I’ve read a lot of design books over the years but, surprisingly, the books that have nothing to do with design are the ones that have helped me grow the most as a designer. While design-specific texts provide direct information and insight on familiar topics, reading books outside of the field has given me the surprising insights that have helped me excel as a UX professional.
So if you’re seeking powerful outside inspiration and insight to push you up a level, these seven books are a fantastic place to start.
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
When we sit down to deeply understand a UX design problem, the most crucial place to start is with why a problem exists, who is experiencing it, and where it occurs. But how often do we apply the same principle of starting with why to our own lives?
Early in my career, the majority of my work was creating brochure sites. Day in and day out, I did tedious work that technically made me a “designer” — which is what I wanted — but I didn’t understand why I felt so unhappy. What I failed to realize at the time was that, although all design work is useful, not all design work is fulfilling. When you are out of alignment with why you do what you do, it’s nearly impossible to feel joy in your work.
Sinek’s book pushes us to identify your why — the ultimate driving force behind what you do. Deeper than just a passion, your why runs through every aspect of your life, from your work to your relationships, to your beliefs, and practices.
As a UX designer, discovering that my why is my desire to empower people to achieve whatever goals they set their minds to. This realisation created significant shifts in both my life and career. Through the insights into my why, my client interviews deepened to a new level; my questions became more nuanced and elicited more impactful insights from users. When I connected my why to prototyping, I was able to ship products faster, learn more quickly, make better iterations, and collaborate with other designers in ways I never could have imagined.
Rising Strong, by Brené Brown
What makes a design truly great? Ask a thousand designers, and they’ll give you a thousand different answers. Some will say the key is in the technical skill of the designer. Others will swear it’s a pixel-perfect layout or well-honed interface. And for still others, it’s the flawless use of white space, eye-catching animations, or the designer’s carefully crafted methodology.
And, technically, they’d all be right. Great design is brought to life by millions of tiny choices and the expert use of various tools — absolutely. But it wasn’t until I read Rising Strong by vulnerability researcher Brené Brown that I understood how big a role vulnerability plays in creating truly meaningful design.
If there’s one habit that separates the best UX designers from the mediocre, it’s their ability to empathize. Empathy is at the core of everything we do — it gives us the foundation to connect with our users, collaborate with peers, and create work that solves problems in a meaningful way.
To truly empathize, we need to be willing to do something that society teaches us to fear — be vulnerable. We must put ourselves and our best work out there to be criticized, setting aside our ego with the greater intention of creating a solution that actually matters. This takes an incredible amount of authentic connection, empathy, and selfless, active listening. In a book that is packed with insights, Brené shows us how by embracing vulnerability, we become capable of connecting with our users on a deeper level than ever before.
The One Thing, by Gary W. Keller
Let’s be honest: Building a product is chaotic. As designers, we’re constantly darting between ideating product iterations, redesigning user flows, and polishing final layouts. Multitasking is an inherent part of the gig, and we get used to jumping around to the different parts of a project and engaging our minds in multiple things at once.
The problem with this? Studies have shown that the more tasks you switch between, the lower your productivity. So as a designers who basically has no choice but to multitask, how do we know what to do first?
In The One Thing, Gary W. Keller provides a simple framework to always ensure you do the right thing at the right time, no matter the scenario. His book points out the shockingly simple principles behind productivity, eliminating the excuses that come up when we’re constantly scattered between multiple tasks.
Keller’s work has helped me find focus and single-pointed productivity within the creative chaos that surrounds most UX projects. I’ve learned to embrace the complex, dynamic design process, while directing my attention to “the one thing” at a time that will move my project forward in that moment in the most impactful way.
To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink
“How should I charge?” is a question nearly every designer struggles with. And, to be honest, in my 12 years as a designer, the only answer I’ve been able to come up with is, “As much as you can.”
That was until I read To Sell Is Human. According to Daniel Pink, we creatives often have such a hard time placing monetary value on our work because of how we perceive the idea and act of sales.
Traditionally, sales has had a bad rep. It conjures up images of seedy used car salesman type going door to door, hawking wares that nobody wants or needs. But Daniel Pink presents his research-backed argument that whether we think we’re a salesperson or not, we spend nearly 40 percent of every day trying to persuade, charm, and influence others to achieve our goals. Think about that — we spend nearly half of our days selling!
Through To Sell Is Human, Pink gives us a new set of skills — from attunement (understanding the intentions of others so that you can help them achieve their goals) to clarity (helping others see their problems clearly so you can present yourself as the solution) — so that we can communicate our value as designers, be more persuasive in our design decisions, and ultimately create work that inspires others to action.
Grit by Angela Duckworth
It doesn’t matter how many successful projects we’ve worked on or awards we’ve won — there will always be times when we feel like an imposter. Self-doubt finds a way to creep in at the most inopportune moments, casting a shadow over even the most important opportunities and projects of our career.
Maybe you suddenly find yourself doubting your prototyping skills, or are frustrated that you haven’t fully mastered typography. Maybe you’re constantly trying to hide your self-perceived weakness in animation, or silently belittling your lack of information hierarchy skills.
Imposter syndrome is a real and observed phenomena that affects creatives at every level of their career. But in Grit, Angela Duckworth says that “effort is twice as valuable as talent,” suggesting that it’s not genius but passion and perseverance that make up the ingredients for long-term success.
Grit is an insightful and actionable book that teaches you how to see the “natural talent” bias as a pure illusion and reach new creative heights through sheer grit and perseverance. It’s taught me that there’s no weak spot in my skill set that I can’t overcome, as long as I’m committed to the effort of structured practice.
The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman
I have a confession to make: I used to suck at typography. No matter how many books I read or hours I practiced, I just couldn’t seem to grasp the concepts. I used to stare at well-designed sites and wonder how these designers seemed to effortlessly pair type that elicited real emotions in me.
No matter how good a UX designer you believe yourself to be, no one is perfect. Whether you exhibit bias in your user research or haven’t quite fully grasped color theory, there will always be weaker areas in your skill set that could use improvement.
After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, I had resigned myself to the fact that it was going to take me at least 10,000 hours to master each of my weaknesses. But after The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman, I learned that the 10,000 hour rule really only applies to achieving expertise. To reach an above-average level, all one needs to do is apply a structured approach to learning, and engage in deliberate practice for 20 hours.
Twenty hours! I (and you) can commit to that — no problem. Thanks to the insights from this fascinating book, I can get up to speed quickly enough to execute on any UX skill that I feel I am lacking in within 20 hours or less.
The Bible by 40 authors, over a 1500 year period
Now before you groan or roll your eyes, give me a moment to explain. I am not religious, nor have I even read the Bible in its entirety. The reason the Bible is on this list is because to me it represents the essence of iteration.
As Neville Brody famously said, “Digital design is like a painting, but the paint never dries.” Great design requires constant refinement and reworking — and that’s exactly what the Bible has done.
From the Bible’s first editions, which were written out by hand, to current apps like NeuBible bringing the words to our fingertips, the sheer number and variety of editions of this ancient text is truly astonishing. Each edition has unique typography and its own cover and has been translated into over 554 languages. Although the content itself rarely changes, it’s a book that’s been iterated on hundreds of thousands of times. And the goal each time? To place a new spin on a book whose contents must remain the same.
The Bible has taught me more about iteration than any product sprint ever could. While constant iteration can be a tedious process, it requires an incredible depth of creativity to continuously improve on and adapt something without changing the core of what it is.
The Bible is a great example of embracing strong constraints, while finding new ways to bring a fresh experience that’s both familiar and different at the same time.
Words and pixels
I’ll never stop reading books about design — they’re an excellent resource for all of us, self-taught or otherwise. But this list is a good reminder that sometimes it’s just as important to put away the pixels, look up from the listicles, and see what else the world has to offer. Once you start looking, you’ll find design lessons everywhere.