Designers Should Read!
You didn’t think reading stopped when you graduated did you?
In grad school, I had to read more than I read the previous five years of undergrad combined (yes, it took me five years. It would have been faster had I been reading what I was supposed to Freshman year). Once I entered the professional world, I stopped reading for several years just to detox but when I started up again, I used the same habits I did in college. These habits of reading were all geared towards either passing a test or writing a paper. As a result, I tended to read cover-to-cover, regardless of how I felt.
After entering the professional world of design in 2007, I detoxed from reading books. But that led to an overwhelming anxiety to keep up with the constant influx of change happening in the industry. I struggled keeping up with what — at the time — felt like a deluge of information (Twitter and Medium didn’t even exist!). Books started feeling slow and outdated; the good stuff all seemed to happen on the internet.
But after over a decade in the industry, and information flowing even faster, I’ve come full circle and see books as being instrumental to my professional growth. Through this process, I’ve learned some helpful tips to how to read books effectively. (note that I think these are probably fairly generalizable, but my focus is mostly on reading for designers.)
But first, why read at all?
Your initial reaction might be that because the internet exists and everyone is a blogger, there’s no reason to read books. In fact a lot of criticisms of books on Goodreads boils down to, “This could’ve just been a blog post” (I almost always agree when those comments are made). But good books are well-researched, edited thoroughly, and look well beyond a particular agenda or singular philosophy. In short, blogging is easy. And with the exception of a few online publications, most articles are flimsy; written from one person’s life experience, containing little research beyond a few links to other articles which the author just googled while writing ;).
Blogs certainly have their use. They can fill in the gaps of knowledge or help expose hidden practical tips on everyday life (such as this one). Or they might inspire you to learn more — I think most of the books I discover come from links from blogs, or simply a well-written article that piques my interest in a subject.
Reading blogs is a snack; reading books is a meal.
Increase your chance to make serendipitous insights
By far the biggest strategic reason I read is because I make connections to my work as a designer, marketer, and leader. I apply concepts I’m actively reading about immediately into projects I’m working on. This isn’t even just true for professional work. Often, books on history will have immediate relevance to current events. You start to see that nothing is entirely new and there are frameworks for making sense of just about everything.
How do you know when a book is good?
This is a great question and I don’t know why I put it in here because I don’t know how to answer it and I’ve somehow written a run-on sentence to cope. For me, I usually get excited by the way an author frames the topic in the introduction (yes, I read this part even though its page number is a roman numeral that doesn’t count toward your progress). Once reading, a great book will usually have one moment where the main theme hits me over the head and I have to pause and think of what it means. Recently, I read the “Content Trap” by Bharat Anand, and within the first 100 pages he had completely changed the way I understood digital content. I couldn’t stop thinking about it (or insufferably ranting about it at work).
Other times I just appreciate the way someone writes about fairly mundane topics. While I tend to steer away from books written by journalists, I made an exception with, “If Our Bodies Could Talk” by an Atlantic writer, James Hamblin. I learned more about the human body from that book than I ever did in my previous 36 years of life. But his effortless and humorous writing style almost hid the fact that I was learning (kinda like how a fried spring roll hides that you’re eating vegetables).
What types of books should you read?
For the sake of this article, I’m really covering non-fiction books. I tend to gravitate towards non-fiction not because I believe they aren’t important — just that novels are not in my wheelhouse and are a bit outside the focus of design reading. That said, I believe novels can inspire and stretch your mind as a designer just as well.
Traditionally, books are categorized in genres like Business, History, Science, Technology, Design, etc. But I find this to be less than helpful when it comes to understanding what books to read as a designer. Before I dive into practical tips for reading effectively, this is how I tend to categorize books from a designer’s perspective:
- Methods. These design books tell you how to do things. They are written by industry experts and can be trusted. They are also great reference books to have around when you’re working on a new project or just starting out in the field. For my money you still can’t get much better than About Face 3.0 so I hope that just continues to get updated every five years. While these types of books are most critical during the first 3–5 years of a designer’s career, they should be around for reference forever. I also think that as your career evolves, the methods books might evolve from design methods to things like leadership or marketing.
- Tactics and Principles. While I find methods to have an expiration date (is anyone still doing paper prototyping?), these have a bit more longevity. Instead what you’ll find with principle oriented books is that they typically refresh tried and true principles using new examples. One of my favorites was Designing Interfaces by Jennifer Tidwell, but I can’t imagine new designers learning progressive disclosure from some Windows 98 app screenshots. I think designers will read fewer of these books as they become more experienced, with exceptions for books covering new interfaces (but you’ll see that even design principles for things like VR will be largely identical to what they were for 90’s business interfaces).
- Philosophy. These are timeless. Truthfully I haven’t read nearly as many as I’d like but little changes in this area so you’re good picking up something like Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert Simon, from 1968 (ancient!). I have found that philosophy has been most responsible for developing my own personal and professional values, while giving me a framework from which to base my opinions upon.
- Science. For designers, these books will often take the form of psychology or even anthropology. These books provide foundations for understanding the world around. They’re like decoder rings for human behavior or businesses. Designers should be keeping up with advances in this field because it is so directly applicable to products we design.
- Industry. These are timely books written about the state of the industry. These don’t often hold up well so it’s best to read while they are current. Recently I read John Thackara’s How to Thrive in the Next Economy, which covers large-scale challenges facing designers over the next hundred years. It will certainly have a shelf-life but these types of books give you a good overview of the industry when it matters most.
- Self-help. I think the internet is great at this but often books can set you up to succeed better than an article you’re reading on the train between iPhone notifications. These books are an industry unto themself but they actually appear in all kinds of industries. I have read a lot of self-help books for the creative field that wouldn’t typically be found in this section of Barnes & Noble (yep, they’re still around). Manage Your Day-to-Day was instrumental in helping me when I took a job as the only designer and no longer had a large team to fall back on — and that book is custom-fit for creatives.
I think a mix of all these books is great but I think that overall a good path is focusing on theory and philosophy in school (or early on your design path if you don’t go to school for design), followed by focusing principles to set some ground rules for yourself, then diving into methods to teach you how to do your day-to-day job. Then I think that designers should start spending more time consuming Science, Industry and Self-Help books as your career progresses.
Alright, let’s get down to the easily digestible insights for which Medium articles are perfectly suited!!
How to read books
Read topics, not just books
There are dozens of books about popular subjects. If you set a goal to read them all, you will never make it out alive. In my experience, there is significant overlap between books around particular subjects so if you read just one, you’re liable to get what you need. Or you might read parts of several that cover a topic from different perspectives.
Focusing on topics also ensures that you will stay interested in reading and maintaining the habit. Your interests are not static. Looking back at my “to read” list I can see my interest in sustainability, then shifting to design management, and then to startups. I think when you get interested in a topic, you should dive in, even if they pre-empt whatever books you wanted to read next. This last year I got interested in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology so I prioritized those books over some others I had planned. A year later my interest has waned but I got educated and can now better understand what I read online about the technology.
Read books written by scientists and doctors.
Plain and simple, these are people that research topics for decades. I think the internet is a great place for practitioners and “armchair analysts” to write about subjects, but when it comes to books, you should favor these types of authors when possible. If you want easy tips for building habits, that’s something for which the internet is well-suited but if you want to truly understand how habits work then you’re better off reading a book like The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg — who has studied habits and their formations for decades.
Read foundational books over agenda-driven books.
There’s nothing wrong with eating dessert if you eat a healthy dinner. Reading is no different. There are easy, approachable books and there are dense, academic books. I try to stay right in the middle. And while I find this to be mostly correlated to the last point, scientists and doctors are inclined to write about agendas as well.
You wouldn’t learn about how food nutrition works by reading a book on Keto or Paleo diets. The agenda is right there in the title. When I was reading about blockchain I found it extremely challenging to find a book that felt foundational — whose goal was simply to educate me on the technology rather than promote it. (Truthfully I don’t think I really found it. The best I could come up with was The Truth Machine, but even that was written by blockchain advocates).
Agenda-driven books can certainly be educational but they are like tinted glasses. They simply change the appearance of what you see. Foundational books are like microscopes. They reveal details you never noticed; exposing the deeper nature of the world around you.
Use the library!
You shouldn’t let purchasing serve as a disincentive to read. When it comes to non-fiction, I only purchase when I believe the book is timeless (or “evergreen” in internet-speak). When I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I purged dozens of books from my library. It was difficult but after several rounds, I was left with only the best of the best.
I make heavy use of the library in the meantime. My local library has an amazing collection, both digital and paper-based. I still buy ones that I love, ones that are unavailable. But utilizing the library has greatly expanded what I’m able to learn. FWIW, I tend to buy more philosophy and methods books since they are more timeless and need to be referenced more frequently.
Hopefully this isn’t news to anyone but Goodreads is by far the best site for tracking reading progress, connecting with readers, and just generally getting the best place for good comments and ratings.
Purge your to-read list regularly
Most books need to be read when the topic strikes you. In my experience, when books just sit on my to-read shelf for longer than 12 months, it’s a good sign I can probably move on. Goodreads helps me do this as well. I will sort by how long books have been on my shelves and remove them if I wouldn’t put it in my top-10 list. I do make exceptions when I think a book is highly-rated, but I don’t have the time to dig in at the moment. For example, A Nation Without Borders is an amazingly thorough book on the United States in the 1800’s. But it’s almost 600 pages of dense history. Someday I will conquer it (just like that marathon I keep promising to run).
Tying back to my point about reading topics over books, you can purge your list as your interests change. I was very interested in sustainability and read quite a few books on the subject. It’s no longer top of mind so I removed the other books on that subject from my to-read list. The spirit of Marie Kondo lives in the digital world as well.
Bail on books that suck.
Every once in a while you get 30 pages in and start realizing the book sucks. Sometimes the writing style is too pedantic, too arrogant, or just plain boring. Or you might find the content is too complex (like a 400-level course when you want a 101), or too simplistic. Other times you may find an older book simply didn’t hold up with the times.
Whatever the case may be, I’m here to say it’s ok to bail on a book. I read a bit past the moment of dread just to see if I’m overreacting, and sometimes the book actually does come around. But I’m not afraid to stop when I’m personally not getting anything out of it (all of my 1–2 star ratings on Goodreads, those are all books I didn’t finish). If you’re not enjoying or learning from a book, what sense does it make to spend more time on it?
Don’t worry about keeping up-to-date.
It may feel like the world is moving faster than ever. In a lot of ways it is but when it comes to foundational concepts and insights, it’s a much slower process. More blog articles, more books, more movies — more everything will be released in a year than you can possibly consume in a lifetime. This is why I recommended GoodReads and bailing when a book sucks. There’s too much great stuff out there to feel burdened by reading simply to stay current.
I think it’s important to take some notes while reading books that are pertinent to your domain. If I’m reading a book on innovation or design, I’ll take notes on methodologies, case studies, etc. They always come in handy later. In fact, I find taking note of stories and case studies is most useful because they are hard to come by in the public domain. Evernote is great because I’ll just take pictures of figures and tables to reference later.
Read the right stuff at the right time.
The biggest challenge I have in making book recommendations is knowing what level someone is at. I LOVED Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” when I started grad school. Others continue touting Steve Krugg’s “Don’t Make Me Think” as one of the best UX books. But those books are really only good when you’re starting out. New entry-level books still get published and I’ll never read them because it’s simply not the right time for me.
Conversely, don’t read beyond what you’re ready for. If you’re just beginning your career, I can assure that “User Experience Management” won’t be relatable. Put in your GoodReads backlog and read it when you make it to that point.
Use group reading or book clubs for the hard stuff.
I first read The Design Way in grad school and frankly, I just felt smarter for having made it through that book. But I don’t know that much of it resonated — not because it was ahead of where I was at but because it was dense and warranted discussion. Five years later, my design team read it together and it was ten times more useful.
I know people struggle with book clubs, and maybe that’s just because a club is simply too much. But reading with a cohort of other designers with similar goals, is much more fulfilling. And rather than a club, I’d recommend doing it when appropriate. I have done group reading a handful of times but it always works best when it’s centered around a particular work we want to learn from together.
Oh and also, you should read novels…
I admitted earlier I’m no expert on this but last year I challenged myself to read more novels and while I’m still learning my own tastes, I learned something useful for designers. Novels with great characters are great for perpetuating empathy in designers. You may have read one or a hundred articles touting how empathy is critical to be great at design (more or less true, but that debate is for another article). What better way to practice empathy than through seeing the world through someone else’s eyes for a couple hundred pages?
I’ve also found inspiration from science fiction as well. Some writers are great at exploring the depths of technology and society in ways that a blogs like “The Ten Ways Robots Will Forever Change Design” simply don’t.
..and books you enjoy
I’ll end by saying that reading should be enjoyable. Every now and again you’ll encounter an important book that you just have to get through, but life is too short not enjoy yourself reading. If there’s one caution to all of my previous tips it’s to not let yourself swing to far to the “everything I read must have an ROI” and always prioritize joy when developing a habit for reading.
Lastly, remember that books can’t replace practice.
It’s quite rare to find well-written design books by actual currently-practicing designers. Why? Cuz they’re all busy designing stuff. Instead, you’ll find many design books are written by former designers, academics, or in agencies (who are incentivized to write books for marketing purposes). Ultimately this is why most current design writing takes places in the form of blog articles that are easier to write.
I don’t point this out as a criticism of these books, but rather to point out that it’s important that when you read design books it’s important to understand they are no substitute for actual practice. Many young designers search and search for the answers to challenges they face at work but in reality, most of what you will learn about design happens through practice.
Books give you perspective, practice gives you skills.
So that’s that. I’m going to end an article highlighting the importance of reading for good designers by saying it’s not the most important factor. But hey, now you know how to read good!
When I’m not helping you learn how to read, I’m working on Sketch design tools at UX Power Tools to make you a better, more efficient designer.