When designers give each other books

Favorite designer reads aren't always about design. Or are they?

Illustration by Greedy Hen

Designers of all types tend to have special relationships with books. We love the covers and the typesetting, of course, but also the transfer of knowledge and the tactility of complex ideas you can hold in your hands.

This is also true for our design team, so in this way we’re not unique. But we do have as many different, singular kinds of passions for the written word as we have team members. Some of us are captivated by books that illuminate the work we do every day, others by books that transport us far away from the world of design, and still others by graphic novels or ancient fables.

During the holiday season we decided to celebrate these wide-ranging tastes by sharing them with one another. In the time-honored tradition of office Secret Santa gift exchanges — except, you know, virtual — we each drew a name from a hat. Instead of gifting one another tchotchkes and trinkets though, we (anonymously) shipped one of our favorite books to the person we selected.

Some of us are captivated by books that illuminate the work we do every day, others by books that transport us far away from the world of design, and still others by graphic novels or ancient fables.

Once all the books had arrived, we all convened in a big video call (as you do) and, one by one, revealed to whom we’d sent our book and why. Each person talked briefly about how the book they chose had impacted them personally, why it stuck with them, why they were so excited to share it with their designated recipient, and much more.

For a design team that has been lucky enough to be relatively stable — most of us have been working together for a few years now — it was a wonderful way to reveal new sides of ourselves to one another. For added fun we invited an “extended family” of colleagues from other teams too, which added a ton to the holiday spirit of it all. In fact it was such a good time that we thought it would be nice to memorialize the broad array of books that were exchanged and share the list publicly.

Three horizontal rows of book covers. Top: Working; Happy City; The Alchemist; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Atomic Habits. Middle: The Culture Map; Principles: Life & Work; Just My Type; Watchmen. Bottom: Skin in The Game; Your Fathers, Where Are They?; Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!; Notes on The Synthesis of Form.

Just My Type” by Simon Garfield

Something with a light note to end the year: A fun and interesting tour of the history and power of type. Great for folks who aren’t obsessed with type but want to explore a bit more on the subject. Gifted by Val.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form” by Christopher Alexander

A great book about principles of architecture and civil engineering, but highly applicable to software. Alexander spent a lot of his time writing about patterns and design methodology. Gifted by Susse.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” by Dave Eggers

This one’s a super quick read and super fun but also dark. It deals with one guy trying to make sense of an absurd role, and is written entirely as dialogue. Gifted by Jeremy.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” by Svetlana Alexievich

A look at the tragedy of the Chernobyl disaster through stories of the people affected by it. Written by the first Belarusian writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, this book is top of mind at a time when Belarus is undergoing turmoil. Gifted by Tanya.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character” by Richard P. Feynman

An edited collection of anecdotes on a variety of topics by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. It’s extremely easy to read and articulates how complex ideas can be broken down. Gifted by Alex.

Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

A long-standing favorite graphic novel and for good reason. There are so many layers —there’s even a comic book inside a comic book. Intricate stories, fantastic depth. Gifted by Carmen.

The Book of Balance” by Yasuhiko Genku Kimura

One of several translations of a text that’s been around for 2,500 years. You can finish it in an hour but it may take you a few decades to truly understand it. A great read if you’re a fan of inner (and outer) peace. Gifted by Larz.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer

A novel about an autistic child who goes on a journey through New York’s five boroughs after his father dies on 9/11. Beautifully written, eccentric, quirky, and told in a nonlinear storyline. Gifted by Kelly.

Killing Commendatore” by Haruki Murakami

A novel about an unnamed Japanese portrait painter whose wife abandons him. He sets out on a journey that takes him on all sorts of adventures with different metaphoric meanings and learnings. It’s a story that really stays with you. Gifted by Talin.

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir” by Thi Bui

A graphic novel that recounts the author and artist’s experiences growing up with parents who survived the Vietnam War. Deeply personal with striking visuals on every page. Best enjoyed with a hot bowl of phở to heal your heart and soul. Gifted by Gayatri.

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

An investigation into how systems function by one of the world’s great contemporary thinkers. It may not offer emotional comfort during this time of pandemic, but it’s rife with wisdom and unique perspective. Gifted by Wenting.

The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream” by Paulo Coelho

A famously inspiring story about an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world in search of a buried treasure. It’s about life journeys and the treasure of self-discovery. Gifted by Ryan.

The Complete Cosmicomics” by Italo Calvino

An anthology of thirty-four stories that relate complex scientific and mathematical concepts to our everyday world. It’s a wonderful travel book and, since none of us have been able to travel much, a great opportunity to be transported to the author’s dreamscapes. Gifted by Saagar.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design” by Charles Montgomery

A wonderful book to read when commuting to work was actually a thing. It’s an examination of the intersection of urban planning and improving one’s health, happiness, and connection to community. Gifted by Simona.

Aesop’s Fables” by Jerry Pinkney

This particular edition of these ageless parables includes gorgeous illustrations that accompany some of life’s best lessons… which have come in handy dealing with the twists, turns, and curveballs of 2020. Although packaged as a children’s book its translations and illustrations make it even more meaningful for adults. Gifted by Jess, who came up with this whole book exchange idea.

Working” by Robert A. Caro

A great introduction to the work of one of the best biographers of all time, and probably the premier chronicler of power in American society. In this relatively short book Caro reveals the methods and ideas he used to write his massive, highly-intricate books about Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. You’re sucked in by his prose from the very first page. It’s a page turner. Gifted by Khoi.

Principles: Life and Work” by Ray Dalio

This book truly provides a new perspective on life. In today’s world where we are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff," this book helps readers center on what matters most, and to think objectively about less important things. Gifted by Vignesh.

The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer

This ostensibly business-oriented guide to working across cultures also applies to real life. On a team like ours that consists of immigrants, foreigners, and people of different backgrounds —it’s a great book to learn about your teammates too. It delves into how cultures work, and how people from different countries around the world connect and react to events. Gifted by Gleren.

Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

A fascinating explanation of how the human mind works with practical and illuminating insights into how we make choices in both our business and personal lives. Gifted by Shalin.

Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges

This collection of short stories, that border on science fiction and the edge of reality, easily suspends your disbelief over what’s happening in his fiction (and not real life). Written in the 1940s, it anticipates a lot of the ideas we live with today—in fact, one of the writings, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” is cited as an inspiration for hypertext. Gifted by James.

This article originally appeared on Medium with the title "When Designers Give Each Other Books, They’re Not All Books About Design, Though Maybe They Are."

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