10 books that will make you a better designer

You can learn good design through these books. Most of which is avoiding bad design.

  • Like chess, Formula 1, and making ravioli... design has rules.
  • The rules are flexible. But the main point of these rules is to avoid bad design.
  • The best part? It's achievable.

Design is all around us in a myriad of forms. From the screen interfaces on your phones and devices to the handles on your shower faucets. We often know instinctively what constitutes great design, there's an almost ephemeral quality to it. Great design offers comfort, ease of use and a feeling of being in the know and in control.

Bad design on the other hand hits us like an ill-shaped rock – hard to navigate websites, Rube Goldberg machines and a general sense of annoyance and confusion. Design is both a science and an art and everybody is affected by it in some way. Whether you're a designer or just appreciate design and want to know more, here are the 10 best books on design.

The Design of Everyday Things

In a clear and concise matter, Don Norman writes about the flaws that plague the design of everyday objects, which makes our lives more trouble than they need to be, more inconvenient and sometimes downright dangerous. This was a book written in the late 1980s, but is still relevant today, as it has been updated a few times.

The book isn't just an exposé of horrid design, but also a tale of how designers in all industries can become better apt to customers' and end-users' needs. It's a must read for any type of designer, as Norman goes into great detail about design methodologies, ideals and psychology. He has many thoughts about how if you can't figure something out, it's not always your fault but often the designer's. His philosophy of design is proper communication and usability, Norman states:

"Eliminate the term human error. Instead talk about communication and interaction. When people collaborate with one another the word error is never used to characterize another person's utterance."

About Face: The Essentials of Interaction

Let's face it, the majority of design today is within the digital field: software design, websites, applications and other mediums of online & digital expression. Alan Cooper & Co.'s About Face is the premier book for interaction design. It covers project processes, goal directed design and everything you could ever need to know about user feedback, controls and comprehensive overview of interaction.

The book is sprawling and deep dives into just about any common UI widget in existence. It's considered a pillar of learning material for UI/UX designers. While some may get turned off by its length and pedantic explanations, it also serves as an excellent reference book for UX designers.

A Designer's Art 

Paul Rand's book was published in 1985 and was one of the first of its kind. The renowned graphic designer wanted to create a book that would explain the art of a growing discipline, rather than just show it visually. The book is packed with personal views on design, peppered with his expansive portfolio and also cites a number of renowned academics.

Rand was another designer who felt that communication is absolutely key when it comes to design. He states:

"Graphic design which evokes the symmetria of Vitruvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is a good gestalt, generated by intuition or by computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates is not good design if it does not communicate."

Beauty and symmetrical supremacy doesn't mean a whole lot if it can't communicate its intended message. For students of design, teachers and professionals, this is a book that is great for explaining and expressing the creative communication of ideals.

A Product Guide to UX Design

Business and design often coalesce together in an alliance of production. A professional designer is going to be required to interact with other aspects of running a business. Ensuring that a user interaction is running smoothly and the design assets are glowing in perfect fidelity and union with the product are all well and good and the meat of a UX designer's job; but working this into an overall business perspective is also an important skill to have.

This book by Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler covers a breadth of topics for those who might have minimal experience in UX design, but are interested in applying their newfound skills in a business setting.

Elements of User Experience

Jesse James Garrett exposes in a very clear way the essence of user experience for the web. He breaks down the ux for the web into five different planes going deep into the vocabulary and strategy for designing better experiences for our digital world.

He sets out some simple rules for consistency and great design:


"Presenting a style on your Web site that's inconsistent with your style in other media doesn't just affect the audience's impression of that product; it affects their impression of your company as a whole. People respond positively to companies with clearly defined identities. Inconsistent visual styles undermine the clarity of your corporate image and leave the audience with the impression that this is a company that hasn't quite figured out who it is."

Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition

Kimberly Elam's Geometry of Design brings out the mathematical guns in analyzing and postulating about the inherent symmetrical nature of great design. She explores the relationships between visual representations and their foundations in geometry. It's a great book that focuses on the golden ratio and root rectangles.

Elam utilizes overlays and grids in order to identify designs in different works of design and art. She looks at the underlying geometric structures in architecture, compositions and even furniture. The author has a great ability to distill these high level math concepts and distill them in an understandable and relatable way with insight into the design process.

Universal Principles of Design 

This landmark book is the ultimate reference and cross-disciplinary design book. With richly illustrated and fantastic design elements, this book clearly displays a wide range of visual and design concepts. From anthropomorphic form to the Golden ratio, these over 100 design concepts are well-defined and thought out for readers to expand their principal knowledge.

It's a great book for skimming and also using a reference. There's also a few mind-benders in there as well, for example:

"The 80/20 rule asserts that approximately 80 percent of the effects generated by any large system are caused by 20 percent of the variables in that system."

Apply this same concept to an app and you'll find that this is also true. These principles are a great starting off point to delve deeper into the fundamentals of design in all types of mediums.

Don’t make me Think! 

Written and first published in 2000, Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think has served as a bible for a countless number of web designers and businesspeople. With an updated version for mobile usability, Krug presents his ideas in an understandable way for web designers to learn more about navigation and information design.

It's an excellent introduction to creating websites with some just plain common sense advice. As the title states, a website should be first and foremost functional and something people barely need to think about when using it.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

This classic book on statistics, graphs, charts and tables puts together both theory and practice in the visualization of data graphics. The text has some 250 plus of some the best and worst graphics for review. The book takes into account a number of highly sophisticated graphical design aspects, including:

  • High resolution displays
  • Editing graphics
  • Data-ink ratio
  • Time Series
  • Relational graphics
  • Data maps
  • Design variations versus data variations
  • & more!

Many people don't understand the importance of graphical competence as it requires a number of skills, both statistical and even artistic. Edward R. Tufte does a great job pointing out that while graphical representation is usually lacking in media publications, journals and general reading materials – graphical representation and comprehensive is a necessary in many fields for experts.

The One Device: the Secret History of the iPhone

While this book doesn't necessarily tout the fundamentals of design, it's an exciting historical view of what some people consider to be one of the greatest designed devices within the past few decades. There is no doubt that the iPhone has revolutionized the world, smartphone industry and changed our modern way of life. A mastery of design and functionality, the iPhone is the holy grail of devices.

Packed within this slab of computational glass is a story that needed to be told. Brian Merchant's book does just that. The history of the phone, electronics, early start of the secretive project within the Apple headquarters – all of this tells a tale of an exceptionally well-designed product.

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