I have been a voracious, fairly inclusive reader. From history to philosophy, business books to science fiction, biographies and economics to psychology, as well as the occasional scans of industry “to-dos” and “must-reads” – my design practice has been widened, informed and influenced by many of these wonderful reading companions.

“Remember that you and I made this journey together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

This list is a broad one. It includes creators and makers in its sweep, as well as my curious product manager and data-nerd friends. It is my belief that designers, or even engineers and PMs for that matter, should not limit themselves to reading about their profession (and fellow professionals). They should truly be the connector of dots between disparate ideas, creating newer ways of seeing, experiencing and interpreting the world via what they design, make, create, build.

The list is also an abridged one, with many favourites left out. I have categorised books books under three headings and a few genres, adding a few quirky bonus reads. I hope you enjoy it.

Work

What’s work for you? Managing teams, products and outcomes or designing for your project while juggling with deadlines? Helping users choose better? Or the fine art of creating that perfect balance between the many stakeholders, including your manager? This collection responds to that meta level view of work, irrespective of what you are designing or delivering

1. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. 

“Focus is the new IQ”

Cal Newport, Deep Work

In an age where attention is the new currency, Cal argues that “focus is the new IQ”. This book is a manifesto to go beyond the superficial, to stop skimming and go deeper (with practical to-do’s). The Economist quote in praise of the book is intriguing — “Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem.” App? Really?

2. Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace 

This book remains for me a wonderful read at the cross-roads of business and creativity. Based on lessons from the years of running Pixar – featuring artists, animators, computer geeks, hard nosed execs, egos and Steve Jobs! This is a reminder to all of us who lead the business of design that creativity and business success need not be mutually exclusive.

3. Predictably Irrational by Dan Airley 

This is deep dive into the motivations, often irrational, that shape our decisions and our lives. The reason for putting this book into the work section is that design (and the craft of creation) deals with choices and decisions and this is one of the pioneering deep-dives on that subject. You will also enjoy Airley’s TED talk or his many other lectures/talks. Go beyond the bullet points and the overviews. Tip: new updated edition now available!

Perspectives

See the world from a different perspective. Why? Partly because our limited world-view limits the ability to cross-pollinate, ideate and think bigger. Silos of design-Whatsapp (or Slack) groups, design-films, design-groups, design-events, design-podcasts, designer-portfolio sites are just that: Silos!

4. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillon 

This book is one of those enduring pieces of work that I have often gone back to and gifted to friends and colleagues. The book is based on a lecture that Christensen (the man who made disruptive innovation a mantra) gave to his Harvard graduating students – reflecting on his quest to find meaning. Christensen had then just come back after a long battle with cancer (he passed away in January this year). Inter-weaving insights from work, personal life, lives of friends, colleagues, corporate entities and their strategies – this is a rare combination of the pragmatic and the philosophical. At 240 pages, this is a slim edition, but powerful, thoughtful and worth a re-read at different stages of your career!

“I had thought the destination was what was important, but it turned out it was the journey.”

Clayton M. Christensen

5. Superfreakonomics by Stephen J Dubner & Steven D Levitt

An essential reading to uncover the hidden forces and motivations, often contrarian, that shape our everyday world. A sequel to the equally fascinating Freakonomics, this book is for those who want to peel away the layers of the obvious and look at the application of economics to unusual subjects and situations: from suicide bombers, prostitutes and global cooling to the problems of horse manure. Note: The shorter pieces make it an easy read!

6. Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Rönnlund 

The subtitle for this book is: “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”. In the times we are living in, this may not sound terribly convincing, but in some ways, it underscores the (sometimes) irrational reaction to the pandemic we see in media, social groups and the inability to put things in a larger perspective. Packed with data, anecdotes and charts, this is worth a read or revisit in 2020.

Bonus Read: Through The Language Glass: Why the world looks different in other languages by Guy Deutscher A peek into how language shapes our view of the world. Could our experience of the world depend on whether our language has a word for “blue”?”

Fiction

Should designers, makers and creators read fiction? The answer for me is a big “Yes.” Especially if your life’s work is focused on understanding and empathy, of speaking for the user when a lot of people are speaking numbers, metrics and hacks. The way fiction writers often enter the world of their characters, inhabit their mind and lives is the envy of the most dedicated ethnographic researchers. I’ve picked three varied books aimed specifically at those who are looking to ease into fiction. (In doing so I have avoided some of my other “heavier-reading” fiction-favorites!) Ali Sigri, Elsa Gogol and others I have found on these pages are enduring, endearing characters who have enriched my life.

7. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif 

Described as a “a comic novel,” this book is a creative, fictitious account of the events leading up to the 1988 plane crash that killed General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan. It is a dark comedy of twists and turns, misfortune and bad luck which all add up to a gripping read.

“You want freedom and they give you chicken korma.”

Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes

8. My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologies by Fredrik Backman 

This story weaves dazzlingly between reality and fantasy, between the world and mind of a 7 year old and her 77 year old Grandmother. The latter, a larger-than-life, eccentric character has left behind a pile of apology notes after her death. Each note opens pathways to new, unreal characters and connects fantasy worlds. If this constant switching between real and imagined makes you dizzy, I suggest you go slow, suspend reality and dive into the inner fanciful life of an over-imaginative 7 year old or a forever-young septuagenarian!

9. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri 

This was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel and explores the themes that have defined her work – the conflict of cultures, of East and West, old and new. What is fascinating is the familiar thread running around the story, of ‘the good name’. A cultural nuance that ‘back home’ can range from being cute to stupid or funny, but so alien in a foreign land. Different from the others in this genre, Namesake is a simpler linear read, sensitive, reflective and spans a much longer period.

Bonus Read: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, remains an engaging and enduring piece of science fiction, even more so today. It is conceivably inching towards reality more than fiction, 84 years after it was published.

History

History is a perennial favorite, and more so with the advent of a whole new crop of younger Indian writers like Manu Pillai, Ira Mukhoty and Paravati Sharma who bring Indian History to light in ways that are at par with thrillers. Part of the reason why History is fascinating is understanding decisions (or indecision), unanticipated forces and unintended consequences, played out across the long sweep of time. History is both humbling, instructive and fascinating.

10.  Rebel Sultans by Manu Pillai

The book traces the fascinating 400 year journey (From Khilji to Shivaji) across the events that shaped the Deccan that some of us now live in. Well researched, detailed and thorough, it is eminently readable even though some call it ‘pop-history.’  I enjoyed the long read more than the collection of shorter historical retellings like “The Courtesan and The Mahatma…” If you prefer, you could start with a shorter version.

11. First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyay 

Tis book is set in the ageing 1800s, against the hope of a new millennia in Bengal. A land and time grappling with old and new, rituals and renaissance and an alien empire. You will meet the familiar characters from your school textbooks in unfamiliar places, situations and phases of their lives – woven with a few imaginary characters that give the time and setting more depth. First Light is a sequel to Those Days — which too is eminently readable, but the books do not need to be read in sequence.

12. Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis 

This important book is a hard one to classify. Think of it as History meets Anthropology and Psychology (with a spot of Geo-Politics)! The basic plot – “How successful nations recover from crises while adopting selective changes – a coping mechanism more commonly associated with individuals recovering from personal crises.” A great read for the current year!

“Success is not guaranteed to well-intentioned decent people, nor necessarily denied to evil people.”

Jared Diamond, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

Bonus read: Jehangir by Parvati Sharma, a sensitive portrait of a relatively unknown emperor who “could have been the Director of Natural History Museum” — a man sandwiched between his legendary dad, Akbar and his illustrious son Shahjahan.

Questions for You

How many of these have you read? Or, after reading this recommendation, which of these are now on your reading list? Are there personal favourites that should have made it to this list? Are there some newer genres I should include? Would love to hear your thoughts — so please keep them coming.

And where are the Design Books?

That’s for the next list 🙂

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