When Designers Give Each Other Books, They’re Not All Books About Design, Though Maybe They Are

Khoi Vinh
Khoi Vinh
Dec 21, 2020 · 6 min read

Designers of all kinds tend to have a special relationship with books. We love the covers and the typesetting, of course, but also the conveyance of knowledge and the tactility of complex ideas you can hold in your hands.

This is true for the designers working on Adobe XD too, so in this way we’re not unique. But we do have as many different, singular kinds of passions for the written word as we have team members. Some of us are captivated by books that illuminate the work we do every day, others by books that transport us far away from the world of design, and still others by graphic novels or ancient fables.

This holiday season, we decided to celebrate these wide-ranging tastes by sharing them with one another. In the time-honored tradition of office Secret Santa gift exchanges — except, you know, virtual — we each drew a name from a hat. Instead of gifting one another tchotchkes and trinkets though, we (anonymously) shipped one of our favorite books to the person we selected.

Once all the books had arrived, we all convened in a big video call (as you do) and, one by one, revealed to whom we’d sent our book and why. Each person talked briefly about how the book they chose had impacted them personally, why it stuck with them, why they were so excited to share it with their designated recipient, and much more.

For a design team that has been lucky enough to be relatively stable — most of us have been working together for a few years now — it was a wonderful way to reveal new sides of ourselves to one another. For added fun we invited an “extended family” of our colleagues working on other teams too, which added a ton to the holiday spirit of it all. In fact it was such a good time that we thought it would be nice to memorialize the broad array of books that were exchanged and share the list publicly.

Just My Type” by Simon Garfield

It’s something with a light note to end the year: A fun and interesting tour of the history and power of type. Great for folks who aren’t obsessed with type but want to explore a bit more on the subject. Gifted by Val.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form” by Christopher Alexander

A great book about principles of architecture and civil engineering, but highly applicable to software. Alexander spent a lot of this time writing about patterns and about design methodology. Gifted by Susse.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” by Dave Eggers

This one’s a super quick read and super fun and dark also. Deals with one guy trying to make sense of an absurd role, and written entirely as dialogue. Gifted by Jeremy.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” by Svetlana Alexievich

A look at the tragedy of the Chernobyl disaster through the stories of the people affected by it. Written by the first Belarusian writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, this book is top of mind at a time when Belarus is undergoing turmoil. Gifted by Tanya.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character” by Richard P. Feynman

An edited collection of anecdotes about a variety of topics by the Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. It’s extremely easy to read but helps you understand how complex ideas can be broken down. Gifted by Alex.

Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

A longstanding favorite graphic novel and for good reason. There are so many layers — there’s even a comic book inside a comic book. Intricate stories, fantastic depth. Gifted by Carmen.

The Book of Balance” by Yasuhiko Kimura

One of several translations of a book that’s been around for 2,500 years. You can finish it in an hour but it may take you a few decades to truly understand it. A great read if you’re a fan of inner peace (and outer peace). Gifted by Larz.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer

A novel about a young autistic kid who goes on a journey through New York’s five boroughs after his father died on 9/11. Told in a nonlinear storyline and beautifully written, eccentric and quirky. Gifted by Kelly.

Killing Commendatore” by Haruki Murakami

A novel about an unnamed Japanese portrait painter whose wife abandons him. He soon finds himself on a journey that takes him on all sorts of adventures with different metaphoric meanings and learnings. It’s a story that really stays with you. Gifted by Talin.

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir” by Thi Bui

A graphic novel that recounts the author and artist’s experiences growing up with parents who survived the Vietnam war. Deeply personal with striking visuals on every page. Best enjoyed with a hot bowl of phở to heal your heart and soul. Gifted by Gayatri.

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A investigation into how systems function by one of the great contemporary thinkers. It may not offer great emotional comfort during this time of pandemic, but it’s rife with wisdom and unique perspective. Gifted by Wenting.

The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream” by Paulo Coelho

A famously inspiring story about an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world in search of a treasure. It’s about life journeys and self-discovery, and finding your treasure at the end of it. Gifted by Ryan.

The Complete Cosmiccomics” by Italo Calvino

An anthology of thirty-four stories that relate complex scientific and mathematical concepts to our everyday world. It’s a wonderful travel book, and since none of us have been able to travel that much, a great opportunity to enjoy the dreamscapes that this author transports us to. Gifted by Saagar.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design” by Charles Montgomery

A wonderful book to read when actually commuting to work was a thing, this is an examination of the intersection of urban planning and improving one’s health, happiness and connection to community. Gifted by Simona.

Aesop’s Fables” by Jerry Pinkney

This particular edition of these ageless stories includes gorgeous illustrations that go alongside some of the best life lessons you can get…which comes in handy when dealing with the twists, turns, and curveballs of 2020. This version of Aesop’s fables is packaged as a children’s book, but its translations and illustrations make it even more meaningful for adults. Gifted by Jess, who came up with this whole book exchange idea.

Working” by Robert A. Caro

A great introduction to the work of Robert Caro, one of the best biographers of all time, and probably the premier chronicler of power in American society. This relatively short book finds Caro revealing the methods and ideas he uses to write his massive, highly intricate books about Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. From the very first page, you’re sucked in by his prose. It’s a page turner. Gifted by Khoi.

Principles: Life and Work” by Ray Dalio

This book truly gives you a new perspective on life. In today’s world where we are constantly overwhelmed with ‘stuff’, this book helps readers center on what matters most and be objective about less important things. Gifted by Vignesh.

The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer

This ostensibly business-oriented guide to working across cultures also applies to real life. On a team full of immigrants, foreigners, and people of different background like ours — it’s a great book to learn about your teammates too! It helps you learn about how cultures work, and how people from different countries around the world connect and react to events. Gifted by Gleren.

Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

A fascinating explanation of how the human mind works that offers practical and illuminating insights into how we make choices in both our business and our personal lives. Gifted by Shalin.

Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges

A collection of short stories that border on science fiction and the edge of reality, and easily suspends your disbelief over what is actually happening in fiction and not real life. Written in the 1940s, it anticipates a lot of the ideas we live with today — in fact, one of the short stories, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” is cited as an inspiration for hypertext. Gifted by James.

Thinking Design

Stories and insights from the design community.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store