As human-centred design has become more mainstream in recent years it has attracted criticism, see Natasha Jen’s now infamous Design Thinking is bullshit talk, and Lee Vinsel’s article The Design Thinking Movement is Absurd, on the same topic. In some circles, design is described as a few simple, repeatable steps that promise to transform an organisation, product or experience. At best, this narrative is naïve, delivers solutions that barely scratch the surface of the most complex social problems or even worse prioritises the needs of an individual with little thought to the impact on community more widely.
Being a good designer is essential, but design on its own is rarely sufficient.
Designers need to understand strategy, economics, brand, change management, psychology, sociology, data analysis, systems thinking and much more to bring intellectual rigour to the work of problem-solving.
In my role leading the design practice at Nous Group, I feel incredibly lucky to work in multi-disciplinary design teams that bring these skills together to work on systemic problems. Of course, working with others from different disciplines, participating in design critiques and observing how others think about the work all strengthen my practice. However, by a country mile, my favourite way of learning is to read; to read lots and to read broadly.
This post describes some books I have read and why I have read them. I have also included links so you can browse them easily. If some of them are interesting and you decide to buy them, then feel free to find some other book shop that doesn’t have squillions of dollars in the bank already ;-)
What’s on my bookshelf at the moment?
Design Methods Manuals
When we are designing an approach to a project or problem to be solved, I find it helpful to look through these types of methods manuals. This process stops me relying on those methods that are most comfortable for me. I like spending time thinking about the problem to be solved, I then flick through some of these “manual” type books, reflect a bit more and then start to sketch an approach that is right for the context. At Nous, we put the first draft approach through a non-stressful “stress test” where a multi-disciplinary team come together to critique the thinking and refine the approach.
My favourite manuals are:
Books that focus on research
On every design project at Nous, we insist on doing our research. Clients will often say they have already conducted research, and they understand the problem well. What they want are solutions. In the early days, we tried using our clients research and perhaps predictably the work was good but not great. We don’t do that anymore. Doing rigorous research is hard — even for skilled and experienced practitioners. I know I will always be working on doing better research and the following books have helped me double down on what excellent research looks like, new ways of thinking, cutting edge methods, and ways of drawing meaning from the research.
These books have also helped me understand the importance of putting new research in the context of other evidence that exists. The typical agency response of “six or seven interviews, and we are hearing the same things” just doesn’t cut it in my view and if you are procuring designers to help you solve problems, you should be demanding more. At Nous, we also do a lot of work with rural and remote communities and so have included one book that speaks specifically to the challenges of this type of research work:
- Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research by Patricia L Sunderland, Rita M Denny
- Essential ethnographic methods by Jean J. Schensul and Margaret D. LeCompte
- Remote research by Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte
- A time to think, listening to ignite the human mind by Nancy Kline -one of my all time faves. I have read and re-read this book, each time it reminds me just how critical — and hard — real listening is and that I will always be working at it.
Some authors have a knack for presenting their research in compelling and beautiful narratives that are the perfect blend of the method, personal reflection and insights from their work. The following books each have a different style, and I have enjoyed them for the skill of the research, the quality of the writing, and because the content has moved me.
In my role, I have been lucky enough to work with many different clients trying to solve many kinds of problems. I have worked on projects ranging from court reform, family violence service design, improving outcomes for children in out of home care, employability for young people and improving local government services, the following books have helped me understand different contexts, helped me frame research better and inspired me to do a better job of writing up research.
A masterclass in conducting research and creating insights from the research. Uneasy Street I found particularly challenging. It made me reflect on how the government employs people to do essential jobs while being paid the least — think carers, social workers, to name a few.
A must read to understand the complex factors influencing the indigenous experience in Australia
A beautiful and tender exploration of the human spirit as people recover from a day that started like any other and finished in an extraordinary way. Each chapter is a different story and throughout Leigh Sales manages to pull very disparate threads together to articulate how, as people, there is more that connects us than separates us — even in the most challenging circumstances. Surprisingly, I was also left wondering about the vicarious trauma we open ourselves up to as researchers.
This book explores the motivations and the lasting consequences of Victoria’s worst bushfires. What motivated the arsonist, families dealing with mental health, poverty and a community’s ability to respond and recover.
This book came under some criticism for how much the author inserts herself into the text. I found those parts helpful. Along with Any Ordinary Day, this book shone a light on the impact conducting research can have on the researcher and the importance of self-care. The book itself examines the criminal justice system through the lens of one controversial case, a case that impacted individuals, local communities, the professionals involved and across Australia.
Design at the intersection of other things
I once worked with someone who said research was a waste of time; the best thing to do was to “make things and throw them out into the world and see what sticks”. At the time, I thought this was incredibly arrogant. It was a comment that could only come from someone with the privilege of not having to worry about the consequences of this approach (Facebook, anyone?). This one comment made me even more determined to think carefully about my practice, my design work and throughout the design process, ask myself questions about the potential unintended consequences of any solution. The following books have helped me think about my practice in new ways:
This book helps hone the craft of understanding the system forces that might be at play and how they are influencing a situation. Helpful for any design work but especially for those working in Government organisations where there are many factors (think regulation, small p politics as well as big P politics, legacy and more) influencing any situation.
An exploration of the psychological and economic factors that influence individuals, families and social structures as more of us live until we are one hundred.
This book is full of insights into how what is happening in a team might give clues as to what is going on in a system and identifying what is keeping them there, and what might need to change to create new possibilities.
This is the only book listed I have not read — yet. I heard an interview with the author and put it straight on the to-read list because it sounded like he had a surprising and radical view on how economics can be used and misused to drive social change.
An oldie but a goodie. Increasingly our work is collaborative with clients; they form part of our core team and collaborating means we need to pay specific attention to the process of building a team. This book and the framework within it has helped to name behaviours and expectations as we start working with new people. It’s not too bad at helping understand what is happening inside an organisation as well!
A helpful book for contextualising human behaviours I have noticed in my research, it contains lots of scientific studies about why people behave the way they do through the highs and lows of life. I have found it helpful in identifying hypotheses for my work and in challenging some of my assumptions about why people do what they do.
A fresh, evidenced-based look at the education system and the consequences the current education system has on children and young people. It challenged some of my underlying assumptions about education and the reasons why the education system was designed the way it was and how and why it should be radically transformed.
Share your reads
This list is just a flavour of some of the books that I have either read recently, go back to regularly and in the case of one book — is top of “the read soon” list. If you happen to have read any of these books, please do leave your reviews below or share the names of other books that have helped you out along the way.
Thanks for reading.