Things I‘ve read, people I‘ve tried to learn from, and things I‘ve done to become a better designer. This is an idiosyncratic list reflecting what has helped me along the way, rather than an exhaustive list of design classics.
Though the list leans toward theory — principles are more durable than technique — I offer a few ideas further down about how to practice design. It also leans toward information design, because the task of presenting rich, dense information in an accessible way is ultimately the task of any digital product.
Last updated Mar 2023
The Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell et al., 2003
A compendium of principles that hold true across design disciplines. Concepts like desire lines, progressive disclosure, visibility, and wayfinding put words to patterns we often intuitively know, clarifying them and helping us put them to work.
Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Tufte, 2003
It isn‘t a stretch to say that all digital design is information design at some level. Tufte‘s books are a foundational education for those who work with images and text, especially on screens, where excess is always a temptation. Highly readable, unadorned writing with a welcome sense of irony. If you enjoy this one, add the other three to your list.
The Lean Startup by Ries, 2011
What we design is just as important as how we design. Ries applies Lean manufacturing principles — originated in Japanese Toyota factories — to the world of digital tech to show how hypothesis-driven design prevents us from wasting time solving the wrong problems.
As Little Design as Possible by Lovell, 2011
Nearly everything in digital product design has its roots in industrial design, from interactive components like buttons to the use of color as a communication tool. Rams spent his career designing everyday products to be as usable, functional, and humane as possible. His ten principles of good design are worth returning to once a year.
The Elements of Typographic Style by Bringhurst, 2013
Reading Bringhurst on typography is like walking through an arboretum with a master gardener who helps you see plants and trees that you hadn‘t noticed. You start to learn names and habits and uses. With patient clarity, Bringhurst shows us how typography works*,* so that we have a better vantage point to make decisions about type and layout that often seem highly arbitrary.
Understanding Context by Hinton, 2014
A wide-ranging, illuminating examination of the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of digital design. Hinton shows how things like language, structure, memory, and vision interact to create context, which provides meaning. The book is conceptually challenging, but if read slowly, offers up insights that help us make sense of what we're doing when we make digital things.
Content Strategy for the Web by Halvorson and Rach, 2014
A clear-eyed take on an ambiguous, pervasive topic. What is content, and what is its role across the types of projects product designers work on? Who is it for? What forms does it take? Who creates and maintains it? What standards is it held to? A concern for content keeps designers grounded, designing for real people, preventing us from going on frivolous aesthetic excursions.
Material Design System by Google
The standard for modern web design. Take or leave the visual aesthetic — the principles and patterns are remarkably comprehensive. Usability of the system has improved since it was first released. It is still decidedly “flat,” but more accessible. The Material Studies are particularly helpful.
Human Interface Design Guidelines by Apple
Patterns, principles, and examples of native application design. Apple-oriented, as you'd expect, but universal patterns nonetheless.
GOV.UK Service Toolkit by the UK Government Digital Service
One of the first attempts to create a cohesive, open, accessible, and extensible design system for a massive organization (the British government). Their process documentation and guidelines are thorough, accessible, and useful.