Books that shaped how I think

Tina Xu
Envoy Design
Published in
6 min readSep 5, 2018


Every so often, I get asked for book recommendations for professional development. While I could list off the books I referenced in my own process of finding a job in design, those books can be found on any list that a Google search of “books for designers” turns up.

Instead, I offer you a list of books that have impacted how I think. These are all books I’ve read, loved, and felt personally influenced by. I reference them again and again. As such, I like to believe they’ve made me a better designer, too.

Most of these books don’t directly relate to design, but reveal (in my opinion) profound insights on how people think, act, and make decisions. They shed light into human behavior and problems that are broadly experienced. These books taught me about the cognitive biases and irrationalities that underlie human behavior and gave me a lot to think about at work and in daily life.

Neither my team nor I benefit from your purchase of any of the titles below, but I have added Amazon Smile links so a charity of your choice can benefit from your pursuit of knowledge. Happy reading!

On how people think

Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Oh Nudge, how I love thee. Without any exaggeration, this was the book that sparked my adoration of behavioral economics, motivated me to get a second major in college, and shaped both how I think about my projects at work and my goals outside of work. Nudge is often my first recommendation to anyone who asks me about books.

It’s darn fun to read and incredibly relatable! Who hasn’t told themselves they would quit a bad habit, only to act way differently when tomorrow becomes today? Who hasn’t flaked on a new year’s resolution?

Through a mix of studies and anecdotes across varied domains, Thaler and Sunstein question the cornerstone economic assumption of human rationality, emphatically argue for human irrationality, and pose ways to embrace how people actually behave for better outcomes. At its core, the book argues that behavior can be changed without limiting one’s choices. Intentionally structuring how choices are presented can “nudge” people into successfully doing challenging things like eating healthier, saving more for retirement, and consuming less energy. In my job, specifically, it has made me think a lot more about the default states I design for users.

Misbehaving by Richard Thaler

I really love Dr. Thaler’s work, ok? The man won a freaking Nobel Prize in Economics. Misbehaving builds on the concepts in Nudge about human irrationality. It paints a broad overview of the field of behavioral economics. Thaler hilariously illustrates the cognitive and behavioral biases, social influences, and fallibility that contest the assumptions of classical economics. More interestingly, he introduces revised models that factor in human irrationality. Misbehaving touches a bit more on financial markets (which were largely believed to be efficient) with an arresting conclusion for the average person — you are never as smart or rational as you think you are. The book helped me think more about the gap between what people say and how they actually behave.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Full disclosure, I’m still in the middle of reading this one (it’s long). But it’s a seminal work by one of the big players in behavioral science. Kahneman’s research has made a tangible impact on everything from cognitive science and psychology to systems design. For me, the main message that people use different thinking processes in different scenarios has translated into a habit of thinking about the different mental states users of my designs may be in. Though in my opinion less riveting and also longer than Nudge and Misbehaving, Thinking, Fast and Slow reads like sage advice, and I’m looking forward to finishing it soon.

Algorithms To Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

I like pop science books. Sue me. As a non-Computer Science major in a college social circle full of CS kids, I picked up this book wanting to be more knowledgeable. In addition to helping me converse about some major algorithmic problems in computer science, this book takes specific problems in computer science and ties them to wholly relatable decisions we have to make on a daily basis in our jobs, social circles, our finances, and beyond. It’s given me a new way of thinking about major life decisions, like when I was looking for my first job and how much time I spend with old friends versus meeting new ones.

On the universal and the particular

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens paints a fascinating overview of human history. It’s a rich, thought-provoking story that strings together the past, present and future of humanity through key historic events like the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. Harari goes big picture and doesn’t stop at food for thought. He presents a full-on feast of humanity’s “shared narratives” including religions, nations, liberty, laws, and money. Not only does he detail the ways that humanity has triumphed over our environment and its implications, but also invites a sobering look at the devastation left in our wake. The ideas are riveting and powerful, and the writing is fast-paced and vivid, as if you’re barreling through time with Harari as your guide. It’s mind-expanding. Please read it.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.

What I love about this short book is that it draws the universal from the particular. It’s a thought-provoking read for anyone who thinks about improving in something they care about, rooted in Murakami’s own musings on his profession as a writer and his passion for marathons and endurance races. I found it incredibly candid and introspective, and it definitely made me think of my own career as a designer, and my other interests in reading and drawing.

On “design”

The Best Interface Is No Interface by Golden Krishna

One of the first design books I ever read, which kicked off my passion for product design. It posits that design should be unobtrusive and embrace typical human processes and routines — instead of finding solutions in having people interact with digital interfaces. Through contrasting examples of effortless, “invisible” design with gratuitous digital interfaces, Krishna provides a much-needed reminder that good design and advanced technology mean more than yet another digital screen. After all, the solution to most of the world’s most significant problems won’t be found in a mobile app or web dashboard.

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Every design book list includes this book, so my recommendation will be short. DOET is an approachable and digestible introduction to designing to solve problems. For me, it defined “design” as the process of making meaningful, non-gratuitous choices rooted in function. I personally really enjoyed Norman’s writing style, which was friendly and chock-full of fun, relatable anecdotes.

Read any impactful books? Drop them in the comments — I’m always looking for new reads and I’d love to hear about them!

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