It took years to write How Design Makes The World (HDMW). I studied more than 100+ books, films and podcasts. Here are my reviews to help you keep learning.
– Top pick for all readers
– Top pick for designers, UX pros or students
Jump to: books for pros or films / podcasts.
Books for a general audience:
Designing for People, Dreyfuss. Part design advice, part memoir, this classic book by luminary designer Henry Dreyfuss has aged well. If you know of Dieter Rams, Dreyfuss was the Rams of the 1950s/60s (and likely influenced Rams given their ages). He writes well enough for this to be compelling for anyone curious about how things they use (vacuum cleaners, telephones) were designed in their early incarnations, and what methods the best designers used before the digital age. Dreyfus pioneered combining user research into his design strategy and that philosophy comes through. Includes many gorgeous photos of his work.
How To See, George Nelson . Intended to invite everyone to look at the world more like designers do. The “smile” on the cover is a touch of humor that’s so rare among design books. This was an inspiration for HDMW for it’s welcoming approach to asking better questions and seeing the world more clearly. It’s wide-format and picture heavy so get the print edition. Will change how you look at the streets you walk on and the buildings you work and live in. A quick and visual read.
Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, Alice Rawsthorn . This is the best and most well written history of modern design I’ve found and I highly recommend it for designers. Written for a wide audience, but most compelling for design fans or folks curious about history, art or design. If the only design movement you can name drop is Bauhaus, this will blow your mind. If you work as a designer you are part of a long tradition that will inspire you if you learn more about it.
Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, and Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, Sara Wachter-Boettcher. Bias and racism are often treated as specialized subjects despite how central they should be to design education. These three books are well written but not easy reading in one sense: it’s painful, however necessary, to dig in on the terrible impact overlooked biases have had for a long time. But if we want a better designed future we have to open our eyes. Often these subjects are discussed on the periphery as if they are they’re own sub-genre but that is part of the problem. In fact the first version of this review list left these out, despite having read all of them, at least in part (explaining this group review), and referencing two of them in How Design Makes The World itself.
Technically Wrong is the broadest in its approach to bias, but focuses on software and modern technology. Algorithms of Oppression focuses on the flaws of search engines, and the corporations that run them, as well as other knowledge systems (libraries, public records and more). Invisible Women centers on how data within organizations leads to decisions that work against women (r.g car crash test dummies are designed based on men, so women have more car accident injuries). All are well researched, filled with memorable examples and powerful stories. Also see 10 good design reads that aren’t written by white men.
Are We Human: Notes on An Archeology of Design, by Beatriz Colomina & Mark Wigley . Wow. This little yellow book goes BIG, using a “dig deep” metaphor to question if design throughout history has been more destructive than positive. Unlike many design books, many different cultures and regions of the world are referenced (a reminder that anthropology has a wider lens than design often does). Original, surprising and compelling. Powerfully makes the argument that good design is central to our evolutionary survival with countless historical examples. The design of the paperback is beautiful as a designed object itself, which explains why there is no digital edition.
Why Design? Anna Slafer & Kevin Cahill. Written for children but is surprisingly one of the best books on design I’ve ever found. In just the first chapters it strikes at the roots of why design is both fun and hard. Recommended for those considering design as a profession, especially if you want interactivity. It’s largely a collection of exercises and checklists focused on designing buildings, but the questions and topics apply universally. A worthy little book. The large format is for the many exercises and pull-out sheets.
Design is Storytelling, Ellen Lupton. Perhaps the most well illustrated design book I’ve seen that is still easy to read (many lose the plot and become graphic design art projects with hard to read type). A beautiful introduction to various methods and techniques that designers and user researchers use. It primarily explores how stories play a key role in what good designers do, but goes beyond to introduce other tasks and methods. I had a print edition (digital might not work as well) – the format and illustrations are first rate. Truly beautiful.
A Life’s Design, Chuck Harrison. Among the first black American design executives in the U.S. He worked on 100s of products for Sears, including innovations in products that have become standard today (plastic trash cans with easy grip handles). This book, part memoir, part design history, tells Harrison’s story of growing up in the racist south and the difficult path he took to become a design pioneer. (Read my twitter thread about him here). Also see the story about Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the Super Soaker.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson. I read this for context on writing a short book on a big subject. When designers complain they can’t teach design or it’s hard to talk about in short amounts of time, I think of books like this and wish they would read them or at least acknowledge they exist. A notable attempt at introducing what are PhD level concepts in a fashion that’s approachable by anyone.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson. Another great example for designers on how communication skills (in this case writing) allow complex subjects to be delivered in simple, compelling ways. The joke here is it’s not a short book – 500 pages. But the astounding thing is how strong a writer Bryson is, and it’s a lesson in how writing, like all communication, is a kind of design. It’s and undervalued skill among designers.
How Things Don’t Work, Papanek & Hennessey. A large-format visual collection of common objects the authors, both designers, find problematic (circa 1970s). Includes many of their own sketches and design alternatives. Their ambition is infectious and if you are someone who finds yourself redesigning everything around you in a DIY kind of way you’ll appreciate what they do. Part of the joy is Papanek’s cranky-but-wise uncle vibe. It’s out of print and no digital versions exist, but a fun read for Papanek fans and not hard to find.
To Engineer Is Human, Henry Petroski. Petroski led the wave of interest in design for an entire generation with this book, which was a staple in intro to engineering or engineering history classes in the 80s and 90s (where I first read it). This book is among his most famous. Each chapter is a case study in why an important building or engineered work (e.g. Tacoma Narrows bridge, on the cover) failed. It’s short and eye-opening, but leans more towards reporting on what when wrong (often about design choices) than about how to avoid these kinds of mistakes in the future.
CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur babies, and T-shaped People, Warren Berger. Originally titled Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Berger explores the design methods of various luminaries, like Bruce Mau, leading to many interesting observations on what we now call design thinking. It was surprisingly quotable (given the misleading title) and well written. It’s a better take on what Tim Brown tried to in bringing design to the business world in Change By Design.
Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, Tim Brown. An early argument (2009) for “design thinking”, as a way to approach projects and solve problems. For designers it has always been a shock there needs to be a special name for involving users early and prototyping, but the business audience this book was aimed it clearly needed it. However the book suffers from a heavy focus on IDEO, the author’s company, and it gets in the way more often than it should. The book has lost significance since it was released (2009), but is often still recommended largely as an echo of that earlier value.
Are your lights on? Gerald Weinberg . My favorite book on problem solving and creative thinking in a professional working world context. I referred to it for HDMW for it’s simplicity, cleverness and brevity. It’s a lovely gem of a book that has a fresh perspective on problem solving despite its age. Weinberg should be more well known: he delivers so much value without falling into the cliches workplace advice books often do. Also see his Secrets of Consulting (as most experts are really operating as consultants more often than they realize). Warning: he could have used some design love with his covers and interiors.
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud . This book is brilliant in how many things in accomplishes at the same time – another classic from it’s era (1990s). It is of course about comics, but readers who have no interest in comics or graphic novels will learn so much about communication, storytelling, forms of expression, keeping reader attention and more. And it’s fun! So rare.
Systemantics: The Systems Bible, John Gall . This is a strange and wonderful book. It’s a set of laws about systems theory, which is a key perspective in all good design. What’s surprising is the sense that Gall was yelling these laws out out loud (there is a lot of ALL CAPS) as he wrote this. Perhaps taking breaks to drink whiskey and howl at the moon. It’s short, true and memorable. Will put many project failures you’ve experienced into a new light.
The Peter Principle, Laurence J. Peter. I’d known the principle (“people rise to their level of incompetence”) but never read the book until now. It’s short and filled with other similarly surprising truths we often live in denial of “The skills required to get a job often have nothing to do with what is required to do the job itself.” It was a worthy example of writing concision that I thought of while writing HDMW.
Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky. To write about design for a general audience is to get people to pay attention to what they take for granted. Salt started a wave of deep non-fiction books about one narrow subject that claim to reveals larger truths. I read it years ago but returned to it to see how it worked. As I did I found myself thinking more about the superior Longitude, by Dava Sobel, which falls less victim to “telling more deep history simply because I’m the author and I’m interested in going this deep” trap (that is, of course, unless you really do want 500 pages about this, which if you do you’ll love it. It was more depth than I wanted). Sobel’s book is a better model for storytelling, concision and good design.
The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski. I read this while working on The Myths of Innovation, and it’s core message is how much design history there is in the most ordinary seeming things (how did forks get 4 times? how did the paper clip get that distinctive shape?). The lesson for designers is the meta-lesson that there are lessons everywhere, and that design might really be about how concepts are shaped over generations of work rather than the individual changes and choices designers make.
Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler. A grand critique of why American architecture is so indistinctive and repetitive. It’s a powerful and well written book, but doesn’t offer much hope about the power dynamic of developers and businesspeople that still has control over the aesthetics we all live with.
Welcome to Your World: How The Built Environment Shapes our Lives , Sarah Goldhagen. This is a fantastic read on how everything in our workplace and home (built environments) impacts us. Goldhagen is an excellent writer and brings countless insider facts and concepts into an easily readable blend of stories, observations and histories. If you are a designer or curious person who wants a fresh view on the architecture you experience, this is for you. More optimistic than Geography of Nowhere.
Ways of Seeing, John Berger. When I first read this 20 years ago it changed the way I looked at everything. And it has been a book I have recommended often. But reading it a second time I found it to be disappointing and strange the longer you read (and it’s a short book). Compared to other books on visual literacy (including Nelson’s How To See) he loses focus often and derails into politics and away from teaching visual literacy. It’s based on BBC TV show I’ve never seen.
How To Make Sense of Any Mess, Abby Covert . I can’t say enough good things about this book. Written so well and with such useful advice. Who doesn’t deal with mess? Who doesn’t wish they could learn easily from information designers and architects? This book was a model for HDMW in how the writing is so clear yet takes on big subjects without leaving anyone behind. Highly recommended, even if just as an example for what is possible for designers or other experts to do in how they teach.
Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman (2nd edition). This book did so much for early generations of designers and researchers. It has served as a “first book to give to managers” for so long even though it was never designed for that purpose. There were just few alternatives. One goal for HDMW was to solve this scenario by design. In rereading DOET it’s limitations were clear (even in it’s improved second edition). It goes very deep into expert level breakdowns of how memory and perception work, at the expense of coverage of critical issues like the challenges of designing within organizations in the real world, dark patterns, inclusive design, the tension between business / design / ethics / environment, and the power dynamics of who makes decisions, and those gaps was part of the aim of HDMW (which uses Norman doors to ask why they are still so popular?).
Don’t Make Me Think, Krug. Like DOET, this is a landmark book for a generation, worthy of it’s classic reputation. It’s simple, short and clear as an intro for usability testing for organizations without any professional user researchers. However like DOET, it has limitations as a first book for teaching managers why design is important or as a first book on design. It’s really a method book, teaching a simple way to do usability testing for websites and why they should be done, rather that a call to hire designers or empower them to be involved early in projects (or to give “UX teams of one” more resources). Some examples are dated from an earlier time on the web, although the core lessons are still sound. I do love the implicit focus on observation and learning by observing as this often gets neglected by “design as creativity” books and essays.
How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand . An amazing work in concept alone for taking the long view on what the design of a building really means over the years and decades it exists. The book is wisely a wide format to support the many central illustrations, often pairs of images of the same building divided by time. I can’t imagine the digital versions capture anything like the print edition. Also there’s a companion video series.
The Designer’s Eye, Brent C. Brolin. An interesting companion to How Buildings Learn in that it has a wide format of two images of the same building where one design element is changed. It teaches design concepts by allowing your eye to experience the difference and the commentary leads you along to learn various concepts of architectural aesthetics. A simple but effective premise. Far more effective than endless design history books where you get lost in names and definitions. This starts by showing you things and letting you brain naturally do some of the work just by looking.
The Architecture of Happiness, Allain De Botton. De Botton’s book The Art of Travel had a profound impact on me as a writer as he captured so many of the things I thought books should do for their readers. Unfortunately I was disappointed by this one despite him taking on a topic I love. I never quite found my footing as a reader here and I gave up on the book midway through. Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind and it deserves a second chance.
100 things I learned in Architecture school, Frederick. This series of books is curiously compelling. You know by the title alone that it’s going to be a quick, shallow survey. But that is part of appeal and the payoff. While the quality of the 100 things varies considerably, about 1/3rd seemed beneath the bar to me (yet 67 things I learned doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), but there are enough insights and insider concepts that I enjoyed it for the short time it took to read.
100 things I learned in Urban Planning School. Similiar to the above, but a higher rate of misses. But the format of simple drawings and short advice is compelling in a breezy way.
Design: A Beginner’s Guide. A mostly unknown digital only (iBooks) guidebook that explains basic concepts of visual design. It’s thoughtfully done, and highly visual, but focused primarily on aesthetics and graphic design (color theory, composition, etc.).
Books for designers / UX
Non Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams. Ironically if you pick this book up it means you’re going to design something, just without training, so the title is really shorthand for “how to design things even if you you’re new to graphic design” which applies to many UX design professionals. This classic is still popular because it’s so clear and simple. Focuses on practical examples (some are dated like print letterheads and business cards, but they’re still instructive). NDDB covers the fundamentals of making things look good, covering composition, color theory, layout, typography and more. Unlike many visual design books it’s practical and has little pretense. I’ve seen many intro to design books aimed at student designers that fail readers in ways this one does not.
Go: A Kidd’s guide to Graphic Design, by Chip Kidd . One my favorite first books on visual design. Like Why Design? it is intended for kids, but is also one of the best introductory books for adults. It’s fun, pretense free, and has so much positive energy that it blows away most books people recommend. I wish more books were this fun and designed to make the reader feel good instead of that maybe design isn’t for them. A more traditional choice is Graphic Design: The New Basics, by Ellen Lupton.
UX Team of One: a Survival Guide, Leah Buley. For the professional class of UX pros, it’s easy to forget that there are likely more people doing this kind of work as part of their job as a project manager or programmer. Buhey welcomes them here, teaching the ropes while always keeping in mind the meta challenge of just finding time to get any of this work done. Also see Just Enough Research by Erika Hall.
Microinteractions: Designing with Details, Dan Saffer. It’s so strange that of the zillions of UX type books so few teach you how to actually design a simple little thing that is understandable by other humans. It explains why so many excel at “running methods” but can’t really design a simple mobile app or a simple web page well. This book teaches you design in the small which is where everyone should start. Also see the classics The Elements of Friendly User Interface Design by Heckel, About Face by Alan Cooper, Jeff Johnsons GUI Bloopers, or Designing Web Navigation by Kalbach. All practical books that center on learning by example which is often the only real way.
How Designers Think, Brian Lawson . Perhaps the best written exploration of what goes on it a designers mind, and what should go on, that I’ve read. So much suffering and angst among designers can be resolved here. Lawson writes so well that any kind of designer can easily find strong footing in his thoughts (although he is writing for architects). Highly recommended.
Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, Dan Hill . Few design books recognize it is organizations and their power structures that define what design actually means for its customers and employees. Hill centers this memorable book on the notion that there is a dark matter in organizations that is powerful but most designers ignore. And to succeed they must quest to understand it and eventually influence it. First rate and should be more well known.
Design for the Real World, Papanek . Wow. The most stunning thing about this book is how well Papapnek writes. He’s provocative, helpful and at times funny. The second might be his ability to weave between giving practical advice to designers, rants about consumerism and capitalism, and procolomations for what the world of design should actually be about. I’ve read this several times and it has yet to disappoint or fail to inspire. Papanek pioneered the green movement for design long before it was popular and his name should be more widely known.
Tragic Design, Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier. An examination of the design of critical systems and how design choices can have life or death consequences. In many ways the advice offered applies well to just about any kind of design, but the devastating consequences of in the stories they explore will land hard on anyone who designs anything at all.
Set Phasers On Stun And Other True Tales of Design. Steven Casey. Effectively an earlier attempt to do what Tragic Design does. The major difference here is the focus is entirely on telling the powerful and memorable stories, with less emphasis on design advice or lessons. Even if these examples are older, it is astounding how devastating simple seeming design choices can be.
Form, Function & Design, Paul Jacques Grillo . I loved this book. Grillo was an architect and this is his magnum opus, an attempt to unify his knowledge of design across various disciplines, perspectives and domains. And he pulls it off. It’s more about design philosophy and how to approach thinking about design problems than immediately practical skills, but anyone interested in learning from a wider view of their craft will find this well written and at times funny book inspiring. Large format, print.
Thoughtless Acts? Observations on Intuitive Design, Jane Fulton Suri . The question in the title is meant to be a provocation. The book is primarily photos of ordinary people using objects in creative ways: chopsticks as a hairpin or an umbrella handle as a way to hold an extra bag. Is this design? If not what can we call it? It’s short and simple but does it’s job at making you observe people and their choices with a more curious mind. You may know these concepts, but do you feel them? That’s what this book is about to me.
The Vignelli Canon, Vignelli. A prolific designer across domains, Vignelli once wrote “If you can design one thing, you can design everything” and this book cataloging his work demonstrates this is true, at least for someone with his talents. He’s perhaps most famous in America for the NYC subway map design. It’s a short and mostly visual book of his work, with some philosophy and recollections from the man himself.
Design as Art, Bruno Manari. Manari is another brilliant creator who crossed different domains and excelled at them. But he is also in the class of designers who worked mostly as artists, making work where aesthetics and expression were the greatest consideration. The book itself feels more like an art book, focusing on drawings, photos and sketches and Manari’s philosophies about art. Like many design books it has a breezy feel that suggests it should be flipped through rather than read and I confess that’s mostly what I did.
The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future, Marjanne Van Helvert. What a lovely surprise. This print only book on design ethics is a collection of essays that takes a critical view to the assumptions designers, as a culture, have made. It’s largely a social and ethical critique of the very idea that design can be “responsible”. Includes insightful and brief rexaminations of legendard designers like Charles and Ray Eames, William Morris, Buckminster Fuller and others, as well as notable progressives from the past who had a wider view of what good design means.
Ruined By Design, Mike Monteiro. This short book is a wake up call to a new generation of designers (who likely have never read Papanek) to take responsibility for the work they do and the companies they choose to do it for. In Monteiro’s take no prisoners style, you’ll be polarized by his attacks on the assumptions of benevolence at the heart of design culture, rallying against designer complicity in the evils that Facebook, Amazon and others have done. There is passionate preaching and fist waving which you’ll find to be one or more of invigorating, therapeutic or frustrating. The book is primarily a polemic: it presumes the ethics of designers are paramount – it’s an ego stroke to designers in that in presents them as powerful and respected enough in their organizations that they just need to be higher minded to save the day. It denies the reality that designers rarely have the power or influence to even be in the room when ethical standards or business strategy are defined. The ruining happens by leaders who aren’t asking designers for their opinion. This book will stir opinions, but any inspired actions would be best served by pairing this book with a guide to corporate activism, coaching on organizational influence/persuasion, or another tool to help designers do more than be angry (which some tend to do passive-aggressively to their own peril).
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs. I so very much wanted to like this book, but I couldn’t get into it. I just knew far too much about Jacobs’ ideas through other sources that reading the book so long after her heroic stand against Robert Moses that I couldn’t find my way in. Is that about me, or the writing of the book? Hard to know! The book explores her philosophy of urban design mostly through anecdotes and stories of her observations about Greenwich Village. It felt too much like a book I didn’t need to read, so I stopped about 1/3rd of the way in. It is also a book a suspect many more people refer to than have actually read.
100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk . This is an excellent and concise introduction to many useful facts and rules of thumb that experienced designers and researchers know. It’s more comprehensive in this sense than Design of Every Day Things (but without the stories or examples). It’s a visual format that makes skimming and referenting back later easy (and also suggests you check the digital edition before you buy it).
Mismatch: How inclusion shapes design, Kat Holmes. A straightforward and concise introduction to how we all tend to exclude others when we make design decisions. I learned the term exclusion habit first from this book, and refer to it in How Design Makes The World.
Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday life, John Heskett. There are some design books that are just strange. They wander between themes or tones in a way that’s hard to follow and that’s what I felt about TAL. Most notably this book is the source for “Design is to design a design to produce a design”. Somehow I missed his book Design: A Very Short Introduction.
Design Methods, John Chris Jones. When I discovered this book 20 years ago it blew my mind as it showed how many other kinds of design there was across industries that had older and deeper bases of knowledge than mine (software/UX/tech). It’s a compendium of how different sub-domains of design approach the same challenges and you will find it stirs your curiosity (like I did) or entirely boring and too abstract to pursue.
Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell, Holden, Butler. This is a popular, well illustrated, and thoughtful book that functions mostly as a reference to design principles. I didn’t find it useful in any specific way. I hoped it could be something I’d refer to as I wrote HDMW, but that rarely happened. Given it’s design is most certainly a book many people own but few have read completely, which likely doesn’t conflict with it’s intention. Weinschenk’s 100 things or Laws of UX by Yablonksi are lighter alternatives.
The Design Book, Phaidon. It’s a Phaidon book so you know what you’re going to get. They have almost single handedly defined the genre of wonderfully produced and beautiful to look at books with amazing images of designed things… that are often not practical, reliable, usable or anything else. The intent, as with this entire genre, is to either inspire as a coffee table book or impress other people. But for my taste these books mostly reinforce that design is just making things pretty (not that making things pretty is easy or unimportant), but it is absolutely distracting when what’s most important are other kinds of design.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte This book is recommended often but for the wrong reasons. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s focused on a narrow kind of design: visualizing highly dense data. It’s not easy to learn from for understanding design in general. It’s rare that most people will need to think about representing data visually, which is the focus of this book. Definitely a book people refer to and own far more often than they actually read. The book itself is a masterwork of book design and the story of its creation is inspiring.
The Art of Human Interface Design, edited by Brenda Laurel. This 1990s book was seminal for a generation of designers and researchers. It is absolutely dated but, and I’m biased here as I read this book in college, but that’s part of the charm. It’s an expression of how wide the power of design skills are as the essays and examples cover a staggering array of different kinds of technology. Includes contributions from leading thinkers in that era, including Alan Kay, Nicholas Negroponte, and Don Norman. I don’t know of any modern book that really replaces this one.
Design Thinking, Rowe. This is one of the first (1991) uses of the term design thinking that I know of. The surprise is given how the term is used today, is this is a serious theory centric book, aimed more at an academic view of design than a lightweight method for laypeople how to think like designers. If you are deep into thinking about methodologies you will like this. Otherwise it’s probably not for you.
Defined by Design: The Surprising Power of Hidden Gender, Age, and Body Bias in Everyday Products and Places, Kathryn H. Anthony. I was excited to read this given its premise but the structure of the writing reads more like an inventory of examples than a story that made me want to follow Anthony’s lead. I made it 1/3rd of the way through and used the book as an occasional reference for possible anecdotes. Also check out Invisible Women: data bias in a world designed for men.
The Design of Design, Gordon L. Glegg. This book from 1969 is a refreshing reminder of how varied the use of the word design is. Glegg explains how engineering design, the invention of mechanical devices, is done. Many concepts overlaps with how UX Designers think of design, but Glegg is far more integrative as he not only means designing things but building them too. It’s a short book with hand drawn illustrations. Recommended if you like working with tools and physical object design.
Form follows Fiasco: Why modern architecture hasn’t worked, Peter Blake. I admit I just loved this title. Architect Blake attacks modernism, the grey, flat, steel buildings that dominate many urban landscapes. He writes well enough that many readers can follow along, and there are good stories here and there, but it’s age (1978) and the changed context of what’s wrong with our urban landscapes now renders this a minor work unworthy of interest unless your main interest is architecture criticism or history.
Design for Hackers, David Kadavy. A surprisingly thoughtful and broad introduction to a cross section of skills usually divided across graphic design, programming and interaction design. All explained without pretense and an emphasis on practicality.
Design and Truth, Robert Grudin. This author wrote on my favorite books, Time and the Art of Living. I was disapointed here as much like Heskett’s Toothpicks and Logos there’s an increasing indulgence as the book progresses. There are some design philosophy insights here (“nothing is as hazardous to good design as conflicting priorities”) for sure, but you will have to work a little bit too hard to find them.
What’s a Designer?, Norman Potter. Potter has the fantastic ambition to define not only design but what designers are too. The first few chapters are compelling, but it soon devolved into too much abstraction and repetition. I didn’t finish it, but would give it another try.
Films / Videos / Podcasts
Charles and Ray Eames: The Architect and The Painter . This is one of my favorite documentaries about design, primarily because the story of their work, what they did, why they did it and how they did it is unavoidably inspiring. From films (Powers of 10), to furniture to architecture they lived a life of creative opportunities many designers dream of. It is a far more human examination of the life of legendary designers than we usually get.
Helvetica. The first of Gary Hustwit’s films on design. As the title suggests it explores the history and impact of the typeface (which for the uninitiated is astoundingly popular). It includes interviews with a whos who list of famous designers including Massimo Vignelli, Michael Beirut, Erik Spiekermann and Paula Schier. It’s a beautiful film and of course for anyone interested in typography a feature length film about one typeface is a dream come true. However it’s hard to recommend this to a general audience as it’s 80 minutes long, and there’s really no one to play the role of design outsider to add context and make some of what’s discussed more accessible (even to add humor or play a foil to the unavoidable pretense of so many designers talking on camera). This is an issue not unfamiliar to some of his other films, as they are clearly aimed at designers.
Objectified. Hustwit’s second film, centers on product designers: people who design all of the devices, appliances and machines in our lives. As with all his films it is beautiful and carefully made. What’s missing is any discussion of the downsides of consumerism or the impact of what designers do on the environment. Little is explored about how designers work (do they work alone? with engineers? business managers?) and the challenges they face, which ironically results in the film objectifying design, keeping it at arms reach, rather than inviting us in.
Urbanized . The most profound and recomendable of Hustwit’s work. It takes on a full eyes-open view of why our cities are designed the way they are and what problems they created for us and future generations. I had to stop this film so many times to catch quotes and references. It puts the very idea of designers and design in the spotlight, examining what influences them, what problems they create and what might be a better way forward. The problems and ideas documented here extend to all kinds of design.
Rams. If you like how Apple products look, you owe a debt to Dieter Rams. He was a chief designer at Braun who developed a style that clearly inspired Steve Jobs and Jony Ive. This examines Rams’ work and it’s very well done, in part because it lets him mostly tell his own story and he is charming and inspiring. Hustwit has the lightest touch here of all his films and it’s a fantastic choice. Most profound are his stories about his creations, a mix of insight, honest reality and humble workmanship. One key moment in modern design history is when he expresses regret for how much waste and environmental impact his work has created, calling into question the ambitions of so many of his fans.
Abstract: The Art of Design, on Netflix. It’s always worrisome when the words art and design are used together and that fear is warranted here. While this is a fantastic, highly produced series, the overall theme is focusing on famous individual creators and learning about their work and how they think. It mostly portrays “the designer” as an artist, which for most working graphic/product/UX designers is a model they rarely experience in their careers. With that caveat, start with (S1:E6) Paula Scher, whose story and work are highly compelling, and she explains how despite the meme about her famous logo taking seconds to make, she offers “designing the logo is never really the hard part of the job. It’s convincing a million people to use it.” (S1:E1) Christof Niemann (cartoonist) is fun and inspiring. (S1:04) Bjarke Ingels (architect) is fascinating although starchitecture comes to mind. (S2:E1) Olafur Eliasson (artist) daringly breaks the forth wall in such an inventive way that it’s exciting just to watch how he teaches you through experimentation. (S2:E5) Ian Spalter (designer) delivers one of the most engaging lectures about typography you will find.
Owned: A Tale of Two Americas . A brilliant and chilling examination of urban planning in America. Told through a tightly edited series of stories, interviews and montages, with a smart soundtrack, it’s a captivating examination of urban design, which will make you rethink what neighborhoods are and how they become that way. First rate. I thought I understood what redlining was, but this powerful film gives far more context into the generational damage racist housing policies have had.
The Genius of Design, BBC. Based on the book, A miniseries that explores the history of product design, with each episode focusing on a different era of the 20th century. It’s thoughtfully done and emphasizes the economic and business factors that shaped each era. Many surprises and memorable anecdotes. Easy to watch if you have a general interest in design history.
Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture. The quote “form follows function” is frequently misused, and this documentary about the man who coined it gives needed context. He was one of the great architects of the early skyscraper era who cared tremendously about aesthetics (a surprise for many who use his quote to suggest otherwise).
Zaha Hadid. Design and architecture share a poor history of diversity and the few notable exceptions we have should be studied. Hadid was a prolific and visionary architect, the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (effectively the Nobel prize for architecture). This documentary explores her work and life, including the Heydar Aliyev Centre, one of her most notable works.
The Founder (Rapid Prototyping at McDonald’s). Perhaps the greatest demonstration of rapid prototyping ever filmed, this segment (The Speedy System) from the film The Founder, is a must watch. The film itself is a fantastic dramatization of how creativity and commerce collide and shouldn’t be missed either for anyone interested in how to achieve integrity and business success at the same time.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Why do so many American housing projects fail? (About the design and failure of a housing development in St. Louis). Explores the politics around what are design failure and goes beyond the common, and often racist, myths about why ‘the projects’ often have predictable problems.
Three walls: a documentary about the office cubicle, Zaheed Mawani. This short film does a fantastic job of explaining why the office cubicle idea took over and why it’s so problematic. Mostly short interviews with people while they are in some less than well designed cubicle spaces.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli
Leading Design Out of Obscurity, Khoi Vinh
Design Thinking is Bullshit, Natasha Jen
The Toilet: An Unspoken History
99% Invisible – The gold standard for investigative stories about design and design history. Their website has a considerable archive of well written essays based primarily on their show.
What’s Wrong with UX – The only podcast by UX designers I recommend. Laura and Kate are funny, insightful and honest. Most notably they never fall into the classic mistake of not editing sufficiently to prevent listeners from feeling like “why am I listening to two people having a conversation where they don’t seem to care about keeping me interested?”
High Resolution – A landmark examination of practicing design leaders in large organizations (those were my favorite episodes. Others focus on luminaries/consultants/authors). Excellent for design managers, executives or leaders interested in organizational culture. One favorite episode is with Phil Gilbert at IBM.
Thanks for reading this far
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2 thoughts on “RECOMMENDED DESIGN BOOKS/FILMS”
One hell of a list, man. I can’t wait for the new book.
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Great list….. Someday you should do a YouTube riff on how you discovered all of these books.
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