Great Design Books for Non-Designers

I didn’t go to a design school, and I am not a designer by trade. But we all love and appreciate good design in everyday things, websites, home, and fashion. Design is about the way things look – physically and digitally.

What I love most about excellent design in the digital world is how it makes content clearer and more useful.

I have been studying digital design on Lynda.com, Coursera, YouTube, and several others* as well as by reading many books. My weekly trips to the library would often have me take out ten or more books at a time or swap books with others.

The books that I am recommending are:

  • for people without a design degree, like myself
  • helpful in practical ways, you can apply what you learn quickly
  • very informative without being too technical
  • clear for an average non-designer
  • fun and often funny (examples of what NOT to do would often crack me up)

These books cover a wide variety of topics, as good design is a collaboration between a multitude of elements.

*Tip – many libraries offer free access to online digital learning platforms such as the one I list here, so check with your local library.

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This is the non-designer bible. This is what you should start with. This book is a must. I have my own copy because it serves not only as a reference but as a fun read. As I mentioned before, I love reading the ‘what not to do’ examples. I don’t know why, but I find them funny, and sometimes they are hilarious. 

The book is full of examples of the before and after graphics. You have examples of designs going bad and then you apply the newly learned design principles to fix issues. And you actually see how much the design improves just by apply a couple of fixes. 

For example, in chapter 3 the author discussed alignment as a major principle. She identifies the number one mistake non-designers make – centering everything. By aligning elements left or right you can improve your design tremendously. She SHOWS you with examples of how things improve by making small changes. 

The language that Williams uses is very straightforward and clear for non-designers. 

The book is clearly organized by the four main design principles:

  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Alignment
  • Proximity

Then the author spends an entire chapter by going through different examples and applying the newly learned design principles. You feel you can fix the design yourself as they are easy to do. Nuclear physics ☜╮(´ิ∀´ิ☜╮is not discussed just straightforward ideas of what looks good to your eye. 

Other chapters include a discussion about colors and a very in-depth overview of fonts and type (in four chapters).

Finally, you have a section with tips & tricks to make it look as professional designers. Throughout the book, you have some design quizzes and challenges, which are easy enough and build you up, rather than making you feel like you need to get back to basic. 

The way books look in print is important to me and so I can say that this book is beautifully printed with a semi-glossy paper with color pictures

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  • Breadth / Scope 100% 100%
  • Depth / Details 100% 100%
  • Format / Organization / Visual Appeal 100% 100%
  • Clear / Helpful for Non-Designers 100% 100%
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Where should I even start? This book is a bomb. I love it and every time I pick it up and browse through it, I learn something new and cool about usability.

Main points are that your website/project should be:

  • Useful
  • Learnable
  • Memorable
  • Effective
  • Efficient
  • Desirable
  • Delightful

To me, the book is also funny. Some of the examples of what not to do are hilarious. Like the discussion between the manager, marketing, developer, and designer about pull-down menus. Or comparing bad navigation to going to a store and wandering aimlessly for the stuff you need and nobody being there to help you so you eventually leave.

One chapter at the end is about usability and how to test your site for it. Although I have not done it myself, you can use the points there to find issues with your site.

There are plenty of simple examples from everyday life that describe similarity to websites, therefore it is so user friendly to us non-designers by trade.

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  • Writing Style / Readability 100% 100%
  • Breadth / Scope 100% 100%
  • Depth / Details 80% 80%
  • Format / Organization / Visual Appeal 100% 100%
  • Clear / Helpful for Non-Designers 100% 100%

The Principles of Beautiful Web Design

 Beaird / Walker / George

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This is one of the most recently published books in the list. Honestly, it was an unexpected gem. Many conventional web design books talk about layout, color, typography and composition, and this book does too. However, in addition to the basics, I found it to be full of great tips and resources. It is a good book for beginners but it is an even better book for intermediate designers.

Some of my favorite things that I learned in the book were:

  • Description of what good design is. It is an intersection between usability (functionality and effectiveness) and aesthetics (visual design). If you have one but not the other it is like having a wallet that is practical but looks crappy or one that is beautiful but not practical. You need both.
  • The number of elements in design either create balance (even number0 or movement (odd number). 
  • A great way to check how your color palette would actually look on a mockup website is by using a great tool – colormind.io
  • The books’ section on textures and patterns was very unique. Rarely do web design books have them. For example, by adding a simple noise graphic to the background, you create a rich-looking texture (as in this section where I added a paper image with a gradient or the Google AI site)
  • Another fun example of creating and incorporating SVG patterns into your design is shown in the Codepen by Alex Walker.
  • Did you know that you can style images with non-destructive SVG filters similar to the filters available on Instagram? That was something new for me. CSSgram project by Una Kravets 
  • Another fun trick is to add some quick CSS to create buttons that look like they had hand-drawn borders (see below). Tip shared by Tiffany Rayside in the Imperfect Buttons project. Try adding this code to your button: border-radius: 255px 15px 225px 15px/15px 225px 15px 255px plus border type (dashed thin, dotted thin, etc).
  • Finally, you can download and use Figma to design mock-ups and websites, and even better, you can also download a plugin for it that lets you convert HTML/CSS from your current designs into Figma. I am going to test it out next.

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I This Book. And not only because I appreciate good designs and will take any help I can into creating great designs but also because I love Sociology/Psychology. I didn’t know that love at the time when I was taking a Sociology class in college. I totally failed a class experiment when I proved to be a bad colleague, not willing to share my paperclips with a friend. (ಥ_ಥ) Anyway, that was a sad moment when I realized how easily we can be manipulated.

This book uses real-world research studies and provides lessons for web and other design.

Sociology/Psychology Studies Design Lessons:

  • People learn by example.
  • People like pastoral scenes.
  • People prefer 2D elements to 3D ones.
  • People perceive all capitals as shouting.
  • Include no more than four items in a chunk.
  • Assume that you have at most 7 to 10 minutes of a person’s attention.
  • Use grouping and white space to create patterns. People look for patterns.
  • People recognize and react to faces on Web pages faster than anything else.
  • Use a longer line length (100 characters per line) if reading speed is an issue.
  • Avoid blue/green text on a red background and red/green text on a blue background.
  • Put the most important information in the top third of the screen or in the middle.
  • Information is processed more deeply and remembered longer if it has an emotional hook.
  • If people have trouble reading the font, they will transfer that feeling of difficulty to the meaning of the text itself.
  • People are very influenced by others’ opinions and behaviors, especially when they are uncertain. Use testimonials, ratings & reviews.

The list above has some of the more interesting findings that I thought were very applicable in web design. Real sociology or psychological research studies support each one.

The book is very skimmable. There are 10 chapters divided into sections, and each section is 2-3 pages long. At the end of each section is a summary of findings applicable to the web design.

The book is also full of many visuals and color dividers that help with readability.

Overall

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  • Clear / Helpful for Non-Designers

Fonts and Typefaces Made Easy: How to choose and use

 Pennoyer/ Hampton-Smith / Woodward / Galan

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I like fonts. I love looking at them, and when I find a website that uses an interesting or very readable font, I always use my Chrome extension – Fonts Ninja – to find out what font it is.

Over the years, I have gone through a few font books, and some are great to skim through. I appreciate the visuals, but a lot of the information gets into a dull history of each font and its impact on the design industry, which is not for me.

This book was excellent because it didn’t bore me to death about fonts and their history.\( ̄O ̄) It isn’t just fluff either. It is not looking at fonts as art form and digesting to death the appreciation for kerning of characters, but rather a practical application of fonts in your design.

The book covers a good depth of the topic. It explains why specific fonts are more readable or how to get your design hierarchy right, without going over your head. It covers a wide spectrum of information in short sections and paragraphs. It starts with the basics principles, web fonts, to fonts as art form and fonts used in real life by real companies.

It is a great book to flip through and read individual sections and references. I found it a bit disorganized, though. I would prefer a different format for the book also. Longer pages in a spiral-bound format would work better.

What I found useful were the images of interesting font combinations and information on the fonts used. It is a clear and fun book for non-designers.

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  • Breadth / Scope
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  • Format / Organization / Visual Appeal
  • Clear / Helpful for Non-Designers
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Yes, this book was published in 2012.⤜(⚆ᗜ⚆)⤏It is considered a dinosaur (-̀◞_◟-́) in terms of how we make infographics now. It does not include cool infographics (for neat infographics see the gook list below).

However, I liked this book because it addressed the things that I wanted to learn. It explains what infographics are, how to create them, why we should learn to make them, and where to publish them. It is a nice, small reference book.

What I liked about this book:
1) It demonstrates that YOU can make infographics. You don’t have to be an artist or a graphic designer. ANYONE can create them (especially with such tools as Canva, Visme & others). Even though your first infographics may not be as slick as professional ones, they can still effectively communicate important information. Why? Because a beautiful infographic doesn’t equal an effective one (here is a professional beauty that misses the mark for me or this one although well researched & beautiful, very confusing). In contrast, a simple infographic can be ingenious.

2) You discover what are infographics useful for:

  • ideas & concepts;
  • metaphors,
  • communication,
  • simplification,
  • pricing,
  • readability,
  • conversion,
  • shareability,
  • to tell a story,
  • presenting hierarchy or organization,
  • showing relationship,
  • timelines,
  • and more.

3) When creating infographics, you have to ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of the infographics?
  • Who is the audience?
  • Why is the information important to your audience?
  • Where is the data coming from?
  • How will you publish it?
  • Is it easy to follow?

4) When you are convinced that you do want to make your infographics, the next step is – what tools do I use? Just a few that are not outdated or dead:

Tools to use:
Chartle graph maker
Creately
SmartDraw
StatSilk
Visually
Canva

5) After you create few infographics, where do you publish them? The book lists such suggestions as: blogs, websites, social media, Flickr, visual.ly,etc.

6) The book also has a list of agencies and freelancers if you want to get serious and ask for a professional (assuming they are still alive & well).

Here is a list of books with beautiful visually infographics in them (note though that some are beautiful, some are effective and some can be confusing).

q? encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=0544556380&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format= SL250 &tag=akaakidesign 20 The Best American Infographics 2016

q? encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=0007427921&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format= SL250 &tag=akaakidesign 20 Knowledge is Beautiful

q? encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=0007492898&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format= SL250 &tag=akaakidesign 20 Information is Beautiful

q? encoding=UTF8&MarketPlace=US&ASIN=1118582306&ServiceVersion=20070822&ID=AsinImage&WS=1&Format= SL250 &tag=akaakidesign 20 Cool Infographics

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Graphic Design: The New Basics

Ellen Lupton

Review is Coming

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Teach Yourself Visually: SEO

Rafiq Elmansy

Review is Coming

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The Design of Everyday Things

Don Norman

Review is Coming

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Show Your Work

Austin Kleon

Review is Coming

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Build Your Website Now

Stefan Mischook

Review is Coming

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The Graphic Design Idea Book

Steven Heller & Gail Anderson

Review is Coming

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Tog on Software Design

Bruce Tognazzini

Review is Coming

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Design as Art

Bruno Munari

Review is Coming

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