Reading by design – exceptional books for designers

Written by: Martijn Hinfelaar

It’s time once again for the WeAreBrain book club, and this month we’ll be featuring super cool reads about design and design thinking. Leader of the Solving team, WeAreBrain’s design arm, Martijn did a deep dive into the library of his favourite books to give us this exciting list. 

Martijn’s passion for reading lead him to his ultimate passion for design

The first time I realized that I wanted to be a designer was when I was 14 or 15 years old. I had found a book in the local library about Memphis, an Italian design group from the ’80s and it mesmerised me. It’s safe to say that books and books about design, in particular, have always played a big role in my work.

Since finding that book in the library, I seldom walk past a bookstore without going inside and heading directly to the design section. My intention over the years has been to find the ultimate “how to design and be great at it book”. 

To this day I’ve not found it, however, along the way I have come across some truly exceptional books on design. Even though I haven’t found ‘the one’,  I have encountered a lot of interesting, weird, funny and beautiful books. My list of favourites is too long to count, but lets at least give it a try…

#1: All those weird and crazy books and magazines you find in small bookshops, flea markets and in your grandmother’s attic


My favourite books about design are often not about design at all. You can find inspiration for design in several different kinds of publications and magazines. I really recommend that you buy that old book with woodcuts or that encyclopedia of flowers, and I’m certain you will surprise yourself. One day you’ll use it. Don’t throw away that old stash of magazines! When you encounter an image by chance while browsing through the pages of that old magazine, it helps to build a web of associations. It could eventually lead to your biggest and best idea yet. 

#2 Understanding Comics by Scott Mccloud

Understanding comics is not what you might expect. It’s not a book about how to draw comics, but rather, how to use and understand visual language in order to communicate and tell a story. While it uses comics and graphic novels as its base for the explanation, the principles discussed can be applied to virtually every (visual) medium. If you’re starting out as a designer I really recommend you read this book, it will help you become a better designer. Oh, and the book itself is a comic as well (how meta!)

#3 Good talk, how to design conversations that matter by Daniel Stillman

When everything is design (I’m sneaking in a bonus book here;-) and thus can be designed, conversations are not an exception. In his book, Daniel Stillman writes about the way conversations work and what patterns and structures lie behind a good and meaningful conversation. When you see design as a form of conversation, in other words, your design is trying to communicate or to tell a story, suddenly these patterns and structures also make sense for you as a designer.

As you progress through your career I guarantee that you will discover that 90% of design is about talking. What do I mean? Well, you’ll spend a great deal of your time, explaining concepts to clients, discussing ideas with your peers, and presenting your work to the relevant stakeholders. When you take this into consideration it becomes obvious that a good understanding of what makes for great conversation will make you more effective at your job. 

#4 Creative strategy and the business of design  by Douglas Davis

Over the last few years, there has definitely been no shortage of books explaining the ‘business value of design’. However, this particular book is different because it’s written from a designers perspective. It explains the value of understanding business principles within the context of design. Most creative schools don’t provide this portion of much-needed education for young creatives. Understanding how business works and how it’ll affect the design work you do is just essential. It’s a must-read. 

#5 The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte

This is one of three very important books Edward Tufte wrote on how to represent data and give meaning to data in a visual and elegant way. It was first published in 1983 but is still as relevant today as it was then. In a world where data and data visualisation are omnipresent and ever-growing, his books teach you how to make sense of it and how we as designers have a role to play and a task to fulfil. This is also a great book for tech buffs who have an interest in the creative side of data. 

#6 MC24: Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in your Life and Work  (Honourable mention)

This is a book I bought recently. Besides being gorgeously designed by one of my all-time favourite graphic designers, it also teaches designers how to make an impact and to use design for change on all levels. As designers, we are responsible for creating problems but we’re also responsible for the solutions. To put it more eloquently and quote Mr Mau: ‘the greatest challenges we face today were produced by design, and must be solved by design’.

So that’s my list, I recommend these books to fledgeling and experienced designers alike. They’ve helped me rethink and reimagine design over and over again. They challenge what I thought I knew and they’ve made me a better designer.

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Last modified: July 12, 2021
Author info
Martijn Hinfelaar
Martijn is the creative director and founder of our design studio Solving. Formerly the creative lead at Jungle Minds and creative director at The Garage, he has more than 20 years of experience in the agency world.
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