Top five books to develop your critical design thinking

Tony Olsson
6 min readAug 13, 2018

Among all the skills you need to possess as a UX designer, I find critical reflections skills the most important one. This is also the one skill I find the hardest to develop and train.

I see a lot of “top five books to read for UX designers” and most of them list the same books. There is always the standard recommendation of Donald Normans “The Design of Everyday Things”, Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” and some sort of UX design encyclopedia type book like “About Face” by Alan Cooper. I don’t have a problem with any of these books, in fact, these are very good books and you should read them. But as these books have become status quo thinking within UX they do very little to challenge us to think about UX in new ways.

So here are five books I recommend if you want to diversify your design thinking. Most of these books are not aimed towards designers but from a personal perspective, these books have changed the way I design in profound ways. These following books will definitely challenge you to reflect and might even change how you think about design at a fundamental level.

Design things: A Critical Introduction to the culture of objects

Author: Prasad Boradkar

In his book Boradkar begs the question, why do we design? His answer is to break it down in parts through a philosophical journey where he investigates design through theories about thinking and objects. What is the value and how it applies to objects? The meaning of manufacturing and how it relates to the design of an object. He also investigates what is the foundation of aesthetics and how it relates to design. He also brings up questions about how design effect consumer culture and user behaviours and our roles as designers is in all this.
This is a dense well-written book that is great as a philosophical introduction to what design actually is and what it contributes to an object. The style is very academic and it might feel like the books start off a bit slow and heavy but it eases up after time. Even if it takes you a while to read, I think you will be happy you did in the end.

Design noir: The secret life of electronic objects

Author: Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby

I would say that this has become a design book classic. Raby & Dunne challenges the notion of what design is and through their work they have developed a sub-genre with a design called critical design. In their book, they explore design objects as vessels for ideas rather then objects that cater to functional needs. This is not anti-design but design used as a tool for investigating the cultural effects digital objects might have.
It’s a challenging read but also a very fun book and the object presented in the books are true works of “art”, “design” or both. How about a “nipple-chair” or an “electro-draught exluder” or a “GPS-table”. All is explained in the book and I guarantee that it will change the way you look at your own designs.
There is only one problem with this book and that is that it has been out of print for years and has become somewhat of a collectable that fetches high prices. But if you are lucky you can find it in libraries especially in universities or you can go for their book “Speculative everything” which is also a great book that continues on the ideas presented in Design Noir.

Thinking fast and slow

Author: Daniel Kahneman

Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman summarizes his work conducted over decades within human cognition where he develops a model for human thinking. He refers to this system of thinking merely as system 1 and system 2 and uses them to explain how and why people make the choices they do.
This book is so rich with insights and beautifully written it is hard to give it a review that does it justice. This is just one of these books you should pick up and you will be happy that you did. I guarantee that it will make you a better designer.

Against method

Author: Paul Feyerabend

Pual Feyerabend book is not a design book at all but one that has have had a major impact on how I adopt methods. As you know design methods are always trending and there is always a new buzz method to be implemented.
But as you know, following design methods is not a guarantee for success and in some cases, we need to question these methods. Within UX we often apply what seems to be scientific methods to gain insights to enhance our designs. We use agile and lean processes since these have been proven successful, we do user surveys because these give us quantifiable results that can be used to motivate design decisions, we trust that if we prototype enough prototyping will prevail. But if we believe too much in methods it can be hard to see their limitations.
In this book, Feyerabend outlines a critique of scientific methodology and presents an alternative view on methods and their status within science. I won’t lie, this is a hard read and I still struggle with it when I revisit it. But it has had a major impact on how I approach and implement methods while giving me the confidence to challenge them and modifying them to make them my own.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Author: Eric S. Raymond

In this book, Eric S. Raymond tells the story of how the open source movement started based on his observation on the development of the Linux Kernel. He contrasts two methods of software development, one which he calls the Cathedral and one the Bazaar. The Cathedral exemplifies how propertarian software is developed and the Bazaar exemplifies how an open source project organises itself.
As you might have noted this book is about software development and not design. But as UX designers we work with developers on a daily basis an in this book you get an overview of the two major philosophies that guide their works and by extension, your own as well.
The first time I read this book it made me think about how I approach my own work and especially what becomes the source of my efforts. Do I design for openness for others to expand on my ideas or do I design for clear ownership of my work?
It’s hard to tell what other designers might take away from this book but it is still a well written and easy book to read that gives a nice historical overview of many digital technologies we today take for granted while designing new user experiences.

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