This month, we're featuring recommendations by Jay Dutta, the Founder/Curator of DesignUp. Here, he lists recommendations for designers — but really, they're recommendations for everyone! Find DesignUp Deconstruct, a report based on an extensive study of the Design-In-Tech industry in India and SE Asia, on our online store.
A shortlist of my recommended long-reads for designers. That was a request from my friend Rahul, and the task seemed daunting. Not because of what to include, but what to leave out. Though the timing couldn’t have been better: ‘social distancing’ from social media, especially Twitter, helped carve out the extra time for more reads (and some writing). More on my digital-social-distancing in a later post! I have been a voracious reader — and fairly inclusive. From history to philosophy, occasional scans of industry “to-dos” and “must-reads” — to business books, science fiction, biographies, economics to psychology — my design practice has been widened, informed and influenced by many of these wonderful reading companions.
I made this list a little broader, including creators and makers in that sweep. Keeping my curious product manager and data-nerd friends in mind. With that comes my belief that designers, or even engineers and PMs for that matter, shouldn’t limit themselves to reading about their profession (and fellow professionals). They should be truly the connector of dots — between disparate ideas, creating the new and newer ways of seeing, experiencing and interpreting the world via what we design, make, create, build.
So here’s an abridged list, some favorites (many left out)— 3 books categorized under a few genres, and a few quirky bonus reads added…
What’s work for you? Managing teams, products, 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’re designing or delivering.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. In an age where attention is what we are constantly paying with, Cal argues that “focus is the new IQ”. It’s 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?
Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace 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 needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Airley is a deep dive into our motivations, often irrational, that shape our decisions — and our lives. The reason for putting into the work section — design (and the craft of creating, making) deals with choices and decisions and this is one of the pioneering deep-dives on that subject. You may have heard Airley’s TED talk or many other lectures/talks — so get beyond the bullet points and the overviews. Tip: new updated edition now available!
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!
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon is one of those enduring pieces of work that I have often gone back to, 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!
Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt’s Superfreakonomics is 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 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, global cooling to the problems of horse manure. Note: The shorter pieces make it an easy read!
Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund has the subtitle: “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, this underscores the (sometimes) irrational reaction to the pandemic we see in media, social groups and the inability to often 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 our language shapes our view of the world. “Could our experience of the world depend on whether our language has a word for “blue”?”
Should Designers, makers, 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 — are the envy of the most dedicated ethnographic researchers. It’s a long list, but here’s a wider, varied three aimed specifically at those who are looking to ease into fiction. I have avoided some of my other “heavier-reading” fiction-favorites! For me, Ali Sigri, Elsa Gogol and others I have found on these pages are such enduring, endearing, characters.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif has been described as a “a comic novel” — certainly a dark comedy of twists and turns, misfortune and bad luck which all adds up for a gripping read! This is a creative, fictitious account of the events leading up to the 1988 plane crash that killed General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan.
My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologies by Fredrik Backman weaves dazzlingly between reality and fantasy. Between the world and mind of a 7 year old and her 77 year old Grandmother, a larger-than-life, eccentric character who has left behind a pile of apology notes after her death — each of which 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!
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri was her 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 — more so today. Conceivably inching towards reality than fiction, 84 years after it was published.
A perennial favorite, and more so with the advent of a whole new age 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: unput-downable. 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.
Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans is a 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’s eminently readable and as some prefer to put it: “pop-history” — I enjoyed the long read more than the collection of shorter historical retelling: “The Courtesean, The Mahatma…” But you could prefer to start with a shorter version!
First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyay 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’ll meet the familiar characters from your school textbooks in all unfamiliar places, situations and phases of their lives — woven with a few imaginary characters (making it a Historical Fiction) that gives the time and setting much more depth. First Light is a sequel to Those Days — which too is eminently readable, but doesn’t need to be read in sequence.
Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis is a hard one to classify — it’s 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!
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, which of these are now on your reading list? Are there personal favorites 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 ;)