Non-Design Books Designers Should Read

I have to admit that I’m not really a reader, but like many other designers, I collect “design books”, both books about design or books that are nicely designed, regardless of topic. To my surprise, many of these books, even though they have nothing to do with my career path, have either indirectly strengthened my creative thinking, or changed my perspective on a certain aspect of design. Below is the list of them, in no particular order. Expect some unexpected titles.

The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life

Bernard Roth

What I’ve learned from the book:

Ok, this is a design book but it's not the type of “design” that you think it is. It's a book about designing your life written by the founder of Stanford If you think this is the type of book that teaches you how to get on the Forbes list, it isn’t. Many nonfiction books out there show you how to do things, how to reach a goal, how to live your life. This is the only book that constantly tells you to stop trying to see the end game and instead just do it with an embedded design-thinking mindset. The book has gradually become a life coach for me.

Favorite excerpt from the book:

“You can remove labels entirely; you can also relabel to great effect. Recent studies reinforce the idea that relabeling can change behavior. Experimenters have found statistical evidence that, for instance, if you ask people to be voters, you get more voter turnout than if you simply ask people to vote. Similarly, if you ask people not to be cheaters there is less cheating than if you just ask people not to cheat. The inference is that people are more concerned with reinforcing their self-image than with their actions; thus, to change behavior, you first change self-image.”
— — —
“The problem with the self-affirmation movement is that people often feel that positive affirmations seem false, yet they readily accept the negative self-images they carry around as true. It is a classic example of seeing a glass as half empty or half full. For many of us, the half empty seems real, and the half full seems false. Probably the glass is both half full and half empty, and we get to decide which way we see it. The idea is to get enough external verification of the half-full version that our self-image really changes, and we do not need to keep going back to the magic mirror in our heads to find out who and what we are.”

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products

Leander Kahney

What I’ve learned from the book:

This is a biography, though one can totally argue that it’s a design-related title. Sure. But I can’t help including it in here because regardless of what category you think it’s in, this book is a must read for any designer. For me it strengthened the reason why I am a designer and what is the real purpose of doing what I do every day.

Many philosophies in this book have become cliché at this point in time in the design world, for example “it’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.”–Jony Ive. However, what’s important is not what those philosophies are, what’s important is the perspective and all the reasoning that led to them:

I think a lot of people see design primarily as a means to differentiate their product competitively. I really detest that. That is just a corporate agenda, not a customer or people agenda. It is important to understand that our goal wasn’t just to differentiate our product, but to create products that people would love in the future. Differentiation was a consequence of our goal.”–Jony Ive

Favorite excerpt from the book:

The computer industry “is an industry that has become incredibly conservative from a design perspective,” he said. “It is an industry where there is an obsession about product attributes that you can measure empirically. How fast is it? How big is the hard drive? How fast is the CD? That is a very comfortable space to compete in because you can say eight is better than six.”
“It’s also very inhuman and very cold. Because of the industry’s obsession with absolutes, there has been a tendency to ignore product attributes that are difficult to measure or talk about. In that sense, the industry has missed out on the more emotive, less tangible product attributes. But to me, that is why I bought an Apple computer in the first place. That is why I came to work for Apple. It’s because I’ve always sensed that Apple had a desire to do more than the bare minimum. It wasn’t just going to do what was functionally and empirically necessary. In the early stuff, I got a sense that care was taken even on details, hard and soft, that people may never discover.”

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose

Tony Hsieh

What I’ve learned from the book:

This is totally a business and culture book but it has a lot to do with brand, creativity and even personal growth. The three critical factors that contribute to Zappos’ success, which I think can also be applied to other areas, including creative projects or product development, are (1) great vision might be a lone wolf’s journey but success is a team sport (2) building a great culture is the art of being open-minded yet staying disciplined to what you strongly believe in (3) express who you are and what you truly care about contributes greatly to delivering great services.

Favorite excerpt from the book:

“We never want to become complacent and accept the status quo just because that’s the way things have always been done. We should always be seeking adventure and having fun exploring new possibilities. By having the freedom to be creative in our solutions, we end up making our own luck. We approach situations and challenges with an open mind. Sometimes our sense of adventure and creativity causes us to be unconventional in our solutions (because we have the freedom to think outside the box), but that’s what allows us to rise above and stay ahead of the competition. Ask yourself: Are you taking enough risks? Are you afraid of making mistakes? Do you push yourself outside of your comfort zone? Is there a sense of adventure and creativity in the work that you do? What are some creative things that you can contribute to Zappos? Do you approach situations and challenges with an open mind?”

Meaningful: The Story of Ideas That Fly

Bernadette Jiwa

What I’ve learned from the book:

Many designers now think (or want to think) that their design is user-centric. But what does user-centric mean and require? I thought I would find out the answer in a UX design book. But to my surprise this marketing book presents the core of what understanding your customers really means better than any other book of the same topic I have ever read. Maybe I’m biased but I guarantee if this book is not good enough to broaden your horizons, it will surely add some insight to what you’ve already know.

Favorite excerpt from the book:

“The customer’s story considers not just what the customer tells you, but also what you hear her say, and what you notice her do or be unable to do — things you see her wrestle with or avoid, those that pull her up short and things that bring her joy, too.”
“There is a before-the-product story and an after-the-product story. The change that’s brought about doesn’t have to be as monumental as the changes that companies like Google create; they can be small shifts in attitude and perception, nearly imperceptible changes in habits that become rituals over time. Enhancing your products or services might signal advancement and feel like progress, but if there is no change in the customer, there is no innovation. What happens because your product exists? Or as author Michael Schrage would say, ‘Who do you want your customer to become?’ Before [your product], people did. After [your product], people do.”


Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

What I’ve learned from the book:

A classic in the start-up/business world but not so much in design, that’s why I think it’s helpful for designers. The book makes me rethink a lot of my working processes both personally and collaboratively. It challenges a lot of our common sense thinking when it comes to planning, process, hard work and productivity.

Favorite excerpt from the book:

“Failure is not a prerequisite for success… Evolution doesn’t linger on past failures, it’s always building upon what worked. So should you.”
“Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic. We hear about people burning the midnight oil. They pull all-nighters and sleep at the office. It’s considered a badge of honor to kill yourself over a project… Workaholics wind up creating more problems than they solve… They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime. They enjoy feeling like heroes.”

Fifty Shades of Grey

E L James

Nah. I’m kidding.

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