The best ‘design‘ books that aren’t explicitly about design.

I asked a whole bunch of designers what books, which weren’t specifically about digital or graphic design, inspired them. And, wow I got a ton of great responses. Here are twelve of the most popular recommendations:


1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

The classic book about city planning in a humane way. Still as relevant as when it was first published in the early 1960s.

Technically about city planning but everything to do with designing for humans

2. The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander

“A new theory of architecture, building, and planning which has at its core that age-old process by which the people of a society have always pulled the order of their world from their own being.” — Amazon

The classic on design patterns

3. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

About Dr. Paul Farmer and his work to eradicate tuberculosis. On doing service design and primary research, but with different names.

Epidemiology meets design

4. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte

Okay, this one is more specifically about design than some others, but it’s a classic and the examples are ones you’ll use for your entire career.

Tufte’s classic on information design. Not just for your coffee table.

5. How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand

A book about how some buildings are adaptable over time and how building methods affect the use of a structure.

Why some systems are more adaptable than others

6. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

Poetry meets design

7. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

“Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comics while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art and the Cosmos!” — Art Spiegelman

On storytelling…

8. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

“The heart of a good strategy is insight — into the true nature of the situation, into the hidden power in a situation, and into an appropriate response. Rumelt shows you how insight can be cultivated with a wide variety of tools for guiding your own thinking.” — Amazon

Business + design

9. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

“In his inventive first novel, Baker uses a one-story escalator ride as the occasion for a dazzling reappraisal of everyday objects and rituals.” — Amazon

Suggested by Michael Beirut from legendary design group Pentagram

10. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

“Offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives―and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble.” — Amazon

NYTimes bestseller on understanding mental glitches

11. Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows

“This essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.” — Amazon

Get out from in front of your screen

12. Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull

From the founder of Pixar, a book on leadership and creating an environment that fosters creativity and storytelling. The parts on critique and leveraging both group input and individual voice are especially strong.

Pixar’s secret sauce
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