If you’re unsure about the best books for web designers published this year, we’re here to help you. While there are a ton of beginner’s guides or very specialist titles on the market (covering particular frameworks, for example), we have chosen to round up the stand-out books of 2019 that more experienced designers, agencies and in-house teams should consider buying.
Topics include design systems, information architecture, storytelling and art direction, psychology, ethics and inclusive design, collaboration and management, product strategy, career and business advice, the history of web design, as well as computation, which is used more and more for artificial intelligence, how it works and how it’s transformed the way that business gets done today.
All the usual publishers, big and small, are represented on our handy list but there are also some self-published books, including a couple of free ones. Look carefully, and you’ll even find more than 15 titles.
1. Laying the Foundations by Andrew Couldwell
Design systems continued to be a hot topic this year, and so it’s no surprise that they feature more than once on our compilation. The first title, Laying the Foundations, is a practical book about creating design systems and digital brand guidelines, written by Andrew Couldwell, who’s led the design and creative direction of digital brands, products, and design systems for companies of all kinds of sizes.
Jargon-free and full of down-to-earth advice, experience and practical tips, it’s a detailed look at how large organisations set up, document and maintain their design systems and how you can do the same. You’ll learn what design systems are, why they are important, how to get stakeholder buy-in and how design and engineering teams can collaborate better to create one. It also introduces you to a simple model, and two very different approaches to creating a design system.
2. Expressive Design Systems by Yesenia Perez-Cruz
While Laying the Foundations is a very comprehensive guide, Expressive Design Systems is a guide specifically to integrating brand expression and range within a design system.
Yesenia Perez-Cruz, senior UX manager at Shopify, where she is leading the Polaris design system team, addresses some common complaints: rigid systems that stifle creativity, overly specific systems that can’t be adapted to enough use cases, complicated systems that lead to fragmented user experiences. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Yesenia demonstrates how to build useful, dependable, and cohesive systems that not only maintain harmony across products, but also leave room for inspiration and experimentation.
For more on design systems and some free (!) reads, check out Programming Design Systems by Rune Madsen, a practical introduction to the new foundations of graphic design, Design Systems for Developers, which examines how the smartest teams engineer design systems at scale, and Heart Internet’s own Design Systems ebook.
3. Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Marquis
A good companion to Expressive Design Systems, Lisa Maria Marquis’ guide gets you up to speed on information architecture’s most essential concepts. The managing editor of A Book Apart, the publisher of both titles, explains the principles and practices of information architecture you need to know to craft more thoughtful and effective digital products.
Learn how to analyse your site’s content and structure, build clear, consistent and inclusive taxonomies, and develop more strategic and intentional sitemaps. Whether you’re a designer, developer or other web worker, whatever your experience, this book will help you make your website more usable and your content easier to find to create better experiences for everyone.
4. Storytelling in Design by Anna Dahlström
This book by UX designer Anna Dahlström takes tried-and-tested storytelling principles from film, fiction and music and applies them to the context of design and business.
You’ll learn why storytelling matters, what makes a great story, and how both traditional storytelling and the world of product design are changing. You’ll then discover how you can use simple tools — such as emotion and dramaturgy — to define, design and sell multi-device, multi-touch point digital products to create better end-to-end experiences for your users and healthier bottom lines for your company.
5. Art Direction for the Web by Andy Clarke
Art direction in print and advertising is well known, but on the web it’s kind of new. Designer and consultant Andy Clarke wanted to explore how designers and front-end developers can break out of the generic web experiences that are prevailing today. And so based on his own experience and the expertise of the art directors and designers he interviewed, he wrote a book about art direction, why it matters and how to art-direct compelling and effective experiences across devices and platforms.
You’ll discover original compositions and unexpected layouts, and learn critical design thinking and front-end techniques that will help you create something that stands out, connects your brand with customers and improve engagement and conversions.
6. Mindful Design by Scott Riley
The subtitle of this book by product designer and developer Scott Riley is ‘how and why to make design decisions for the good of those using your product’. It dives into the areas of cognitive psychology and neuroscience that can most improve design. You’ll discover responsible theories and studies and learn how to create products that integrate into, rather than interrupt, lifestyles.
Topics covered in Mindful Design include neurological aspects and limitations of human vision and perception, our attachment to harmony (such as visual and musical harmony), and why our brain is so good at pattern recognition. The second half of the book focuses on practical applications, specific to interaction and interface design, and uses real-world examples throughout to demonstrate how design is impacting our everyday digital experiences.
7. Value-Based Design by Nick Disabato
Here’s a must-read for any designer who wants to learn more about business. Value-Based Design by Nick Disabato, founder of independent interaction design consultancy Draft, helps you think strategically, promote your own value, and get the career and respect you deserve.
You’ll understand why it’s important for designers to prove their value, and exactly how to do it in any organization that ships digital products. You’ll also learn the ways that people have successfully promoted value in their own design practices over the past decade.
There’s also a practical workbook to give you the exact tools and tactics necessary to understand the economic ramifications of any design decision.
8. Ruined by Design by Mike Monteiro
When Mike Monteiro writes a book, you know he won’t hold back. The outspoken design veteran, co-founder and design director of Mule Design, has given talks around the world on how designers destroyed the world and what we can do to fix it. Now his call-to-action is available in book format.
In his own words, Ruined by Design is about “how our responsibility to society outweighs everything else we do. It’s about how we need to work ethically, responsibly, and with care. It contains examples of how the current environment we live in is designed so that a few select people can succeed in the short-term, while screwing many people in the long term. It’s not pretty.”
If you only read one book about design ethics this year, make it this one. Furious and uplifting at the same time, it’s essential.
9. Inclusive Design for Organisations/Products by Jonathan Hassell
Twenty percent of your customers – people with disabilities – could be clicking away from your websites or mobile apps every day, without buying anything or finding the information they needed. To help you create experiences that are usable for all of your customers, at the most efficient cost, accessibility pioneer Jonathan Hassell has written this two-part guide about inclusive design.
This second edition has been updated to reflect the new international ISO 30071-1 Standard on Web Accessibility and what it means for organisations and digital products. In the first book, John demonstrates how, through following a clear, strategic business-aligned framework, you can work out what your organisation has to win from accessibility, how to embed the policies and processes necessary to consistently achieve that aim throughout your organisation, and how to measure the return on your investment.
The companion title, Inclusive Design for Products, meanwhile, explains how to embed accessibility into your software development lifecycle to turn it into a user-centred, inclusive design process that will help you efficiently deliver accessibility for all your digital products.
10. What I Wish I Knew Before Learning to Code by Ali Spittel
Mostly self-taught software engineer Ali Spittel teaches people to code at welearncode.com, General Assembly, and via the Ladybug Podcast, which she co-hosts with fellow developers Emma Wedekind and Kelly Vaughn. As she herself found that learning to code can be hard, Ali decided to share what she’s learned and make the ebook available to download for free.
The 10 chapters cover reasons for learning to code, how to choose your learning path and create a niche for yourself, build good programming habits, avoid getting stuck, overcome impostor syndrome, and much more. You’ll take away motivation and career as well as technical advice that will guide you along your path.
11. Mastering Collaboration by Gretchen Anderson
Most people aren’t taught how to work in a collaborative environment with all of the power plays and interpersonal dynamics. Product strategy consultant Gretchen Anderson says it’s time to take the suck out of working together, and so she’s written a book to explore how collaboration works, and what you can do to make it less painful and more productive.
You’ll learn how to generate ideas with others while avoiding common pitfalls and gaining buy-in from all levels of your organisation. Whatever your role, you’ll obtain better insights into how team members work together to make decisions.
Mastering Collaboration features tangible exercises and techniques to help you understand how to turn promising ideas into products, services, and solutions that make a real difference.
Also see Gretchen’s article, Why bad designer/dev collaboration is ruining projects, and how to fix it, here on our blog, as well as Sharon Steed’s report Empathy at Work, which explores the role empathy plays in team communication and how companies can create systems around empathy to help managers and their employees have a better experience at work.
12. Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters by Ryan Singer
Ryan Singer, leading product strategy for project management and team collaboration app Basecamp, has written Shape Up to share the process he’s developed over 16 years.
A “spiritual follow-up” to Getting Real, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s 2006 guide to how product development happens at Basecamp, it explains how small teams of designers and programmers can ship great work in six-week cycles without sprints, Post-it notes, stand-up meetings, backlogs, or long hours. Shape Up teaches language and specific techniques to address the risks and unknowns at each stage of the product development process. You’ll learn how to break free of “best practices” that aren’t really working, embrace constraints, think deeper about the right problems, and start shipping meaningful projects your team can celebrate.
The first version of the book is available for free to read online or download as a PDF. Print, ebook and audio versions will follow soon.
13. The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou
Julie Zhou, now vice president of product design at Facebook, has written down everything she wishes she’d known when she became a manager at the age of 25.
Leading a team can be daunting. You’re expected to have all the answers, but what if you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing? Having managed dozens of teams spanning tens to hundreds of people, Julie found that great managers are made, not born.
Packed with everyday examples and transformative insights, this book offers practical advice, relatable anecdotes, questions and exercises for modern managers looking to improve their leadership skills. It will help you rock your job, whether you’re a new or experienced manager, earn your confidence and lead your team to new horizons.
Also see Resilient Manager by Lara Hogan, in which shares her recipe for supporting and leading a tech team — from developing your mentoring and coaching skills, to getting comfortable with having difficult conversations, to boosting trust among teammates.
14. Web Design. The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today by Rob Ford
Every self-respecting web designer needs to have this epic 640-page history of web design on their bookshelf. Written by Rob Ford, founder of The FWA, a recognition program for cutting-edge web design, it’s a visual journey through the last three decades, from the first website to use surround sound to the first one to use parallax scrolling.
The beautifully-designed Taschen book features more than 200 websites, and each comes with quotes and insights from the creators themselves, including pioneers such as Eric Jordan, Joshua Davis and Yugo Nakamura. You’ll explore how user experience, usability, and technological milestones have influenced the development of the internet we use today and why Flash — almost a dirty word these days — was actually responsible for its most creative era.
15. How to Speak Machine: Laws of Design for a Digital Age by John Maeda
There have been major advancements in artificial intelligence lately, but most people don’t understand the underlying computer science. In How to Speak Machine, pioneering designer and technologist John Maeda defines the fundamental laws of how computers think, and why you should care even if you aren’t a programmer.
John argues that machines are already more powerful than we can comprehend, and getting more powerful at an exponential pace. Once set in motion, algorithms learn and transform, which can make them unpredictable and dangerous (see Microsoft’s chatbot that became a hate-spewing racist within hours or how crime-predicting algorithms reinforce racial bias).
The primer provides a coherent framework to help today’s product designers, business leaders and policymakers identify opportunities afforded by technology to make world-changing and inclusive products while avoiding the pitfalls inherent to the medium.
In this video, John walks through a few of the ideas in the first three chapters that explain computational design:
What books did you read this year? Is there a title that you think should have made our list? Let us know in the comments below!