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A Reading Guide For Designers Who Want To Write

We asked prominent designers and design writers to select the best books and essays for designers who want to hone their writing skills.

A Reading Guide For Designers Who Want To Write
Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

The 2017 Design In Tech Report, John Maeda’s influential industry overview, lists writing as a key design skill. There are several reasons why. With the rise of chatbots and artificial intelligence, the success or failure of a software product increasingly falls to interface copy–the text with which a user interacts. In a more general sense, design is about communicating ideas, and writing can help clarify your thoughts. To paraphrase George Orwell: Write well, think well.

One problem: Few designers are trained to write. Or the training is so rudimentary, it’s largely useless in a professional setting. Luckily, the best way to get better at writing is to do something you already do every day: read.

We asked designers and design writers to recommend books and essays for designers who want to sharpen their writing skills, whether to write books, work on interface copy or just tap out better emails. This is not a comprehensive list, nor do we suggest that by reading these, you will miraculously become the design world’s very own Jonathan Franzen. It’s a place to start. And if there’s a larger takeaway, it’s that quality and quantity matter. As Newyorker.com contributing writer Nicola Twilley tells us in an email: “You have to read, and read a lot, before you can hope to write well. How else will you know what good writing even is, let alone be able to create it yourself?”

Cover: Anchor

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is not just a brilliant writer but a legendary writing teacher, and reading her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is the next best thing to taking her class. It is filled with practical advice that I have been following all my life. The title comes from a story about her brother, who had put off writing a school assignment on birds for three months and, facing the enormity of the task the night before, was consumed by despair. Their father put his arm around him and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” As a chronic procrastinator who will do anything to avoid writing, I have thought of this story more times than I can count. –Michael Bierut, partner, Pentagram

Cover: Random House

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder

If you want to get published—if you want to write professionally—you will come to work with editors. Despite their reputation, the job of an editor is not to smash dreams, nor is it to keep genius down. Their job is to give the reader something good to read. So I would strongly recommend Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by the legendary journalist Tracy Kidder, and co-written by his editor for nearly 50 years, Richard Todd. This is the only book I know that accurately describes what it’s like to collaborate on a manuscript, what it’s like to take rough prose and shape it into something that thousands, or millions, of people want to read. If you aim for the big leagues, read it.–Paul Ford, writer and co-founder, Postlight

Cover: Ballantine Books

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Fiction, particularly science fiction, offers up a wonderful toolbox for designer-writers. By giving something a new name or putting it in an unexpected context, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the reader instantly has a lens for seeing our own world in a different way. That’s a powerful rhetorical skill, and Philip K. Dick is a master of it. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? he constructs a vivid, believable universe in remarkably few words while also prompting the reader to reflect on empathy–an emotion that designers are uniquely positioned to draw on as writers.–Molly Heintz, program chair, SVA MA Design Research

Cover: Random House

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

Made to Stick is the book I recommend to every designer, whether that person wants to write or not! It’s all about how to create a compelling and memorable story—which is at the heart of both great writing and great design.–Jake Knapp, design partner, Google Ventures, and author of Sprint

Cover: FSG Originals

Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Writing is connected to design in a direct way: It’s an experience that one person crafts for someone else. For the sheer ability to cocoon you in worlds and ideas you never want to leave, I pick Sullivan’s classic collection of essays on everything from Axl Rose to Christian rock. It’s stunning to watch Sullivan craft a story, finding ways to surprise a reader with beauty and humor in the strangest places. I’ve read this book, conservatively, 20 times. I’ll never be able to write like Sullivan does. But reading his work always reminds me how many possibilities there are—and how much I could do better. Which is the simplest and most confounding advice I ever heard about writing: Be yourself and just keep getting better. –Cliff Kuang, head of product, Fast Company

Cover: Penguin Books

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

I love Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. This book provides principles for strong, clear writing. The book is grounded in scientific research and illuminated by Pinker’s own natural gift for words. He shows us how to guide the reader through a narrative experience and “see” the argument behind a work. He shows us how to create a “window” into a scene than a hard wall of words.–Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Personal Renewal by John Gardner

I read the essay “Personal Renewal” every month, and in some cases every week or every other day. It speaks to me differently each time I read it. It’s helped me greatly. I think of it as necessary reading for design leaders, because they constantly need to deal with failing at what they’re doing as leaders, and need to pick themselves up off the ground—to get going again. I’ve met so many CEOs who have referred to John Gardner’s writings, and it’s no surprise when you read his work. It’s timeless—and always relevant. I think good critical writing has this unique quality—to find itself inside the depth of who you are, and give you a path to greater clarity.–John Maeda, global head of computational design and inclusion, Automattic

Cover: Back Bay Books

Life by Keith Richards with James Fox

This wonderful autobiography about the rise of The Rolling Stones has everything a designer needs to know to be a writer.

A killer story.
Compelling language.
Revelation. The secret sauce of the creative process.
Dirt. The true truth about larger-than-life personalities.
Ghost writer. Because a designer has as much chance of learning to write from reading books as a writer has learning to design from going to exhibitions at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.–Bruce Nussbaum, author, Creative Intelligence

Photo: Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

Anything by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

You may have recently discovered author Amy Krouse Rosenthal because of her widely shared Modern Love column, where a terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis prompted her to write a dating profile for her soon-to-be-widowed husband (she died just a week after it was published). But all of Rosenthal’s writing is essential for designers, not only because she conveyed such refreshingly original ideas through efficient, effortless prose, but also because her writing was filled with creative challenges: her first memoir was published as an encyclopedia, she built websites of interactive exercises to accompany her books, and her stories often culminated in live events that engaged her readers. When you read Rosenthal’s words, you can’t help but being drawn into her whole world, and you end up taking inspiration from her entire and entirely too short life.–Alissa Walker, urbanism editor, Curbed

Cover: Penguin Press

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

I remember when a journalism professor assigned The Elements of Style as required reading. I was mortified that I’d have to read a style manual. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is it a handy pocket reference for all kinds of writing, it’s actually fun to read. After 15 years as a designer who writes (or a writer who designs, I’m not sure) I’m happy to say The Elements of Style is as good as ever—if not better.–John Zeratsky, design partner, Google Ventures

Cover: The New Yorker

The New Yorker

Just read the New Yorker every week and soak it all in.–Jessica Helfand, founding editor, Design Observer

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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