Books for getting better at design

August 5, 2020

If you want to get into programming, there are tons of books and courses available to you. Getting into design, it seems, is a lot more difficult. It appears as tough you either have to be born knowing how to design, or go to university for it. Neither of that is true. If you want to improve your design and UX skills, these books help you get started.

Almost none of them focus on visuals. Sure, visual design is important, but it is only there to enhance a product. If something is bad, making it pretty cannot make it better. Design always has a purpose that goes beyond “looking cool”. We use it to make people’s lives easier by helping them reach their goals. These books really drive that point home.

On to the list.

The Design of Everyday Things
by Don Norman

This is “required reading” for anyone getting into design. Bad design is all around us, and it is not limited to digital products. Have you ever tried to pull a door that you had to push to open? Don Norman points out that good design needs to be obvious. He also shares real world stories of when bad design had catastrophic consequences.

If you are starting your journey into design, begin with this book. Be warned, you’ll start noticing a lot of terrible design all around you when you’re done with it.

Don’t make me think
by Steve Krug

Honestly, the title of this book is almost everything you need to know about it. We want to make our interfaces as obvious and easy for our customers as possible. If they have to think to figure out what to do next, they are going to be frustrated fast. People often think they are incompetent, while it is the products that are stupid instead. If an app or website ever annoyed you, bad usability was likely to blame.

This is an excellent follow-up to the previous book. This book takes many of the same considerations and transfers them to the digital world. It gives examples and points out pitfalls to consider when building usable products. Almost everything in there will sound obvious to you, but it is easy to forget or ignore all those issues. It’s a fantastic handbook that you want in your library.

Grid systems in graphic design
by Josef Müller-Brockman

While the other two are about general concepts, this book ventures into the visual world a little. It shows how to lay out content on a page with visual consistency and harmonic compositions.

This book focuses on fixed grids on printed pages and other physical media. It was first published in 1981, so you won’t find any mention of digital products in there. The same concepts still apply today. You will need to do some mental transfer to get the most possible value from this.

Granted, we are no longer restricted to the fixed grid systems the book talks about. Knowing how to effectively use space is still important in more fluid layouts. Interesting designs often break the rules of the grid, but they do so intentionally. To break the rules with intention, you first need to know what those rules are.

Bonus: Refactoring UI
by Steve Schoger

If you came here looking for advice on how to make things pretty, don’t worry. I am not going to leave you hanging.

Knowing the basics is essential to designing good interfaces. At the same time, knowing the theory won’t help you design something beautiful. If the aesthetics of a product do not match how well it works, that conflict leaves us dissatisfied.

If you are unhappy with the designs you have created so far, Refactoring UI is for you. Every page gives you detailed instructions on how to improve your designs. Every recipe in there is a total winner. If you want to learn how to make something look modern, this is for you.

This is a digital product. You can get it at refactoringui.com, where you can also find some previews of what is in there. If you want to take a shortcut, go for this one directly.

There are of course many more books about this topic than I could possibly list here. What book on design and UX did you read and love? Hit me with your recommendations!

– Dom

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