9 books that every design leader should read

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

This quote by Harper Lee sums up everything about my life as a reader. I wasn’t born with an innate love for books; nobody does I guess. We all need a superhero, a person in our life who introduces us to the magical world of books. Someone who knows that one needs access to a good library with good books to be successful. Someone who knows that there is nothing more precious than holding a book and learning through the experiences of some of the best minds of the world.

Sadly, my superhero was quite delayed.

I started reading books in my late 20’s and I really wish I could go back in time- if not more but at least 5 years, and read more books.

But as C.S. Lewis says-

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

So, I’m on a personal mission to make fellow designers read more books and this is what I tell everyone now- irrespective of years of experience you have and the knowledge you possess, a book has the potential to change your perspective, offer fresh ideas, teach new skills, and help you become better.  

Here are the books that are my personal favorite. I know the struggles of building and leading Design teams and the below books have helped me immensely in that journey. You must have already heard about most of them in blogs, podcasts, and heard raving reviews about the book on social media. For simplicity, I’ve divided them on the basis of challenges one faces.

Team culture

books on Team Culture

There is no doubt that every leader struggles with building a great team culture. A culture that promotes creativity and innovation, a culture that promotes inclusivity, and a culture that keeps its people-first.

Among the many books that I’ve read on team culture, my most favorite ones are-

Good to Great by Jim Collins

This book is for anyone who thinks that making a transition from a Good (company or design team) to Great (company or design team) requires disruptive changes in management or the latest technology. Good news! It doesn’t.

Jim has packed this book with research inputs from decades of research by his team. Research about admirable companies who were good for a long time and then somehow became great by changing strategies. I found this book extremely useful because it lays out systematic phases through which any team can become great by following the frameworks and concepts discussed in the book.

The hook through which I got pulled into this book was his thoughts and explanations on the culture of discipline and the secret recipe of every successful team- disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.

Work Rules by Laszlo Bock

Work rules is for anyone who desires to learn how small things make a big impact on the team’s culture.

Laszlo has put his experiences and stories from his workplace, Google, and shared unconventional methods which can make any company/team great. Work Rules is a sheer source of happiness for those who want to understand how good people practices shape the culture of an organization.

My favorite quote from the book-

“Treat people like owners instead of machines. Machines do their jobs; owners do whatever is needed to make their companies and team successful.”

Five Dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni was one book that made me constantly gasp and nod in agreement at many places. This book was a bit different than other books in the same genre. Partick has weaved a fictional tale to help leaders wade through similar circumstances.

I did not enjoy the story much, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the “five dysfunctions” that can cripple any team- the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.

Creativity Inc is another incredible book. I was already a die-hard fan of Pixar animation. But after reading this book, I became a fan of Ed Catmull- the man behind Pixar’s revolutionary success.

The book talks about the unique environment that Catmull and his colleagues had built at Pixar. There’s also a very interesting story of Ed and his colleague Alvy here.

The instances he shared helped me understand that leadership and management philosophies of a Design leader must protect the creative process and, if the need arises, even defy convention. One of the many philosophies which I liked was- “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”

About feedback

Books to read about giving Feedback

We all have been raised with this thought that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, try and keep your mouth shut. If you too, are the victim of that mentality, and it’s impacting your ability to indulge with your teammates in open conversations about their designs or performance, I recommend you to pick Radical Candor.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott is the book that you should read if you find yourself at the extreme ends- either obnoxiously aggressive or ruinously empathetic- while giving feedback to your team.

So, no matter if you handle a small team of 5 people or a team of 100, you need to read this book to know how to mix appreciation with a bit of criticism to help your team achieve better results. More importantly, she has packed chapters with simple tips to focus on the activity of giving feedback, and how one must NOT target the person, despite personal differences. I also loved reading the section where she talks about the importance of building and maintaining “trusting relationships”. She insists on striving to build such relationships because once you have it, it’s easy to practice “radical candor” on a daily basis.

Understanding people

Books for Understanding People

If you are a designer, 100 Things a designer needs to know should be on your reading list without any second thoughts. Susan Weinschenk, the author, is a psychologist and she has explained the concepts like- how people read, remember, focus their attention and deduce the information presented to them.

Many designers make the mistake of ‘assuming’ that they know their users. They think that when people use a particular application, they are totally immersed in that experience. This book debunks this myth. People only indulge with just a portion of their attention, using their mental shortcuts from previous experience to get away with the task. This is where this book comes in handy. A practical guide with 100 lessons about the nature of people when they use a product. As designers who create this experience/products, it’s important for us to know how people act, instead of how we think they should act.

Understanding your own career capital and becoming a kick-ass designerBooks to read to become great designer

You’ve probably heard of the phrase “follow your passion” too many times from too many people. It’s a piece of cliched advice our parents and our teachers have been feeding us.

I wouldn’t shy away from saying that I was a part of that group too. I thought that following my passion is one true way to be successful. But I was wrong. And you could be wrong too!

So Good That They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport is an incredible book if you want to break away from the passion mindset and learn to build your own career capital. I’ve been a Cal Newport fan since reading his Deep Work. Thus, my expectations were terribly high when I picked up a copy of this one. And man, he didn’t disappoint. At all.

The basic tenet of the book is to earn career capital by working hard for what you want to succeed at. There are many interesting anecdotes from his research about many successful people including Steve Jobs. He stands firm on his words arguing that for all successful people passion came second to hard work. In Cal’s own words “Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before.”

On Mindfulness

Best Books on Mindfulness

Going a bit Zen with this one, but Silence is the book you need if you want to practice mindfulness in your life.

Mindfulness is the ability to be present, with both mind and body, in whatever we do. It’s about becoming aware of our actions and recognizing who we are or what we want to become. This book will change your life for good. You’ll learn to cultivate silence in moments of chaos and truly learn to find peace amidst the endless humdrum we face in our daily routine.

If you want to experience the transformative power of simply “being present”, I would highly recommend you to read this book. You’ll not find any direct advice on how to be a better designer by practicing mindfulness, but it’ll definitely help you see through a fresh approach to deal with rejections or stressful deadlines.  If not anything, I am sure you’ll find ways to be more ‘present’ and creative in your work as a designer.

Managing your career and others

Best book to read to make your Career

Winning by Jack Welch is clearly one of the best books for Design leaders. Jack has used his experience and knowledge to write about diverse topics like performance reviews, mergers, strategy, hiring, as well as, firing.

Although designers might find it a bit overwhelming as it has a very business feel to it, the reason why I liked it was because it offers some very practical advice and strategies on managing your career and helping others in grooming to be a better leader. My favorite part was reading about the most important things a leader must know- mission, values, candor.

Becoming a better writer

Books to read to improve your Writing

Bird by Bird is, by far, the best book that I’ve read about improving as a writer. But, wait, oh! What does writing have to do with a designer or a design leader? See, that’s why you need to read more books. Writing is as important as designing. And as important as coding. Basically, design, copy, and code are of equal importance when you are designing a digital product. If you’re not convinced- read this blog by Fast company.

Writing a clear and concise copy in the design is important because design without a compelling story often fails to grab the user’s attention. In Dr. Seuss’s words- “Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.”

But it’s easier said than done. I know the struggles of writing. Words don’t come by as and when you sit to write. That’s where this book comes as a savior.

One of the best things about this book is that it’s not one of the typical instructions books on writing. It takes a very casual approach to teach writing and Anne Lamott has just one advice- keep your eyes open, observe everything around you and write as you would speak to a person.


Books to read to learn Negotiations

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss is a riveting and indispensable guide on negotiation principles written from author’s 24 years of experience as FBI Lead Hostage Negotiator.

I loved this book because I really connected with the concept of Tactical empathy. It was something I was unaware of. We, as designers, are frequently negotiating or persuading our clients on a daily basis for some or the other thing. We all feel at crossroads when we find it difficult to break through the deal. This book teaches you how to balance emotional intelligence with the assertive skills of influence to gain access to the mind of another person. Read this book and thank me later!

Doing focused work

Books to read to do deep work

Deep work by Cal Newport, as I mentioned earlier as well, is my personal favorite and I recommend it to every person I meet. It’s a book packed with practical techniques to do your best work every day. It’s a book that would help you understand the difference between shallow work (one which we sometimes do in the garb of busy work) and deep work (working on a cognitively demanding task without distractions).  

One last recommendation.

A book about UX Design Principles by, ahem, me!

Shameless plug! I know. But it’s a book very The book is about the 7 Design Principles that we follow at Quovantis, the value they add to the design process and how they can be implemented in designs. In case, this sounds interesting to you, you can buy yourself a copy from Amazon. It’s available in paperback as well as Kindle.

I hope this post serves as a tipping point in your journey as a design leader and you decide to read more books. If you’re an avid book reader, I would love to know which books you would like to add in this list. Drop your comments below and let’s get the conversation started.

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