Your 2021 year end wish list: Design and innovation books

Partner and Executive Director

As we head into the winter break, we pulled together a short list of design and innovation books.

This year’s list builds on our previous list and was gathered from Smarties, clients, and panelists from our Smart Salon series, and represents a broad range of topics from design process to aesthetic inspiration. Some of the books are updated classics, while others are new favorites. We hope these recommendations provide some inspiration and practical advice to help you create more amazing design work next year.

Technology and design

Design increasingly needs to deal with the complex social issues that arise from the propagation of new technologies. These books explore designing for products and systems that are increasingly smart.

How Humans Judge Machines

by Cesar A. Hidalgo, Diana Orghian, Jordi Albo Canals, Filipa De Almeida, and Natalia Martin
This book provides a detailed examination of people’s reactions to machine actions as compared to human actions. Through dozens of experiments, this book explores when and why people judge humans and machines differently.


My Robot Gets Me: How Social Design Can Make New Products More Human

by Carla Diana
Written by Smart Design alumni Carla Diana, this book examines our relationships with the “smart” products that inhabit our lives: from asking Siri for the weather forecast, to deploying Roomba to clean your home, or summoning Alexa to turn on the lights. This book begins the conversation about how designers can help create products that are truly integrated with our cooking, cleaning, entertainment, security, and hygiene habits.

Data visualization

Data is being gathered and aggregated across so many aspects of our lives, but without the right analysis, it can be hard to interpret what it means. These books look at how data visualization can help us see the world in new ways.

Knowledge is Beautiful

by David Mccandless
Living in the Information Age we are constantly bombarded with data. David McCandless’s book presents infographics to help us make sense of it all, using simple, elegant ways to understand information too complex or abstract to grasp any way but visually.


Dear Data

by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec
For one year, Giorgia Lupi, an Italian living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American in London, mapped the particulars of their daily lives as a series of hand-drawn postcards they exchanged via mail weekly, creating small portraits as full of emotion as they are data, both mundane and magical. Dear Data celebrates “the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet exquisitely human details of life,” in this charming and graphically powerful book.

Human-centered design

Human-centered design has scaled across so many types of organizations and industry sectors. These books look at the broader picture and specific applications within policy and healthcare.

User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play

by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant
“User Friendly” reveals the untold story of a paradigm that quietly rules our modern lives: the assumption that machines should anticipate what we need. In this essential text, Kuang and Fabricant map the hidden rules of the designed world and shed light on how those rules have caused our world to change.


Putting People at the Heart of Policy Design: Using Human-Centered Design to Serve All

by Jamie Munger and Rudi Van Dael
The basic premise of human-centered design is to put beneficiaries at the heart of the design process. For policies and projects, a human-centered design approach can benefit people’s lives by contributing to a deeper understanding of their challenges, aspirations, and dreams. This book discusses how human-centered principles and methods can be applied to improve the design of policies and projects to increase positive impacts.


Health Design Thinking: Creating Products and Services for Better Health

by Bon Ku and Ellen Lupton
A simple overview for people learning about design research in healthcare settings and how to translate into insights and share them. With examples and case studies that range from drug packaging and exam rooms to internet-connected devices for early detection of breast cancer, this book makes a case for applying the principles of design thinking to real-world healthcare challenges.

Design methods

Designers and design researchers have a plethora of well-documented methods to use as a starting point for their research studies and design projects. These are some of the books that we keep on coming back to for inspiration and practical advice.

Universal Methods of Design, Expanded and Revised

by Bruce Hanington
“Universal Methods of Design” distills each method down to its essence in a format that helps design teams select and implement the most credible research methods suited to their design culture. The text and accompanying photos and graphics of this revised classic resource are delivered in a concise and accessible format perfect for designers, educators, and students.


The Jobs to be Done Playbook

by Jim Kalbach
The JTBD playbook is a useful methodology for aligning stakeholders on focus areas for research. This book helps organizations turn market insight into action and shows you techniques to make offerings people want, as well as make people want your offering. The JTBD methodology and its variants provide a nice overview from a design perspective rather than business perspective. 


Convivial Toolbox

by Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers
Generative design research is an approach to bring the people we serve through design directly into the design process in order to ensure that we can meet their needs and dreams for the future. This book introduces an emerging domain of design, not only to the academic design research community, but also to those in the business community charged with the development of human-centred products, systems, services, and environments.


Co-Active Coaching

by Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, Laura Whitworth
“Co-Active Coaching” teaches the transformative communication process that allows individuals from all levels of an organization – from students to teachers, and direct reports to managers – to build strong, collaborative relationships.

Inclusive design

The definition of inclusive design has expanded from being primarily about physical abilities to considering cognitive abilities, identity, and life situations. These books look at the role of metrics and measurement, personal stories, gender, and racial identity.

The End of Average

by Todd Rose
The assumption that metrics comparing us to an average—like GPAs, personality test results, and performance review ratings—reveal something meaningful about our potential is so ingrained in our consciousness that we don’t even question it. That assumption, says Harvard’s Todd Rose, is spectacularly—and scientifically—wrong. This book highlights why it’s important to meet with a diverse range of research participants.


Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

by Caroline Criado Perez
Celebrated feminist advocate Caroline Criado Perez investigates the root cause of gender inequality and research, diving into women’s lives at home, the workplace, the public square, the doctor’s office, and more. Built on hundreds of studies in the US, UK, and around the world, this is a groundbreaking, unforgettable exposé is a fascinating look at the implications (and dangers) of not being inclusive of gender in the design research process.


Black, Brown + Latinx Design Educators: Conversations on Design and Race

by Kelly Walters
The book highlights the unique narratives of twelve Black, Brown, and Latinx design educators, from their childhood experiences to their navigation of undergraduate and graduate studies and their career paths in academia and practice. Their impactful stories offer invaluable perspectives for students and emerging designers of color, creating an entry point to address the complexities of race in design and bring to light the challenges of teaching graphic design at different types of public and private institutions.


Design exists in the future, and to remain relevant, designers should be keeping an eye on what may come next. These books come from experts in the world of futures thinking and speculative design.

Full-Spectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical Future

by Bob Johansen
The future will get even more perplexing over the next decade, and we are not ready. The dilemma is that we’re restricted by rigid categorical thinking that freezes people and organizations in neatly defined boxes that often are inaccurate or obsolete. This book shows how a new way of thinking, enhanced by new technologies, will help leaders break free of limiting labels and see new gradients of possibility in a chaotic world.


How to Future

by Scott Smith and Madeline Ashby
A practical guide for everyday futuring in a complex world, “How to Future” builds on more than a decade of experience translating the approaches of foresight—envisioning possible futures through a structured process—into a flexible, design- and innovation-friendly approach which can be used for forging better futures. This book doesn’t predict the future—it provides tools and practices that enable better understanding of possible futures and their impacts, and how to prototype ideas that engage others in these futures.


Extrapolation Factory Operator’s Manual

by Elliott P. Montgomery and Chris Woebken
Conversations about the future are often overly simplified and based on popularized visions of what could be. This book illuminates the authors’ work to democratize futures research, elucidating strategies culled from think tanks and futurists as well as models and techniques they’ve developed for organizing collaborative futures explorations. Their approaches introduce a range of visioning methods that, when shared with non-futurists in community and organizational forums, could profoundly influence our ability to envision possible futures.


The Future: A Very Short Introduction

by Jennifer Gidley
Explains the history of our conception of the future from the emergence of the theory of linear time in ancient Greece two and a half thousand-years ago, and looks at the way human beings have prophesied, foretold, predicted, and controlled the future.

Words and pictures

Let’s not forget that design is also about aesthetics. These books concern the beauty of the written word and the physical world.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

by Verlyn Klinkenborg
An indispensable and distinctive book that will help anyone who wants to write, write better, or have a clearer understanding of what it means for them to be writing. It is recommended reading for anyone who needs to communicate clearly.


The Secret Lives of Color

by Kassia St. Clair
In this book, Kassia St. Clair has turned her lifelong obsession with colors and where they come from (whether Van Gogh’s chrome yellow sunflowers or punk’s fluorescent pink) into a unique study of human civilization. Across fashion, politics, art, and war, the secret lives of color tell the vivid story of our culture.

Let’s design a smarter world together