You won’t see classics like Don’t Make Me Think, The Art of Stealing, or The Design of Everyday Things here.
In fact, if you see all the books recommended in this article on someone’s bookshelf in the same row, you can assuredly diagnose the person with some kind of personality disorder and get the hell out.
On second thought, show me anyone’s bookshelf (or Kindle library, for that matter) that doesn’t give off that impression—except for Britannica collectors.
Not all great books for designers are in the “Design” section of Amazon. I hope you like the list, and feel free to add your personal favorites in the comments.
Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey by Alison Gernsheim
The year is 1912, England. A woman comes to a party. It’s summer, and something in her outfit is completely out of season. She’s wearing two bands of a fur muff around her hands. Even an English summer hardly calls for a muff. What do people call her? Lady Warwick, a sensation.
One hundred years later, we’d call her an influencer. And, she’d probably post her outfit on Instagram. Had she 1 million followers, a new trend would be born.
While sometimes utterly boring, this book gives a brilliant perspective on how things work in the design and fashion industries—how trends are created and forgotten, how people are eager to follow them or use them to their advantage. Just read between the lines, and you’ll see it all.
Take hair extensions, for example. In the late 19th century, they were all the rage in Europe. Enterprising merchants were cutting hair from prisoners—and, according to rumors, hospital corpses—for high-class ladies to wear. Later, entire countries jumped on the bandwagon. France alone manufactured almost 130 tons of false hair in 1875.
What’s the 19th century analogy for your Instagram feed? A troupe of touring Russian ballerinas.
What about the latest Apple design rollout? Queen Victoria’s coronation. Just as everyone became obsessed with flat design after the former, the latter solidified the era of crinoline.
This book is hard to decrypt sometimes, and I guarantee that by the end of it, you’ll learn at least 100 new words. Half of them will be names for hat accessories. Like I said, this book can be boring. But, then again, so can the Constitution.
Don’t stop at the Victorian age, though. All historic fashion pieces are full of unique atmosphere yet unfailingly demonstrate how form follows function—or a certain trendy someone.
The Art of Assassin’s Creed III by Andy McVittie
There’s a special breed of professionals called concept artists. These people are burdened with one task: to create whole new worlds, often from scratch. Think of your favorite Sci-Fi movie and visualize the most distinguished place in it. There’s a good chance that it all started as a pencil drawing in someone’s sketchbook.
Every major game or fantasy movie has an accompanying concept art book. These books include storyboards, character designs, and a behind-the-scenes look at how the world was created. This means you see not only what ended up in the game or movie, but, more importantly, what didn’t.
This is a great opportunity to once again realize that in order to make one perfect sketch, you often have to come up with about nine other perfect sketches. At the same time, of course, you get to enjoy the stunning art with commentaries by these professionals doing their job at the highest level of mastery.
I could pick any book for this section, but I’ve picked one I own myself. I have enjoyed looking over it many times. The irony? I haven’t even played the game.
Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki
Every design trend has an underlying ideology behind it. If you look at modern graphic design, you’ll see it’s hugely affected by minimalism. All the recent Google and Apple products reveal a channeled effort to use as few graphic tools as possible—less color, fewer shapes, simpler typography, etc.
Of course, these efforts are easy to reproduce; both companies have precise instructions on how to do so (Google’s Material Design, Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines).
However, you can always take it one step further. Minimalism is something that existed long before the first Apple computer or Android phone. If these companies decide to change tack, minimalism will stay. It will stay in design because in many industries, it’s not a choice but rather a necessity—for example, cars, spaceships, and customer electronics.
In order to understand minimalism, applying design guidelines may be not enough. As a method actor preparing for a role, you should involve as many senses as you can in order to understand the concept.
How about starting with decluttering your desk? This book, “Goodbye, Things” contains more than philosophical ramblings. It’s a story of how one simple idea can transform everything that surrounds a person in the present and future. If you would like to deeply understand minimalism, you have to try it, not copy it.
At the risk of being contradictory, here’s my suggested list of 12 more books on minimalism. Pick one; it’s more important to implement than to read.
Whether subtle or obvious, behind every trend lies a supporting ideology. Find it, explore it, and you’ll expand your creative capabilities beyond measure.
Cross-Cultural Analysis by Michael Minkov
There are often times, especially in this era of globalization, when you and your clients are not from the same country. Of course, the internet irons out many cultural differences but not all of them. It’s especially important in design when clients want visuals to convey a certain mood or message for a specific target audience.
One way to go about it is to create designs that are culturally neutral. However, there’s a risk that you will end up adding some cultural aspects of your own country to your designs without even realizing it.
If you want to better understand the culture of another country, this book and its underlying cultural dimensions theory may help you. The theory focuses on six dimensions:
- Power distance index
- Individualism vs. collectivism
- Uncertainty avoidance
- Masculinity vs. femininity
- Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation
- Indulgence vs. restraint
With this framework, you can compare the cultures of any two countries by examining the values of its members.
Rita: I sometimes find fascinating cultural differences between countries and the way they affect designs. When I was working on my diploma in Belgium, I was using Geert Hofstede’s cultural framework to compare Belgian and Russian web design approaches. I found out Belgian websites, especially the government ones, use a lot more photos from festivals and non-benefit events, while Russian websites gravitate more towards photos of officials.
You can use the tool on the dedicated website to quickly compare any two countries on all six dimensions. This book offers a deeper approach if you need to take it one step further.
Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini
The more you learn about negotiations, the better. I know it’s kind of cynical to say, but there’s always a grain of manipulation in every interaction we’re having, be it with our client, our colleague, or our boss.
There are many books on negotiations by everyone from ex-FBI agents to former advisors of kings. I personally have read many of them. Even though the methodologies are different, the overall message is the same—pay attention to what is happening.
Cialdini’s Influence is often recommended to prevent marketers from getting inside your head, but its main principle is useful for everyone: it’s about spotting the psychological mechanisms in every interaction you’re having. It also may help you with messages your design has both literally and figuratively.
More to read:
- 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
- Start with No by Jim Camp
- Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton
I have often heard people describe Richard Feynman as one of the creators of the atomic bomb, and I have to say, this is huge understatement of what he achieved in his life. He was a brilliant scientist, a Nobel Prize winner, a hilariously entertaining author—the list goes on.
This book is not only an absolute joy to read but is very educational.
Kirill, Icons8 designer:
This book is for everyone. It teaches you how not to become stale in what you do, and always stay curious, looking for more. It also teaches you to draw inspiration from surrounding sciences and professions.
It’s paramount in the designer’s work to not grow stale. No wonder you see so many articles on creative block online. I’d insert a recommendation to read this book into every one of them.
And, no worries—it’s not a heavy tome on instructions or the laws of physics. It’s a safe bet this book will put a smile on your face more than once. You may even laugh out loud sometimes. Please, don’t restrain yourself.
Burn Your Portfolio by Michael Janda
This is the most “design” book on the list. However, it will not teach you how to draw, mix colors, or conduct usability surveys. It teaches you about the work of a designer itself.
If you’re just starting in the design field, this is your study guide. Almost any potential situation in your professional life will be described in its pages. If you’re an experienced designer, you’ll enjoy the book more as a collection of memories you can closely relate to. The simple and fun narration will make the read enjoyable in both cases.
The author of the book is an experienced design professional who “saw it all” and decided to wrap his experience in the form of a manual/memoir. It also contains great advice on how to conduct business and how to grow as a designer through the years. If you’re tired of vague and unrealistic articles such as “10 things I wish I knew when I started my design career,” this precise and ready-to-use guide into the field is for you.
About the author: Andrew started at Icons8 as a usability specialist, conducting interviews and usability surveys. He desperately wanted to share his findings with our professional community and started writing insightful and funny (sometimes both) stories for our blog.
Title image: Ouch! Icons8 illustration project