Design thinking books you need to read

April 25, 2019
list of design thinking books

Design thinking is a great methodology for creative professionals - here are the books that will make you a master of the model!

Design thinking is a methodology many designers know and adore. It can be a great way to organize your workflow into a successful process that encourages you to push the limits in your creation. In this game, it’s all about understanding users, their everyday problems and complaints.

It requires a lot of research but also gives you ample room to let your imagination run wild – while also encouraging you to test your ideas and make decisions based on solid evidence.

Sounds a bit complicated, doesn’t it? Well, we can’t say it’s a walk in the park. It does take a lot of learning to be able to get yourself in the right mindset and to look at your project through the right lenses. We are very happy to say it isn’t impossible, however! And while reading endless blog posts online, sometimes learning a new design concept requires you to go deep – deeper than a 1,500 word blog post can take you.

That’s why we came up with this list of books that will take you by the end through every stage in the design thinking process. You’ll notice some books on the design thinking methodology, and others that dig deeper into one particular stage. That way, you can choose to go for a book with a wide scoop or focus on that one stage that always gives you trouble.

Design thinking books: the whole methodology

These design thinking books are meant to give readers a general understanding of the methodology itself, and are the perfect starting point for newbies who are unfamiliar with the model.

01. Change by Design

Tim brown goes beyond laying down the foundation of the design thinking methodology in this book – he uses the method as a central argument against a common misconception. Many people believe that great products and designs simply pop out of designers heads, when in fact creating something truly innovative depends on following a certain process on the road to the finished product.

We love this book, because even though it is all about the design thinking model, this book could come in handy for just about anyone who wants to innovate by tackling a problem.

design thinking book - change by design by t. brown

Change by Design covers all the basics such as the design thinking process while also covering other topics that have a direct connection to creating a product, such as budgeting, some insights on user testing, and how you can diversify your portfolio in order to be more innovative.

This design thinking book checks all the right boxes while also offering some great extra value to readers. The narrative is simple and easy to understand – while also offering readers a cool insight into IDEO, a widely successful design firm of which Tim Brown is CEO.

Goodreads rating: 3.91 stars

02. Graphic Design Thinking

This design thinking book sets out to make a point: creativity isn’t a gift some people are born with, but is rather a skill that requires a lot of practice. Graphic Design Thinking uses the design thinking model in order to offer people a structure they can use to practice their creativity game.

cover of graphic design thinking book

Ellen Lupton also offers several other methods readers can combine with the design thinking methodology in order to get ideas flowing, with each tactic accompanied by an explanation and case study to put it all into perspective. This design thinking book also comes with several interviews with top dogs in the UX sector, such as Christoph Niemann, Jessica Helfand and Steven Heller.

Goodreads rating: 4.3 stars

03. Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience and Brand Value

Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience and Brand Value is a compilation of several essays which deal with the many faces and applications of the design thinking methodology. With different authors of these essays, readers come into contact with wisdom from several experienced designers who share their own thoughts.

You can expect to find plenty of personal journeys that these professionals went through, and specific strategies they apply in their respective companies.

design thinking book cover

The content of this design thinking book offers plenty of theoretical information on the model while also covering ground with real-life, practical examples that illustrate the power of the methodology.

Goodreads rating: 3.8 stars

Design thinking books: a closer look

These books don’t all approach the design thinking model as a whole. By that, we mean that these books all dig deeper into one particular stage of the methodology. That way, you can find that one stage that always seems tricky and tackle it with some guidance from experienced masters in their respective fields.

Stage one: Empathy

01. Well-Designed: Hot to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love

Jon Kolko’s book is all about how you can put yourself in the user’s shoes in order to develop a real understanding of users’ desires and struggles. The designer needs to be able to not only understand users, but also reflect that understanding in the final product – which is absolutely necessary in order to create an emotional connection between user and product.

Particularly aimed at product managers, Well Designed is great source of information for those who want to develop their empathy skills. Kolko also works to keep readers from falling into the trap of thinking that simply blurring ideas is a good way to push for good products, even if those ideas rely heavily on the latest technology.

well designed - design thinking book for empathy

This design thinking book enjoys many interviews in which professionals explore their tactics to understand users and discuss the impact that empathy had on their projects. The book is well-structured and easy to read, which makes it a perfect option to have around your desk for future reference.

Goodreads rating: 3.9 stars

02. The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill

In her widely successful book, Karla McLaren makes a compelling case: empathy is a crucial natural skill that we can develop through training. McLaren relies on findings from several studies in neuroscience and social psychology to teach readers how to perceive and grasp other people’s experiences – which is handy when designing user experiences.

One of the key takeaways from The Art of Empathy is that readers ought to identify and channel emotions, as opposed to allowing themselves to be controlled by them. From the POV of UX designers within the design thinking model, this could also stretch to controlling your own opinions and emotions when at the empathy stage. Assuming you know how the user feels isn’t a good idea.

cover of the art of empathy design thinking book

While this book doesn’t necessarily focus on design or UX, its beyond doubt that it has something to offer UX designers. Learning to shift into another person’s perspective is a tough ability to master – hence why the initial user research stage of any project is tricky.

Designers need to truly understand users, and empathy is key in that process. McLaren defends the view that empathy has the power to make us more effective in all aspects of our lives – and we can’t disagree with her.

Given that this book offers some great insight that can (and should) be applied to the empathy stage, it earns a place on this list as a design thinking book.

Goodreads: 3.8 stars

03. Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?

As the title might hint at, this design thinking book uses neuroscience in order to get readers to understand users. Is dives deep into questions such as “what motivates users to click on that element?” or “why did that person trust the information you presented?”.

neuro web design thinking book

Neuro Web Design makes use of scientific theories on the human psychology, and does a great job at outlining how those concepts affect the user experience. Susan Weinschenk takes readers through the unconscious to look at how people make decisions, how their emotions affect those decisions and how your design can influence those processes.

This design thinking book is a must read for any designer interested in exploring the mind of users, and looking to know more about persuasive design.

Goodreads rating: 3.8

Stage two: Definition

01. Problem Finding, Problem Solving, And Creativity

Problem Finding, Problem Solving, And Creativity has an interesting thesis: how do creativity and problem-solving relate to one another? Both are very valuable skills but does being creative mean one is also apt at problem-solving? If a person is very creative, does that mean they are likely to have an easier time identifying problems?

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Mark A. Runco is a research fellow at the American Institute for Behavioral Research & Technology, and covers all aspects of problem identifying and solving. With essays from many experienced professionals, topics range from problem construction, scientific problem-solving and methods for investigating possible problems.

problem solving book for better design thinking

It doesn’t take much to realize that while not 100% of the information in the book may be applicable to UX design, a great part of it is. Being able to identify and define the problem correctly is crucial if you hope to have a relevant and useful product – which is true of all products, not just those made with the design thinking model.

The usefulness of the knowledge contained in this book earned it a spot on this list as another design thinking book.

Goodreads rating: 3.5

02. Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really is

This brief design thinking book is all about problem-solving. Written by two computer scientists back in 1982, Are Your Lights On? is still very much relevant today. Narrated in a casual tone and with playful humor, this book should take no longer than a few hours to read from cover to cover.

cover of design thinking book by weinberg

The interesting thing about this book is that it isn’t necessarily a how-to guide on solving problems, but rather a casual conversation about what a problem really is. From the point of view of a UX designer, the applications of this book are clear. Understanding the user is only part of the battle, for you need to also grasp the problem users suffer and your product can fix.

Crucial questions for product development such as “is this a real problem?” and “is this a problem worth fixing?” are discussed in a light way everyone can follow and enjoy. A definite winner!

Goodreads rating: 4.2

03. Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People

This book, originally published in Japan, was meant for children. Watanabe, the author, wanted to offer kids a simple way for them to develop their problem-solving skills – to his surprise, the book was a massive hit with adults too! Turns out, problem-solving is a skill worth developing, no matter your age.

problem solving for design thinking - book cover

The book uses simple and clever exercises and examples to get the main ideas across, including logic trees and diagrams among other illustrations. The cool thing about Problem Solving 101, is that it is simple enough that a child could understand it, while delivering a message so powerful that business leaders and designers can apply it to their work. Among the reviews from readers, a common feeling is that this book doubles as an introduction to data science.

Within the UX scope, this book does the crucial job of walking designers through the process of identifying and solving a problem. Sometimes, the simplest thing can be the most challenging. And so, this book earns a spot on this list as a design thinking book worth reading.

Goodreads rating: 4.0 stars

Stage three: Ideation

01. Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson goes over some of the greatest ideas people have had in history and asks an important question: where do all of these come from? What kind of environment were the people who came up with these ideas in? Does that kind of environment breed great ideas?

cover of design thinking book - where do good ideas come from

John says there is such a thing as a good environment for innovative ideas – just like there are toxic ones that don’t allow for innovation. Readers are met with seven patterns that Johnson was able to identify with looking back at all these great inventions and ideas – and their value in the design thinking process cannot be overstated.

After all, designers are required to have ideas users can apply and solve their problems with – which requires great creativity. A little help in getting those creative juices flowing can’t hurt, can it?

Whether it is to change the environment of your company, or to find a framework you can apply to come up with new ideas, Where Good Ideas Come From has got you covered.

Goodreads rating: 4.0 stars

02. Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind

Wired to Create is brought to you by a psychologist (Kaufman) and a Huffington Post writer (Gregoire), and looks at how incredibly creative people work. We are all familiar with the stereotype that creative artists can be messy in their day-to-day lives but Kaufman and Gregoire look past that – and right into what these people do differently to the rest of us.

Do their habits foment their creativity? Do they have certain way of doing things that pushes their creativity on a daily basis?

cover of wired to create - ideation for design thinking book

For UX designers everywhere, this design thinking book could represent a powerful ally to have around. By looking into the lives of great artists from Picasso to John Lennon, the book identifies patterns in their lives that designers could replicate. Ultimately, Kaufman and Gregoire claim that these ways of life have the power to boost your professional creativity while also resulting in the enrichment of your personal life. What’s not to love, right?

Goodreads rating: 3.8 stars

03. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Originals has a slightly different angle in its discussion about creativity. Adam Grant didn’t want to simply give readers an instruction manual on being creative. Instead, he set out to understand how creative people can make their ideas heard, and to look into the struggle of communicating innovative ideas to people who might be unfamiliar with the innovation field.

Looking at an idea objectively can be challenging – in the end, we are all wired to look at things in a certain way. Traditions, customs, habits, conformity and fear of risk are all factors that play into choosing and developing an idea into something tangible.

creativity book for design thinking

Finding ways to come up with ideas is important in the life of a designer but mastering the skill of defending those ideas is just as important. Be it making a pitch to secure funding for a great new project, or convincing the rest of the design team your solution is the best option for users – designers need make a case for their ideas.

This design thinking book offers an interesting and different view of what it takes to be innovative, and we love it.

Goodreads rating: 3.9 stars

Stage four: Prototyping

01. Prototyping: A Practitioner's Guide

Todd Zaki Warfel brings us a book that makes the case for prototyping ideas. A Practitioner’s Guide goes over the classic reasons why prototyping early is good for your project, while also offering some insight into techniques and ways you can prototype better and faster.

Designers who are new to the industry will likely find the most value in this book as it can act as an introduction into the world of prototyping and its many faces. More experienced designers might find themselves hungry for deeper content, which makes this book ideal for beginners looking to go over the basics.

book cover for design thinking prototyping stage

Full disclosure – the book also has a section dedicated to teaching readers how to work with a prototyping tool, which is generally perceived as outdated. In an industry that moves at the speed of light, a certain struggle for up-to-date content is to be expected. Among the reviews, readers forgave the tools section for the sake of evergreen knowledge offered on the theory and concept of prototyping.

Goodreads rating: 3.7 stars

02. Prototyping for Designers: Developing the Best Digital and Physical Products

This design thinking book is more comprehensive when compared to the previous alternative. As opposed to an introduction to the basics, Kathryn McElroy brings readers a complete and informative book on prototyping. Going beyond just covering the basics, McElroy dives into important debates on prototyping – such as the equilibrium between cheap and dirty prototypes and detailed high-fidelity prototypes.

prototyping for design thinking model book cover

Precisely because it is rich in information, Prototyping for Designers can seem more robust in its reading – which makes it unlikely readers will fly through the pages in 2 sleepless nights. Even though it requires a bit of effort to read, many books that are dense in useful information require work from readers.

Some would say that is exactly why these types of books are so important to read – because they challenge us to push further and to keep learning. Readers can expect to learn a lot about prototyping as well as user testing (to a lesser extent).

Goodreads rating: 3.8 stars

03. Rapid Prototyping: Principles and Applications

As you can probably guess, Rafiq I. Noorani’s design thinking book focuses exclusively on rapid prototyping. The reason Rapid Prototyping made the cut to this list is because the design thinking methodology calls for designers to keep a handful of ideas and get them all to prototyping – so the designer can see all the alternatives in tangible form, so the choice between them is well-rounded.

book cover - rapid prototyping as design thinking book

This keeping of a few options until further data is gathered requires those initial prototypes to be made in a quick and low-fidelity manner, keeping the cost of the prototypes to the lowest possible.

Rapid prototyping isn’t an easy skill to master, as identifying the truly essential elements that need to be included is a challenge. In order to help readers get there faster, Noorani uses case studies and exercises to help readers spot those things that can be left for a future prototype and those that need to be present from prototype one.

Goodreads rating: 4.3 stars

Stage five: testing

01. Measuring the User Experience: Collecting, Analyzing, and Presenting Usability Metrics

We love the wisdom contained in Tullis and Albert’s book. As our most avid readers already know, we are big believers that user testing needs to be done on a solid basis of data – and Measuring the User Experience is here to help you get there. The way they go about that is by focusing on how designers can measure usability.

Sounds fairly simple, but any experienced professional can tell you that measuring something that is abstract can be a nightmare.

user testing - design thinking book for test stage

The authors offer readers a framework that separates metrics into six categories that range from performance to navigation. Needless to say that each one of them is important in the search for the best possible product, but finding the metrics that you want to focus on is key.

Both authors do a wonderful job in laying down what each of those metrics really measure, and what the results from those metrics can actually mean for your design.

The sheer importance of the ability to carry out data-oriented user testing makes this one of the top design thinking books on this list.

Goodreads rating: 4.0 stars

02. Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems

Avid readers might already be familiar with Steve Krug’s work, as his other book “Don’t make me think” was widely successful among the UX community. This time, Krug focuses his work on user testing – and not just fancy testing of high-fidelity prototypes. Krug sets out to teach readers how to carry out user testing on just about anything, from detailed prototypes to a wall of post-it notes.

user testing stage - design thinking book

An interesting take on this design thinking book is that it shows readers not just how to spot problems in the design, but also how to analyse the impact of those problems on the product. This, in turn, will help designers understand which problems are in greater need of fixing and which issues can wait until further in the development.

We also love that Rocket Surgery Made Easy fiercely defends the idea of testing everything and testing early – so readers can find problems at a time when solving them is still fairly easy and/or cheap.

Goodreads rating: 4.1 stars

03. The Moderator’s Survival Guide

This design thinking book delivers on what the cover promises: it is literally a troubleshooting guide to user testing moderators. It lays down the basics of what a moderator should and should never do – as well as preparing readers for just about any problem that might pop up during testing. While the book is oriented towards one-on-one user testing, it’s knowledge can be easily scalable to your particular testing setup.

The Moderator’s Survival Guide includes several war stories the authors and other professionals have experienced in their careers, ranging from the most common issues to the very unlikely problems you might encounter.

moderator survival guide - design thinking book cover

Consider this a book you can refer back to when you find yourself wondering the right way to deal with a situation while carrying out testing – you’ll find tips on how to react, what to say and how to get the situation back under control.

The book is narrated in a casual and simple way, making it easy for just about anyone to give it a read! There is something for newbies and experienced professionals alike in this design thinking book.

Goodreads rating: 4.2

The wrap up

Reading a book about a topic you would like to explore is one of those constructive habits one should never lose. With this list, we hope you found at least one book that might belong in your bookshelf or right next to the screen on your work desk.

Some of the design thinking books listed here are quick reads, some are more lengthy – but every one of them has something to teach you. The real question is: what do you want to learn about?

Rebeka Costa
In-house SEO manager, usability enthusiast and patron of all sleep-deprived designers