Five books I read in 2019 that made me a better designer

Short summaries and takeaways for creative bookworms galore

October 13, 2019

6 mins

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1. “How To Be Great At Your Job” by Justin Kerr

30 minutes to 1 hour • 4/5 stars • Career Advice

In this quick-and-easy read, Kerr dishes out rules to finding success in our careers. He’s written fourteen books, toured the country in a rock band, and started a record label — all without ever checking his email after 5pm or touching a minute of work on a weekend. Not surprising for someone who calls himself an “efficiency monster.”

The book divides its content into several areas of focus: email-writing, presentations, work-life balance, promotions, etc. Personally, I was fascinated to read about the added benefits of arriving to work early and how “over-communication” turns out to be the best form of communication. What I loved most was that the book doesn’t sugarcoat any advice; the facts are backed up with former real-life scenarios and are presented in bite-size paragraphs.

It’s a perfect quick Sunday read to get you pumped for a productive week— I finished the hardcover one afternoon in a rooftop bar in Soho.

2. “Ruined By Design” by Mike Monteiro

1 week • 5/5 stars • Social Good, Ethics

Monteiro believes that what we choose to design and more importantly, what we choose not to design and who we exclude from the design process are political acts. In his blunt mannerism, he argues that the basis for an ethical code for designers makes is completely necessary and logical. All doctors are required to swear the Hippocratic Oath before being issued licenses to practice. Designers have the same capabilities of potentially inflicting harm, intentional or not.

“Never do work you’re ashamed of putting your name on.”

As I progressed through the book’s chapters, my jaw dropped as I read the countless blunders of companies that disregarded to deeply think about the systems they designed: Grindr sharing users’ HIV statuses, Palantir creating a database to keep track of immigrants, and, most notoriously, Facebook exposing the data of 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica.

Clearly, in our technology-ridden world, designers have a huge responsibility and it’s more important than ever to learn how we can use our powers in the most respectable ways. Very rarely does a book ever make me truly think — this book forced me to actively question our current standards of practice and raised the bar for the kinds of projects I choose to partake in both in the present and future.

3. “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” by James Clear

2 weeks • 5/5 stars • Personal Development

While this book can’t be directly categorized as a traditional “design” novel, the lessons I received from it have undoubtedly helped me in my day-to-day role. As we all know, habits are quintessentially routines or behavior performed regularly — but they are also the compound interest of self-improvement. Clear’s explanations deeply shifted my thinking in how I viewed the time in my days— I began adopting a philosophy where I sought tiny margins of improvement in everything I did. By solidifying small but consistent actions in my life, it ultimately led to results that generated a compound impact on my lifestyle and schedule.

“If a person were to repeat 1% errors day after day, the small choices turn into toxic results. It’s imperative to learn how to avoid those “bad decisions” before they turn into real problems. Additionally, while goals are about the results you want to achieve, systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”

4. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport

1 week • 4/5 stars • Career Advice

Newport tries to emphasize a point — compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion. He explores the various theories that suggest whether or not following your passion is useful advice when it comes to creating work you love. Additionally, he cites various studies, including Amy Wrzesniewski’s breakthrough paper in the Journal of Research in Personality where she discusses the clear distinction between a job, career, and a calling.

He believes that you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job. The foundation of constructing work you love is acquiring a large store of career capital — valuable and rare traits that you can offer. He backs up the concept of deliberate practice where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.

This book shifted my beliefs on the idea that I first had to enjoy something in order to be good at it. Instead, it may be the case that you can learn a skill through deliberate application, become an expert at it, and then find happiness in the mastery.

5. “The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Guide to Information Graphics” by Dona M. Wong

30 minutes to an hour • 4/5 stars • Data Visualizations/Information Design

In our increasingly data-driven world, it’s almost inevitable that we [as designers] will be faced with at least one project in our lifetimes centered on conveying information through graphics. This book tells you what you need to know when it comes to presenting facts and figures in a way that users will be able to understand quickly and effectively.

Wong formerly served as the Graphics Director at the Wall Street Journal— these 143 pages are based on expertise she’s gotten from working in the data-heavy news industry for eight years. As mentioned in her book, it is ultimately the content that makes the graphics interesting.

“Do you have the information worth making a chart for and have you portrayed it accurately?”

She breaks down the art of creating effective charts into four steps: research, edit, plot, and review. She explains how the right reference point supplies the right message. And she reiterates that people feel pain more than they do joy — a $1000 loss is far worse than a $1000 gain. Thus, the importance of the right context cannot be understated.