototype explicitly to measure and learn, prototyping becomes one of the most powerful tools in complex problem-solving.

4. Sprint by Jake Knapp

When it comes to the mindset of the modern, digitally transformed, innovative business, there are four frameworks that are important:

  1. UX
  2. Lean Startup
  3. Agile
  4. Design Thinking

The cool thing about the Sprint book is that it combines the best of those frameworks into one process. The proposition of the process is that you can solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. Processes that would normally take months can be reduced to one week. The Sprint method is a cleverly engineered process that eliminates the downsides of traditional brainstorming-type-of processes and leverages the power of design thinking, agile and lean startup approaches.

Regardless of whether you are actually going to run Design Sprints with this book, it gives you a nice insight into how group processes, creativity and mindsets all can play together nicely to boost problem-solving capacity to unprecedented heights.

5. Change By Design by Tim Brown

If the algorithms of Google are working correctly, this book should pop up in the search results pages when you search for “design thinking”. Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO, the company that “invented” design thinking. Design thinking originated in Stanford University when a group of engineers started to experiment with the way that designers worked. IDEO spawned from that group about 30 years ago. Since then they have been successfully using design thinking. This book by Tim Brown is about the basics of design thinking by its inventors. It’s already 10 years old so it’s a classic in today’s fast paced world. This is one of the books that laid the groundwork for using the skills of designers in business innovation projects.

6. A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

Design thinking is in part about re-awakening the right side of our brain. Today’s educational system and the ways organizations are run are largely based on capacities that are located in the left side of our brain. Linear, rational, specialist, one best way are the things that are trained and rewarded. Design thinking is about introducing right-brain skills into the business innovation game. This book is about the power of adding right-brain capacities to arrive at a more balanced mind, a whole mind.

7. Draw To Win by Dan Roam

One part of the right-brain skills is visual thinking. The power of design thinking comes from adding visual thinking and from the power of visuals when it comes to engaging visions, clarity and convincing people. A visual skill that any design thinker should master is drawing. Drawing is an activity that most people associate with creating beauty. Dan Roam states that drawing is actually a way to think and one of the most powerful ways of communicating. If you master this skill, you will be able to convince and lead people better. Dan states that he who draws best, wins.

8. A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger

The last book on this list is as crucial as any of the others. Most people think problem solving is about finding solutions. But when things get complex, finding the right question is far more important than the right solution. This sounds counter-intuitive because our entire education system is based on the fact that there is one solution to a problem and that your energy should be spent on finding that solution. Complexity turns a lot of things upside down including the importance of questions in relation to answers. In complex situations, once you find the right question, the answer is relatively easy. You can use design thinking to find the right solution. But if you use design thinking to find the right question, it will be exponentially more powerful. A mediocre solution to the right question is infinitely more powerful than a genius solution to the wrong question. This book is about the subtle art of questioning. Any design thinker should learn to master this art.

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Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at :)

What do you think? Do you have a recommendation for me? Let me know in the comments.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Innovation Project Manager @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Innovation Project Manager @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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