10 Best Books for Designers in 2020

Our favorite product design books

Without the hours spent piloting our vehicles to the design studio, our podcast consumption has dropped considerably and we’ve been missing the voices of other design thought leaders. On the bright side, however, we’ve managed to squeeze in more armchair time and have rediscovered the books that first inspired us to pursue careers in design along with some new ones to expand our thinking. Below is a list of what we consider to be the top 10 books for aspiring product designers to read in 2020, whether you’re an industrial designer working to develop physical products or a digital product designer crafting on-screen interactions. This list is far from comprehensive but reading ten books before the end of the year is ambitious enough on its own so we’ll save some additional titles for our 2021 list.

Note: Shape is NOT an affiliate with any of the links below. We’re sharing these strictly because we think they’re awesome reads.

The Art of Innovation

by Tom Kelley

We will always jump at the chance to get an inside look at an inspirational design company like IDEO. Kelley strongly believes that everyone can be creative, and between IDEO and the d.school at Stanford, his work over the past 3 decades has been about making innovation a way of life. This book tells stories directly from IDEO while also drawing upon learnings from other leading companies.

The War of Art

by Steven Pressfield

Do you ever sit down at your desk in front of a blank screen only to realize you’re thirsty or that you need to check your inbox for… anything else? This is what Steven Pressfield calls the resistance. The War of Art is an insightful and entertaining book to keep close to your desk and prompt you to jump into the struggle we all must deal with while trying to produce great creative work.

Tom Peters Essentials: Design

by Tom Peters

Tom Peters is a management thinker most known for his 1982 classic, In Search of Excellence. His own search for excellence has led him to become a very vocal ambassador for design. Design is a short book, or perhaps a rant, about why design must be at the heart of every business, and it’s one we highly recommend.

The Laws of Human Nature

by Robert Greene

In order to develop a deep understanding of our users, it’s insightful to strengthen our understanding of human behavior. The Laws of Human Nature provides profound observations seen through the lens of history, psychology, and philosophy. If the author’s name rings a bell, it’s likely because you’ve heard of his previous bestseller, The 48 Laws of Power.

Purple Cow

by Seth Godin

Like Tom Peters, Seth Godin doesn’t come from a design background. Rather, he’s a management thinker on a pursuit to inspire people to do work that matters. Purple cow is a book about creating products and services that are worth marketing in the first place. If that isn’t enough to perk a designer’s ears up, the cover also features some praise from Tom Kelley.

Creative Confidence

by Tom Kelley, David Kelley

Where The Art of Innovation is more about building innovative teams and organizations, Creative Confidence focuses on how each of us can unleash our own creative powers. While this book has major appeal to those outside of the design industry who are looking to be more creative, it also provides an action plan for designers to boost their ability to innovate. As Tom Peters praised “Don’t just read it. Use it. Now.”

Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750

by Adrian Forty

Objects of Desire is a very consumable book filled with brilliant insights from the past 200 years of design and manufacturing. In his book, Forty shows how much truly goes into the design of objects all around us. Written in 1992, Objects of Desire has retained its relevance as a thought-provoking look at how design and society intertwine.

The Design of Everyday Things

by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things is quite possibly the most well known and applicable book on the topic of product design. Whether you’re an industrial designer or UX designer, Don’s six fundamental principles of design likely have vast implications on the work you do. It’s an insightful piece on the psychology behind product interaction and one that should be on every product designer’s bookshelf.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

by Nir Eyal

In Hooked, Nir Eyal draws upon principles of cognitive psychology and decision making to analyze why some products capture our attention while others flop. The result is a how-to guide for building better products and doesn’t require you to pour over hours of abstract theory. This book is geared more towards the UX design community, but delivers valuable insights for industrial designers as well.

Emotional Design

by Don Norman

In his second book on our list, Norman explains how the principles of human psychology inform the invention and design of the new products that surround us. Going beyond his claim that a user’s needs should trump a designer’s aesthetic, Norman argues that human centered design is about creating effective tools that mesh with human emotion.

Reading the way to better design

Rereading some of the older books on this list recently, we were surprised by how relevant they still are despite having been written before the advent of the iPhone. The creative challenges faced by Da Vinci in 1502 as he designed an odometer are not unlike the design challenges we face today. It all comes back to designing experiences that will delight the people who use them. The best way to design better for people is to learn more about them, and we hope that this list serves as a great place to get started.

Should this Exist? A short guide to evaluating your idea’s worth

Should this Exist? A short guide to evaluating your idea’s worth

Should this exist?

In our past two decades of helping our clients launch new brands and build upon existing ones, we’ve observed some factors that increase the likelihood of an idea being adopted in the marketplace. If taking note from our clients wasn’t enough, we’ve even decided to introduce a few products of our own. What’s written here is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to launching your new idea but, rather, aims to help you explore the reality of your ah-ha! moment:

Should this exist beyond my imagination?

We don’t mean “should this exist” as a thought-provoking moral dilemma as is often the case on the popular new podcast sharing the title. No, what we’re asking here is, why is this idea worth pursuing? Is it worth the grueling hours that will need to get it off the ground? Is it worth sacrificing the time you could be doing something else? Is it worth the injected plastic that will, one day, end up in a landfill? Whenever we’re going through the process of launching something new, we always start by asking ourselves two important questions:

    1. Why should this be brought into the world?
    2. Is there an existing alternative that is already solving the problem we’re aiming to?

FABRIQ Speaker design sketches

Why should this be brought into the world?

Rather than proposing elaborate new financial models to evaluate the revenue potential of your idea, our objective is simply to prompt you to think about a few key questions prior to committing your energy to chase after your new idea. For most people, the light bulb goes off when a personal need for something arises but, to be viable beyond a personal prototype, you’ll need more than one customer.

Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to launch an idea that connects with small, specialized audiences across the globe. The continual increase in free-flowing information paired with more efficient logistics infrastructure has made niche groups of consumers more accessible than ever. While specialized audiences may be spread thin geographically, they can often be found in tightknit groups online and generally like to share their experiences with the rest of the community. The caveat to this is that specialized groups of category enthusiasts tend to have stronger pre-existing brand loyalty, higher quality expectations, and are very quick to spot imposters who are just stopping by to make a quick buck. If your idea is meant to address the needs of a specialized niche group, authenticity had better be in your game plan.

Communities exist globally where people will buy niche products online

Whether your idea is specialized or has mass market appeal, to introduce a new product and urge your customers to trade it for their hard earned cash, you’d better have a very compelling story. How is your idea going to contribute to the lives of those who use it? Like a new CRM tool for sales teams, does it help people do more with less? Or, like the output from the entertainment industry, is it based on making people feel good? If your idea doesn’t remove pain points or make a positive contribution to someone’s day, it’s probably time to head back to the drawing board. Unless you have a huge marketing budget to help introduce your idea to the world, you’ll need early support of advocates and this is only made possible by providing a remarkable customer experience. Why not do some preliminary exploration with a sample of your target market before launching headlong after your idea?. When we receive a slow nod and an “I might be interested in that” we know we’re in trouble. While presenting new ideas, we’re looking for jaw-dropping genuine excitement. During the early stages of whatever we’re working on, we refer back to the teachings of Seth Godin and ask ourselves the very basic; is this really worth talking about?

Competition – Do alternatives already exist?

After concluding that an idea has merit and is worth bringing into the world, it’s important to understand the alternatives that are already available. A quick google search is insightful and can help you understand if your new idea isn’t so new, but we advise you go beyond that and identify if there’s anything out there that solves the same problem you’re aiming to.

Access to sourcing websites like Alibaba, intuitive e-commerce platforms like Shopify and the speed at which we can now connect with freelancers on Upwork have made it easy to lay the groundwork of introducing something new to the world. A business can now be started in a local public library and requires little to no mastery. It’s important to remember that, as these barriers are eliminated for you, they’re also being eliminated for your potential competitors. As we continue to build platforms and tools that amplify noise, why is your idea going to stand out from the rest? Remember that long before you compete for sales, you will need to compete for your customer’s attention. Publishing an e-commerce website is one thing, but finding the people to visit it is where the required mastery has now shifted to.

Person making online purchase of product

In our years helping brands introduce new ideas and design new products, we’ve realized that there is a major misconception that being better is enough. Does your new knife stay sharp 15% longer than the leading brand at Target? Unfortunately, 15% is not worth a consumer’s cost of switching or the inconvenience it will cause the buyer to move something else off the shelf. Better is only enough when the odds are already in your favor and this isn’t likely to be the case. Often, you’ll find yourself up against brands that have been spending decades building retail relationships, reliable supplier networks, and international brand awareness. Whether it’s a consumer, buyer or investor, the gatekeepers you need to impress with your idea are already busy doing something else and you’ll need to find a way to get their attention. Once you have their attention, you will then need to convince them that your idea is worth the cost of switching. When it comes to launching new ideas in a crowded space, we advise innovators to aim to launch an idea that provides at least a 10X benefit over the next best thing.


Why 10X?

In his work, Understanding the Psychology of New-Product Adoption, John T. Gourville notes that consumers tend to overvalue products they already own by a factor of three while companies tend to overvalue their new products by a factor of three. As a result, there is a 9X mismatch about what developers think consumers want and what consumers actually want. This model uses only psychological biases and doesn’t take into consideration the market advantages possessed by pre-existing competition so we feel it’s safer to strive for a 10X improvement.

Understanding the Psychology of New-Product Adoption 9x effect model

With this disconnect in mind, new ideas are likely to fall flat if they’re only 2 or 3X better than the entrenched market players. In order to negate the upper hand the existing competition holds and give an idea a chance to succeed, it needs to deliver substantial benefits. Bookstores already existed when Jeff Bezos decided to start one but he figured out a model that would allow Amazon to have 10x the offering. Dollar Shave Club may not have reinvented the razor, but the sum of experiences it offered consumers certainly hit the 10X marker and rattled the chains of major CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies. How can you build upon your idea to ensure your competitors’ customers will look beyond the psychological costs of switching from what they’re already invested in?

Take a breath

The spark of a new idea is intoxicating and helps power entrepreneurs through the grueling early stages of development but these early stages require the discipline and humility to slow down and ask the tough questions. Whether you’re creating an entirely new category or diving into an older area filled with competition, in order to make it off the ground, new ideas need to be compelling and worth talking about. At this stage, it’s important to remember that we are all biased and are likely overweighing our idea’s benefits by a factor of three. Prior to taking on a new project, we work with our clients to dig deep and help answer two fundamental questions: Should this be brought into the world? And how can we make it at least 10X better than the next best alternative?

Rather than getting discouraged if your idea can’t pass this test, take a breath, head back to the drawing board and work on creating an idea for your users to love. Day in and day out, we work with brands to help them increase the likelihood that their ideas gain traction. If you’re in the early stages of ideation and need some fresh eyes, we’re here to help.

Your competition already has the upper hand. How are you going to take that from them?