Happy 2023 – it’s a new year and the perfect time to reinvest in yourself. While some may go to a gym, I encourage designers to head to their bookshelf (after the gym). In my house, I have a single area in our family’s bookshelf dedicated to design and design-related books that I’m always culling, so I keep only the very best. 

Here are 15 solid go-to resources I recommend all designers and creatively-curious folks check out. They aren’t just focused on improving your craft, but also improving your person. I’m a firm believer that as you cultivate your own growth, your design work will follow.  Intuition, critical observation, and sensitivity to your fellow human are all critical traits of exceptional designers. The following recommendations may help you on your journey.

Lastly, if you have a book that has been instrumental in your development, please share. I’m always looking to fill a few more spaces on my shelf.

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

What’s really fun about Sprint is that it makes design thinking not feel so precious. It helps designers get to the core of what they’re trying to design in a very short period of time. It’s a nice “confidence accelerator” that helps you choose a hunch, build a concept, validate it, generate results, then either discard it and go with another concept or dig in and start production.

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited

A classic on usability that goes into the nuances of what makes something frictionless. If you’re moving people toward action, don’t make them stop and think very hard, because that will slow down their progress toward their objective. It got people thinking very differently when it first came out, but it still remains highly relevant.

The Brand Gap

Author Marty Neumeier is an early Apple consultant who went on to create a fabulous San Francisco-based design firm. The Brand Gap can be summarized with one of its statements, “A brand is not what you say it is. It is what they say it is.” You can talk about who you are all day long, but if you don’t live it, your brand will ultimately be subject to how customers think and feel about you.

The Back of the Napkin

A celebration of drawing to think, basically, and how to persuade people with pictures. How can you communicate complex ideas with simple sketches? Can you create a picture that equally appeals to anybody from the accountants who think of themselves as being not creative at all, to full-fledged designers who live and walk the lifestyle?

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

A phenomenal book written by Georgetown professor Cal Newport on how a person living in the modern world with plenty of distractions needs to basically block off time in their daily life if they want to achieve something of real value. He draws upon some of the great thinkers of our time, examining their daily behaviors. For anybody who struggles with distraction (everybody?) it’s a must-read.

Ways of Seeing

A great way to shake up assumptions. We become so conditioned to looking for a shorthand. When we do that and mentally say, “Oh, I’ve seen this before, I know the ending of the movie,” you’re doing yourself a great disservice because you’re not pausing to appreciate the component parts which are in a conversation with the larger experience.

The Lost Words

Just a beautiful piece of artwork that combines stunning illustrations and poetry. I put this in here not as a how-to-be-a-better-designer guide, but to inspire the senses. That’s what I hope our work will achieve in its loftier application. When we let artwork resonate within us, that experience will undoubtedly trickle down to the design work we do.

Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age

Marty Neumeier again, on the changing landscape confronting designers, and how designers can adapt. How is technology changing the profession, for better or for worse? What do designers need to do to stay relevant? They have to be able to do things that machines just won’t be able to do at their core, the human part of it.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Nir Eyal goes into the pros (and a few cons) of how habits are developed and how you can get people to repeatedly come back for a product experience that (hopefully) benefits them in the long run and isn’t detrimental. He also has a follow-up, Indistractable, that swings the pendulum back the other way and talks about breaking bad habits.

The Design of Everyday Things

Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is at the core of this book. So many everyday objects actually had a lot of thinking that went into them to create something useful, beautiful, practical, and that you’d never tire of using. Great designers always say if you don’t notice the design, you’ve done something right. 

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People

I think it’s good for all designers to understand and remember, at the core, we’re designing for people. If you agree that art is personal and design is for others – we need reminders of how to access that mindset and translate into layouts and interactions.

Thinking with Type

If you haven’t read a typography book recently, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Type is a complicated field, and designers sometimes can look for shortcuts like, “Which type combinations do I typically use to be effective?” Then there’s the type du jour … what’s fashionable right now. Thinking With Type upends and reframes how to think about typography in new and practical ways.

Universal Principles of Design

Subtitled “100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design,” this is a perfect quick hit delivery of design principles, and a nice reference guide for the shelf whenever you need explanation or clarification. You don’t need to read from the front to the back to get the whole thing, you can drop in and just grab a few tasty morsels.

Draplin Design Co.: Pretty Much Everything

Every few years somebody has a real impact on the field, capturing a look that influences the world (and prompts a ton of designers to rip off their style). Aaron Draplin is one of those designers, and his book encourages designers to never stop looking around. There are always going to be new people reinterpreting old styles with their own. It’s a living, breathing field, and you can’t afford to be static.

Start with Why

Author and TED Talk legend Simon Sinek makes such a strong point about how most companies sell their products based on features, missing what really makes a strong sell is the purpose: the why. If you can connect to people’s belief systems, that is where you’ll find the most resonance. Designers should understand that ultimately, persuasion is not a bad word. It’s what we’re trying to do every day. And we need to be better at connecting people to our products and services via design.

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