My 2019 in books

Micro-reviews for a year of books

Last year I started working as a Strategic Design consultant, with it came a library chock full of design books. I was enthralled by it and quickly developed a compulsion to read them all. There are many left (and hopefully many more coming) but these are the design related books I’ve read last year in no particular order:

Well Designed

How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love

By Jon Kolko

This is the ‘must read’ book for anyone wanting to understand how to achieve a good design process. It goes through all of the steps in a very clear and easy to read writing style. It focuses on digital products (like many books do nowadays) but it can be applied to anything. A fantastic read even for seasoned designers, just because the way it explains design in such a simple and clear way can help you explain it much better to other people.


By Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Brad Kowitz

Sprints took the world by storm. Sprints are a very condensed design process which is a very simple way to introduce design to an organization. In this book Jake Knapp and company explain the process step by step. Its content is nothing revolutionary if you work in design but it’s really well put together, making it incredibly useful when working with non-design organizations.

Designing for growth

By Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie

This is a book written to explain the design process to business people. While the descriptions are clear and the book has some great examples it will not bring anything new to designers but (and this is a big but) the way it explains design to non designers. It frames the design thinking process in terms of business and it explains its advantages and tools in ways that’s useful for designers to incorporate.

Service Design

From Insight to Implementation

By Andy Polaine, Ben Reason and Lavrans Løvlie

In this book, Andy Polaine et al explain the discipline of Service Design, going through all the major steps, frameworks, methods and the justification for all this. All this information is backed up with examples of real world companies. It’s very comprehensive book and very well worth the read.

Exposing the magic of design

By Jon Kolko

In this book Jon Kolko explores the process of sensemaking, the idea of transforming data into wisdom. It’s a great reflection on how designers think and approach their research. It provides several frameworks for how to advance in the process of getting meaning out of data. Not only looking at the how but also at the why of those methods.

Technology vs humanity

By Gerd Leonhard

We are at a very peculiar time of human history. We’ve always dreamed of the future, but never before have our dreams been so quickly surpassed by reality. Our very identity as a species might be challenged in the near future and we have to be very careful about our choices today regarding technology. That is what this book is all about. An amazing read about the potential for both good and bad, the mights and coulds of our current situation regarding technology and our very own humanity.

Making Meaning

By Steve Diller Nathan, Shedroff and Darrel Rhea

Why people would want to interact with our products is the core issue in this book, its answer is to make them meaningful, to give them purpose other than just fulfilling functional or a superficial emotional need. My only complaint is that it feels more like an article that drags on rather than a book.

Blind spot

By Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff and Sean Sauber

The continuation of Making Meaning. This one has all the meat I felt the previous one lacked. It’s still focused on the incorporation of meaning into products and services but now there’s frameworks, deeper explanations, examples and even chapters about how to incorporate the process into organizations. While at times it looks just like a standard design process the book does have some very interesting observations that makes it a worthwhile read, just skip Making meaning and jump straight into this one.

Frame innovation

By Kees Dorst

The real Design Thinking book, as in an exploration of how designers think and operate rather than the homonymous methodology. Dorst, using examples and the development of a framework through the course of the book, explains how designers think of new and disruptive solutions by developing different ‘frames’ from which to approach a problem. This ability to reframe a problem is something that designers excel at and Dorst creates a very compelling explanation of this process. One of the best design books I’ve read.

Value proposition design

By Alexander Osterwalder andYves Pigneur, with Gregory Bernarda, Alan Smith, Trish Papadakos

The Value Proposition Canvas has been a staple of strategic design and this book is all about it. What impressed me the most about it is how complete it is. Not only explaining the canvas but how to use it, how to research information for completing it, how to test the outcomes of its use. Everything is there with lovely graphics and diagrams explaining every concept very clearly.

Business model generation

By Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur

The precursor to Value Proposition Design. Looking at the Business model canvas, explaining its nuances and giving lots of information about Business models in order to take full advantage of the tool.

Designing for behavior change

By Stephen Wendel

Behavioral Economics is a fascinating subject. This is not a book on Behavioral economics per se but rather about the tools to incorporate the learnings of that discipline into products (again with a focus on digital products but still applicable to anything else). It goes through all the design process and talks about the tools and framework needed for designing a product that helps people change their behaviour. It’s heavy and dense at times but it does have a lot of interesting stuff, I especially like its chapter on measuring effect because of the ease it brings to a very complex subject.

The rational animal

By Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius

Why we do what we do is the core of this book. It takes an evolutionary approach to its subject, trying to differentiate itself from behavioural economics by going further and further into our primordial needs. I’ve disagreed with its postulations more than once with its Nature over nurture approach but I must say that it does have very compelling arguments. I felt it was a bit reductionist at times but it was enriching to be challenged on some of my views (I’m more of a nurture kind of guy).

How to make sense of any mess

By Abby Covert

A book about Information Architecture that cares much more about the why than the how, and that’s a huge praise for the book. It does describe how to do Information Architecture but it’s not a book about tools or frameworks but about the deeper purpose of Information Architecture and thus ends up being incredibly enriching.

Just enough research

By Erika Hall

Erika Hall breaks down the Design Research process and goes into just enough depth to make it understandable and easy to apply into any project. The book does what its name says and does it really well.

Ruined by design

By Mike Monteiro

Monteiro constantly refers to Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the real world’, a book that should be read by every designer and now, almost 50 years after its publication, still remains current. Just like Papanek’s book, Monteiro faces straight on all the mess we as designers have been instrumental in creating and challenges us to be responsible of what we put out in the world. A book we certainly need to be discussing right now.

Org design for design orgs

By Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner

Managing design teams in an organization is no easy task, and this book does a wonderful job explaining the nuances and different possibilities of how to organise and manage such a team in different types of organizations during different moments of a company’s growth.

In praise of shadows

By Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

A treatise on Japanese aesthetics. It talks about the deep relationships between light, shadow and materials the japanese use in their constructions and design. It’s not a dry essay but rather a poetic appreciation (while it also seems to have a bit of rose tinted glasses). Still it’s an interesting outlook on Japanese culture as seen by a Japanese novelist instead of a designer.

Understanding comics

By Scott McCloud

What is this book doing with design books? Well, for one McCloud’s seminal work on the language and art of making comics blew my mind, not just with its content but also with its presentation. Something that could have been a boring essay is a magnificent meta-comic on comics using the same medium to explain it. It’s such a brilliant presentation that everyone, not just comic book enthusiasts, can learn about how to explain complex concepts in a clear fashion.

Designer with a passion for design and culture

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