Are you beginning 2017 resolved to learn a new skill, to work differently, to be more creative or to stand out as a leader in your field? Design thinking is a burgeoning practice based in empathy that is changing the way work is done in a wide variety of fields, yielding new insights into old problems—from creating more patient-friendly healthcare experiences to court reforms in the Yukon that are increasing access to family justice to building AirBnB’s understanding of why hosts reject guests.

To help get your own design education off the ground in 2017—or continue it, if you’ve already started—I’ve asked our team to share with me some favourite books that have inspired their work. In no particular order…

Here are 6 design books for your 2017 reading list: 

The Design of Business by Roger Martin

The Design of Business:
Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage

By Roger Martin

Key takeaway: Design thinking organizations are able to balance depth and breadth—depth in the processes they have optimized over time and breadth in the new areas they explore and monitor for opportunities.

“Roger Martin explains how a design thinking organization uses the knowledge funnel to continuously explore the mystery of the environment around them, look for heuristics to make sense of that mystery, and then refine the algorithm for applying the heuristics. It’s this algorithm that provides an organization with their competitive advantage. I appreciated the book because it articulates and makes explicit things about the application of design thinking that are often overlooked. A big insight here is that Martin is looking at the design of for-profit business, which is consistent with much of the literature on design thinking. This inspired me to start asking the question “how does this change when we move out of the for-profit space?” as well as other questions related to our assumptions about not only design thinking but many approaches and methodologies.”


A Beautiful Constraint.jpg

A Beautiful Constraint:
How to Transform your Limitations into Advantages, and Why it’s Everyone’s Business

By Adam Morgan & Mark Barden

Key takeaway: Living with your constraints, as opposed to fighting against them leads to success.  

Constraints are necessary to acknowledge, and the ability to adapt and work with those constraints can lead to creative solutions that were seen as ‘impossible’ before. This book was recommended to me, and it almost feels like a textbook that can be read cover to cover or by chapter. It doesn’t have to be read in sequence, and is a book that can be marked up and stickied. The more you use it, the more value you find from it.”


People Want Toast Not Toasters

People Want Toast, Not Toasters:
Lessons and Maxims for Design and Designing

By Brian Burns

Key takeaway: Understanding that a product is often a means to an end changes (or, at least, should change) the way we design them from almost every angle.

“I’m biased—this book was written by a professor of mine from the School of Industrial Design at Carleton. Many of the anecdotes and lessons bring me back to studio class where I heard them first-hand. The book is a reference guide (Brian Burns, the author, would say “it’s meant to be dipped-into. It has dip-in-ability.”) for anyone interested in designing something for someone else—full of many of the things one might consider along the way. The book is organized in phases that loosely mirror a design cycle with topics including user research, sketching, model making, testing, material selection, and so many others. The title speaks to the importance of really understanding those we are designing for. It can be tempting to overcomplicate the products we design; adding all the bells and whistles without questioning why we’re doing so (e.g. adding a clock to a toaster). In this case, it’s helpful to remember that the user might just be looking for burnt bread.”


The Wisdom of Whores


The Wisdom of Whores:
Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS

By Elizabeth Pisani

Key takeaway: This book exemplifies how open, curious, humble and tenacious one has to be in order to understand and impact truly complex problem spaces.

“Elizabeth Pisani is a journalist-turned-epidemiologist, and she writes about her experience working to manage the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Indonesia, China, and elsewhere. Of course, this isn’t a design book per se, and I doubt Pisani would think of herself as a designer. But I think this book is a fantastic example of design research, policy design, designing for behaviour change, and service design within the context of public health, international development, global politics, and human dignity. Throughout the book, Pisani talks about what it takes to design interventions that actually work within extremely tabooed worlds, and make sense of data accurately in order to make effective policy choices. Read this book if you want to be confronted with why it’s so important to lead with empathy, non-judgement and humility if you want to understand what’s really going on and figure out truly effective ways to address problems that are equally personal and global in nature.”


Exposing the Magic of Design

Exposing the Magic of Design:
A practitioners guide to the methods and theory of synthesis

By Jon Kolko

Key takeaway: When analyzing data, keep it simple and visual. There are lots of fancy tools, but often organizing post-its on a wall is the best approach to sense-making.

“I was on the hunt for a resource about designerly ways of analyzing and communicating data. This is the part of our work that seems “fuzziest” and the part that we most often get questions about. After browsing some online reviews and a few design course syllabi, Exposing the Magic of Design seemed like the one. It provides a lot of great language for explaining the importance of the design synthesis step (the so-called “magic”) to people who might not be from a design background. It sets up the theory of design synthesis and highlights how it’s different from working with data in other types of research. Most important, it’s written as a practical guide—over half of the book is devoted to helping the reader apply the methods of design synthesis, with lots of details, visuals, and examples. “


Designing for Interaction

Designing for Interaction:
Creating Innovative Applications and Devices

By Dan Saffer

Key takeaway: to look at the experience or product you are designing holistically and systemically while being human centred.

“This book was a course reader for a User Experience and Interaction Design class I took at OCAD. The book is a great resource at connecting the threads of HCD for interactive products, it is a great resource which is well designed for both jumping around the book or reading it straight through. This book touches on ergonomics, types of prototyping, user research, semiotics and affordances, and digital product design. It is a great resource for people starting out in experience or digital product design.”


More Design Resources:

💡 75 Design Thinking Tools and Resources Explained

💡 12 Design Books For Your 2018 Reading List