Ask DN: Best books to hone your design skills?

8 years ago from , Non

A couple weeks ago, I tweeted at Andrew Wilkinson that I needed help.

I was $0.47 short of free shipping on a pile of books from Amazon, so I asked him to tell me what book to get. Promptly, he responded and told me to get Rework by Jason Fried & David Hansson. I'm happy to say that it finally came in yesterday! (I've already read half of it; it's great.)

My question for DN is, what books do you attribute a great volume of your learning and skill to?

Share titles and authors (or photos of the covers?), but try to check any prior comments for whatever titles you suggest so we don't get too many duplicates! If someone beats you to it and you like the book, give it a thumbs up! Also, books don't necessarily have to be design focused.

My personal list:

  1. Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual by Timothy Samara
  2. The One Thing by Gary Keller
  3. Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler
  4. Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton
  5. Grids and Page Layouts by Amy Graver & Bill Jura


  • Elizabeth LinElizabeth Lin, 8 years ago

    Here are a few of my favorites!

    13 points
    • Emir BukvaEmir Bukva, 8 years ago

      That’s a lovely variety of angles: the list is a cross-section of management, color theory, semiotics and abstraction, craft & detail in type, and usability. None of those fundamentals are going to change with the next wave of tools and technologies. +1

      4 points
    • Sam Pierce LollaSam Pierce Lolla, 8 years ago

      Understanding Comics is one of those books that reveals something elegant and powerful about product design... without mentioning computers, the web, UI, or any of the "stuff" we think we need to do our jobs. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander is another.

      3 points
  • Arian BehzadiArian Behzadi, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro is really wonderful.

    Also anything in Frank Chimero's Library.

    10 points
  • Jon MyersJon Myers, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    These are all excellent books.

    You should master and know the basics of visual design from color to typography to grids to layouts and so on.

    And, assuming you are talking about these elements of design to become a better designer, fair enough - but allow me to throw a curve ball in the mix here.

    Truth be told, these are simply one facet of design. Albeit, a big fat massive facet, yes, you need to know these things, but I would not stop there.

    Design is also how you think.

    How you’re thinking when you’re behind the keyboard and mouse and interpreting the situation, and executing those keystrokes and mouse clicks.

    I see very few books (some, but surprisingly, not many) being mentioned beyond the multiple facets of visual design, which will make you a more potent designer.

    Most of us are designers not artists, and a lot of our works exists in a commercial context or in contexts where humans are relying on our works to support a never-ending range of activities and goals.

    More often than not we support outcomes.

    Thus, it pays to really understand business and people.

    In fact, I would say as a designer you must absolutely have to have this part of your brain activated.

    Assuming if you do any form of client work or as an employee, you will need to constantly defend your work. You better have the business reasoning lined up, better be able to make a solid case for your decisions - and the psychology part (understanding people) is critical for building consensus in the design process.

    Otherwise, you will often get steamrolled.

    You should be forming a mental model, a lens on the world to view your designs through.


    Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant

    If you were only going to spend time really hammering one concept into your brain, this is a powerful business concept to have in your thinking and questioning.

    At the core of this book is one very simple concept - differentiation.

    The second key concept of the book is simple as well - defensibility.

    This book has a solid framework and analysis of businesses who have “created blue oceans” - new markets and what makes them different.

    Like poker, easy to grasp the basics, takes a lifetime to master.

    The Lean Startup

    Some of the concepts feel dated these days, especially with regards to what type of MVP (minimum viable product) will be able to gather the right signals to evaluate - product/ market fit (will people pay money for this product?) - however, it is still a solid read and good for foundational business thinking.


    A good starting point in my opinion to gather some views on people, motivations and psychology are these books:

    Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

    Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships


    The work of the godfather of persuasion research is Robert Cialdini who wrote the book Influence is a designer’s secret weapon.

    He breaks down what he calls the 6 laws of influence, many of which we use today as designers, i.e., Social Proof: our default little avatars with customer quotes. Reciprocity: give me your email address and you will get this free guide. Authority: this is what very important people are saying about our product. Likeability: think of the tone of Slack’s friendly copy. Scarcity: we only have 6 spots left, so you best act now. Commitment: you’ve already signed up for our free trial, click here to upgrade your plan and tell your friends. Don’t stop, you must be consistent. etc., etc.,

    Again, understanding these human tendencies makes you a more potent designer. It might impact the hierarchy of your page layouts, it can impact lots of things if you are trying to move a user to a goal.

    The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion

    This book came to me out of left field and it’s fascinating. It’s an exploration of imagery and the concept of “glamour” in history in photos from old vacation brochures to websites selling condos in high-rises in New York City.

    With the current web renaissance in big photography, this book really helped me sharpen my thinking and give me a more solid framework when writing creative briefs for photographers for sites I am working on.

    I’d also say read a lot about very extreme people.

    The Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth biography is hands down one of my favorite reads.

    I wouldn’t even stop here.

    The more you absorb from seemingly unrelated disciplines from the science of networks to the biological processes of our brain’s visual system, the more you are able to connect the dots from things, which are seemingly unrelated, the sharper your thinking, execution and impact becomes as a designer.

    Finally, on this point.

    If you have no framework for understanding the business context your designs live in - and you have no process for understanding the users your designs serve, what are you really doing?

    Sure, you might have a team hand you a brief with these details, but it helps to understand how they got them - and why they are - what they say.

    You want to know why.

    3 points
  • Anton Repponen, 8 years ago

    Reading about history of design sometimes is much more inspiring than about current trends, standards or "how-to's".

    The one I enjoyed the most was "Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750" by Adrian Forty. Talks about how design was born and why. Super interesting.

    3 points
  • Manlo NgaiManlo Ngai, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    Universal Principles of Design is good one to start, and I also recommend 2 books to sell your design.

    1. To Sell is Human by Daniel H Pink

    2. Instant Influence by Robert Cialdini

    Recently I switched to listen to audiobook while driving, thats seems more effective to absorb due to my busy schedule.

    Here are couple other good books:

    1. The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman

    2. Smartcuts - Shane Snow

    3. Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims

    3 points
  • Matt WalkerMatt Walker, 8 years ago
    • The Strategic Designer: Tools for managing the design process - Holston
    • Smashing: UX Design - Allen Chudley
    • Don't Make Me Think! - Krug

    Books I intend to read:

    • Just Enough Research - Erika Hall
    • Design is a job - Mike Monteiro
    • The Architecture of Happiness - Alain de Botton
    • The Design of Everyday Things - Don Norman
    • Design as Art - Bruno Munari
    • Thoughts on Design - Paul Rand
    • Some others that were listed here...
    3 points
  • Oz LozanoOz Lozano, 8 years ago

    The War of Art

    3 points
  • Chantal JandardChantal Jandard, 8 years ago

    Thoughts on Design by Paul Rand is a quick read, but solid. I'd recommend it.

    3 points
  • Ben MJTBen MJT, 8 years ago

    The Eyes of the Skin

    2 points
  • Zulficar Ali Muhamed, 8 years ago

    Amazing suggestions of books expected in this thread. I cannot point any particular book to be the best, because there are a ton of them out there.

    Here are few, which I can quickly recall

    100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design

    The Design of Everyday Things

    Creative Confidence

    Also I am trying to gather a list of the best books over at Pixel Hours

    2 points
  • Razvan HRazvan H, 8 years ago

    I started compiling a list of books that I really liked here: http://greatdesignbooks.com/

    2 points
  • No Name, 8 years ago

    Here is also a picture of the books that I listed!

    2 points
  • Taylor Ho, 8 years ago

    This may seem like a stretch as far as its relevance to design, but The Google Resume by Gayle Laakmann McDowell was a great read. I would go as far as saying that I attribute it to helping me land my first job at a design/interactive agency, even though as a developer.

    1 point
  • Bryce HowitsonBryce Howitson, 8 years ago

    I've sort of moved away from "design" books as the theory doesn't seem to have changed much regardless of the medium. However its increasingly the job of the designer to assess or define product readiness, market, customers, business goals, etc so I've been focusing more on business and psychology books like:

    1. Crossing the Chasm
    2. Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit Forming Products
    3. Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products
    1 point
  • Emir BukvaEmir Bukva, 8 years ago

    Thankfully, there are more and more books and other resources on the topics of business of design, branding, usability, and product management. I’m compelled to recommend fundamentals that might be getting lost in the shuffle:

    Design Basics by Lauer & Pentak. Having used a number of editions, I still like the fifth edition the best.

    It covers the fundamentals of two-dimensional design that art & design education builds upon. I think of it as low-level as studying assembly or computer architecture is to an engineer. For folks without design edu. background, this stuff tends to be harder to pick up on the job.

    1 point
  • Gen Uine, 8 years ago

    Language of Vision by Gyorgy Kepes http://www.amazon.com/Language-Vision-Gyorgy-Kepes/dp/1258454068

    1 point
  • Gen Uine, 8 years ago

    Paul Rand was a big fan of Rudolf Arnheim.

    Recommend referring to his lists as well: http://www.paul-rand.com/foundation/thoughts_suggestedReading/#sociology

    1 point