Dear Designer: May These Books Inspire You

A list of my all-time favorite design books

Dear Designer,

This is a list of books that shaped my perspective and practice as a designer. May it fuel your creative soul.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Ah, Calvino. This book is about the magic of seeing and imagination. The author narrates a fictional conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan where Marco Polo talks about all the land he explored and the cities he saw. The big question he poses is: are they all just one city seen in many different ways?

Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers by Leonard Koren

A dear friend gifted this book to me after our second trip to Japan. It’s about the imperfection-embracing philosophy and aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. This book taught me so much about materials, the passage of time, and the importance of impermanence — and it did so in such a structured, matter-of-fact way that made it easy to apply to my own reality.

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Leave it to this human- and user-centered design book to shake things up. Don Norman explains that the products in our everyday lives make us feel weird, incompetent, and clumsy not because we are, but because they’re poorly designed and don’t consider our way of doing things.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

I found this book to be refreshingly honest and direct about the failures, both intentional and unintentional, of urban design. Cities are essential for you to study — they’re human-designed systems that encapsulate a lot of our biases and social narratives within them. They can include or exclude, empower or marginalize, encourage and punish.

In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki

In Praise of Shadows is quite old (written in the 1930s) but its message is timely and timeless. It asks: what would the world look like if we didn’t rush to copy other cultures? How would Japan have designed a high-speed commuting mechanism for humans if it hadn’t adopted the “train” back in the day? Tanizaki uses light and darkness to compare Western and Asian aesthetics. He contrasts the West’s pursuit for clarity through bright lights with the more subtle, shadowy shapes of the East.

Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek

This book was seminal in the 70s. The industry mogul, Victor Papanek, advocated for socially sensible and ecologically responsible designs and introduced the — now more commonsensical — notion that we need to include the people we design for in the process.

Book of Symbols by Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

Every graphic designer should get this book at some point (ideally as a present because it’s big and expensive). My professors, who are married and both taught me different classes in undergrad, gifted it to me on my wedding day. It gathers hundreds of visual symbols across time and cultures, shedding light on their history and meaning.

Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley

This IDEO classic is all about unleashing what’s already within you. The Kelley brothers believe creativity, rather than being a tool or methodology, is a latent mindset. They take you through anecdotes and tangible habits that help you unlock individual and collective creativity.

It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by Paul Arden

You have to read this one. It’s potentially the shortest — and best — read for someone who’s just getting started. Even if you’re not a designer, this handbook is a lighthearted take on problem solving, brief tackling, mistake making, and all sorts life subject matter.

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Every design MFA program invested in the impact of design on societies and environments has you read this in the first semester. It’s about seeing nature as the inspiration for how we design processes, products and services. The opposite of an environmentally-friendly, cradle-to-cradle approach is a linear, cradle-to-grave framework. This book challenges the notion that in order to create we must inevitably destroy the natural world.

I hope you enjoy these treasures over a cup of tea, on the subway, or in a corner cafe somewhere.

Stay curious,


Dear Designer is a collection of open letters from our designers to fellow creatives, reflecting on the questions, advice, and inspiration that shape their practice.

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