Your year end wish list: 20 design and innovation books

Gordon Hui

We are in the midst of an “Innovation Renaissance” when new ideas, tools, and approaches about innovation are more prolific than ever before. Driven by the expansion of the innovation field into more diverse industries and project types, the quality and depth of perspectives about innovation is more substantive than ever before

To stay on top of the innovation space, people in the “industry” need to understand a broader range of topics, ranging from well-established frameworks and emerging best practices. Below are 20 Design and Innovation Books for Your Bookshelf, categorized by areas of knowledge, to reference as you drive your innovation efforts.

Customer Empathy

At the heart of any great design and/or innovation process is the ability to understand customer needs, pain points, and workarounds. While interviews and surveys are helpful, the most compelling insights require a mix of tools and techniques that elicit the functional and emotional needs which lead to disruptive customer experiences.

The following books span the basics of performing user research to creating customer experiences.

  • Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal
    Highly recommended by members of our insights team, Portigal’s book is a practical handbook on everything from interview prep to interview methods and documentation.
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
    Because innovation often require consumers to do something different, behavior change is an often-discussed topic in design and innovation. Duhigg’s book, which is a national bestseller, discusses how habits actually work and how to create new habits.
  • Outside-In by Harley Manning & Kerry Bodine
    Customer experience is a key focus of many innovation and design projects, and the team at Forrester Research has been analyzing and researching the topic for over a decade. For companies needing to justify an investment in customer experience, the book provides business case support and lots of examples.

Innovation Process

Making innovation happen requires equal parts creativity and structure. Although the process is not consistent, there are common methodologies and techniques that span startups, corporations and consultancies.

From idea generation to workshop facilitation, the following books are great references for innovation-related process.

  • Universal Methods of Design: 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions by Bruce Hanington and Bella Martin
    Although there are a number of design methods books available, Hanington and Martin’s book is just a bit easier to reference and includes approaches that are applicable to a variety of projects.
  • Where Goods Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
    Innovation is often synonymous with coming up with the “big idea”. Drawing from lessons about some of history’s best known innovators, Johnson dispels many of the myths of about how great ideas are really created. A worthwhile read for anyone who works on the front end of innovation.
  • The Field Guide to Human Centered Design by IDEO
    If you’re looking for a basic introduction to Design Thinking, this book is worth owning and is also available as a free digital download. For those who want a hardcover version, the field guide is also now in print.
  • Lean Startup by Eric Ries
    In recent years, Lean Startup philosophy has transformed how startups and big companies think about building a business or a product. If the terms “customer development”, “MVP”, and “pivot” are unfamiliar to your team, pass them this book.
  • Visual Teams: Graphical Tools for Commitment Innovation & High Performance by David Sibbet
    Sometimes the hardest thing to do as an innovator is creating the right meeting environment or facilitation to enable successful outcomes. Sibbett’s book focuses on visual tools and templates to make meetings and workshops more compelling.
  • Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide by Kenneth Rubin
    While this is not a reading book, it’s a great reference for how to drive Scrum, an agile approach to developing software that has become pervasive in design & innovation work. Use this book to learn more about “sprints”, “sprint backlogs”, and “daily scrums”.


Companies are designing more diverse products, services, and experiences everyday. The product could refer to something physical (like an OXO peeler) or something digital too (like a mobile app). And of course, the lines are blurring as we build products that are physical and digital (like a connected light bulb set).

In this evolving environment, it is helpful to have a few books on hand as reference for the many types of design, and how those products and services are built.

  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
    If you are new to thinking about design, start with The Design of Everyday Things. A classic read, Norman’s book has influenced every great designer over the past 25 years and has recently been updated.
  • About Face by Alan Cooper
    Interaction Design of digital products is a fast growing field, and best practices have rapidly changed as the number of devices and interfaces have changed over time. Although it’s too long to read, About Face is a great reference and is often updated to stay current.
  • Designing Connected Products: UX for the Consumer Internet of Things by Claire Rowland et al
    Increasingly, the most compelling opportunities for new product experiences are neither physical nor digital, but “phygital”. While a bit long, Rowland’s book is a thoughtful overview about Internet of Things design and is a common reference at Smart Design.
  • This is Service Design Thinking: Basics, Tools, and Cases by Mark Stickdorn, Jakob Schneider
    From financial services to healthcare to government, service design has become an important area of design. While the literature on service design is still in its infancy, This is Service Design Thinking provides a decent overview of tools and approaches.

Business Innovation

While the heritage of design is about products, companies are interested in innovation because of its potential to create new avenues of growth and new business models. While the pursuit of growth is not new, leveraging a stronger balance between traditional business strategy and newer frameworks is a more recent phenomenon.

A number of books have been written about this topic, but only a handful are truly worth having.

  • Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder
    Few business concepts have captivated the minds of business people and designers alike than the “business model”. Osterwalder’s template has become the default approach for breaking down a business and is a commonly used tool at many companies.
  • Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne
    A well known business strategy book that is relatively under-rated in innovation circles, the principles behind Blue Ocean Strategy have driven innovation success at a variety of companies, including Nintendo & Pitney Bowes. The book has been refreshed for 2015.
  • The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen
    In many ways, Clayton Christensen thoughts on “disruptive innovation” kicked off the innovation movement. Although the book is a bit older now, the core principle is worth remembering and having in your back pocket.
  • Ten Types of Innovation by Larry Keeley
    Although it’s a simple framework, the Ten Types of Innovation is a great way to think about different innovation levers beyond product performance. Designed in a pictorial format, the book is an easy and useful reference.

Capability Development

Often times, enabling great design and innovation requires a change in organizational process and capabilities. We see this trend especially in financial services and consumer packaged goods companies, which have substantially added to their design and innovation staffing over the past several years.

While there are not any recommendable books that specifically focus on building design or innovation organizations, the general literature on organizational design and change leadership is highly relevant and adaptable to most contexts.

  • Designing Your Organization: Using the STAR Model to Solve 5 Critical Design Challenges by Amy Kates and Jay Galbreath
    Potentially one of the world’s leading experts on organizational design, Jay Galbreath’s STAR model is a well-established framework for understanding the key components of building an organization. The book also includes a specific section on organizational design for innovation.
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
    Inevitably innovation requires change, and change is hard to enable in large organizations. Kotter’s 8 Step Process for Change should be required reading for any corporate innovator and continues to be a constant reference on many projects.
  • Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
    How can there be an innovation reading list without a book on creativity? Written by a co-founder of Pixar Studios, Creativity Inc. tells the story of the studio behind Toy Story and Finding Nemo to share a set of principles about how companies can be more creative.

Practice, Not Just Preach

At the end of day, innovation is an apprenticeship, and working on projects is the best form of learning. However, staying abreast of the literature is an important part of building innovation competency and reflecting upon best practices. The books above are a good way to build your library of tools and frameworks.

Let’s design a smarter world together