The Best Books for Designers, 2013 Recap / by Steven B. Wheeler


I read over 40 books this year so you don't have to. Here are my top 10 picks from 2013 that have helped motivate and stimulate me both professionally and personally. Most of them are available to read in an e-book format.

10. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, former WIRED magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson examines the quickly-evolving business and consumer landscape thanks to innovations in manufacturing technologies like 3D printing, small-run manufacturing, and desktop prototyping. As the barriers to entry surrounding making physical products fall, more and more startups, inventors, and enthusiasts are able to design, sample, improve and manufacture their products with in very little time and with very little money. 

A combination of DIY ethos, startup mentality, coupled with the transformative and access to easy prototyping, manufacturing, and distribution has us poised for a new American Industrial Revolution. 

9. How to Sharpen Pencils

You would think that by the year 2013, a simple wooden stick filled with a soft graphite core would've largely outlived its usefulness. But you would, in fact, be wrong. Not only does David Rees explain precisely how the pencil is as fine and dependable a tool for writing as any modern contrivance, but the artistry and care with which it takes to properly sharpen a pencil is covered in exquisite, thorough, and screamingly hilarious detail. 

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to dive as deep as possible into a seemingly simple task like this and come up for air only after spending 224 pages on the subject, look no further than How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening. You will be delighted, entertained, and—make no mistake, sir—by the end of the book, you will know how to sharpen a pencil. 

8. Pattern Recognition

In this insanely fast-paced and disturbingly mordant novel about a for-hire "cool-hunter" named Cayce Pollard, whose job it is to find and exploit new trends in consumer culture, author William Gibson examines the deeply psychological roots of corporate branding, marketing, and public relations.  

Written in 2003 and set in something resembling our present day, post-9/11 world,  Pattern Recognition uses incredibly savvy observations on the evolutionary psychology of humans that marketers and branding agencies exploit to turn us into consumers. Tactics that are used—if anything—even more overtly and successfully than they were when this book was written a decade ago. 

To anyone with experience in working for a large company that uncompromisingly protects its brand while dedicating vast resources on finding the Next Big Thing, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Its subject matter is utterly fascinating, and well worth your time.

7. Choose Yourself

In Choose Yourself , author James Altucher offers up some sharply critical and revelatory insights  on the illusion of "stable employment." The reality is simple, if uncomfortable to bear at first: the job market has undergone a radical transformation, and while the fact that companies exist to make a profit, not for the benefit of its employees is not a new idea, employers have found new ways to squeeze out more productivity from fewer workers during the economic recession, and full-time hires are few and far between, with more temporary (or "perma-temp," as is often the case) and contract workers being used to fill in. More and more, it is up to us to cultivate our personal brand and figure out new ways to deliver value to those we work with and for.

Once you understand the reality of the present situation, you can begin the process of "choosing yourself." Altucher gives simple, rational and clear steps to begin this process, so you can start doing the kinds of work you know in your heart is what you were put on earth to do.

Don't wait around for someone to ask you to join their team to work on that dream project; make that project happen for yourself. Instead of being envious of others' success in life, study it and aspire to it. Instead of desperately trying to make yourself seem more valuable, create real value to the people around you. The days of working at a company for decades and retiring with a pension are over for most of us. The time to take control over your own life and choose yourself is now.

6. Steal Like an Artist

When I was a student in art school, we were told to copy the work of famous people. Note that I didn't say we were told to plagiarize them, but rather to find people whose quality of work we aspired to, and work as hard as possible to emulate their technique, composition, and message.

Of course, none of us could ever get anywhere close to a 100% accurate replica of a famous piece of design or art, and that was the lesson: However close you get to being able to recreate something—whether its 50% or 90% as good or accurate as the original—that remaining percentage is something that you had to put into it to get a finished product, and that work is entirely yours. The act of creative expression is a combination of ideas or components of ideas that collide in new ways, and it's up to you to put those things together in a way that only you can. If this sounds familiar, it seemed to me to be very much the idea behind the Everything is A Remix series of videos. 

So while it might sound like cheating, "stealing like an artist" is in fact a tried-and-true method of becoming a better artist that has been in use for thousands of years. Steal Like an Artist reveals this and other incredibly helpful observations and tips about how to be more creative, and ultimately, more original.

5. As Little Design As Possible

"Good design is as little design as possible." —Dieter Rams

Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible is a book you'll have for the rest of your life. No, there isn't a Kindle version. It's a hardcover, and a damn handsome one at that. The understated cover, with subtle textured surface and lowercase title (Helvetica, natch) invite you to touch it and explore 400 pages of gorgeous photos and text covering the legendary designer's life and work. 

For lovers of clean, simple, and modern design, there can be no greater source of influence than the work of the famous designer of consumer products at Braun and Vitsoe. The forward by Jony Ive, head of design at Apple, is particularly moving, and you can see the influence Rams' work had on the products Apple has produced over the last two decades. The chapter that includes Rams' famous "Ten Principles of Good Design" is especially beautiful, and is something I refer to in my own work on a regular basis. 

For the designers or aesthetes out there, this book has to be the smartest thing you can do with an extra $60. It is a source of inspiration and something I find myself referring to constantly. 


4. Nikola Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

"I don't care that they stole my idea, I care that they don't have any of their own." —Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla, known as the chief advocate of alternating current, X-ray imaging, and for his work that helped to develop radio communications, was a man that understood the critical importance of showmanship in getting support from investors and the public. 

In this exhaustive and meticulously researched biography, W. Bernard Carlson examines the life of Nikola Tesla at the height of his career, but also the early, formative years, as well as the final decades when Tesla became the archetype for "mad scientist". But he was also known for his unwavering idealism, and famous for the passion and single-minded focus with which he undertook his experiments. 

This book is generously sprinkled with diagrams and illustrations from patents submitted by Tesla throughout his career, and pictures from various points in his life. It is also a wealth information about the personal life of the great inventor, citing personal letters and interviews from him and people close to him, exposing a man that, despite facing obstacles including early health problems, immigrant status, a complicated relationship with his sexuality, and setbacks in fortune, still led a productive and inspirational life against a backdrop of one of the most fascinating periods in world history. 

3. Design Crazy

"In order to create something that deserves to sit alongside the best products in the world, you have to have spent enough time interacting with the best products. The table we're sitting in is an Eames table. These are Eames chairs... Understanding craftsmanship is what it takes to create quality." —Dave Morin

Design Crazy, by Fast Company contributor Max Chafkin, is a collection of interviews with former designers and executives at Apple about the mandate for world-class industrial design within the company. It is full of first hand stories about how the design, engineering, and marketing teams worked to develop and launch the company's most famous products, and how its founder, Steve Jobs, empowered the design team while simultaneously demanding the very best.

One of the most interesting sections of the book has to do with the work that went into creating the Apple retail stores. The interviewees discuss the demanding design specifications and seemingly unreasonable demands that ultimately paid off, with a profitability per square foot of retail space that earns more than double that of any other US retailer (second place goes to Tiffany & Co.).

If you're looking for a quick read that provides tremendous insight into the workings of one of the most famously secretive companies in the world, look no further than this book.

2. Richard Branson: Losing my Virginity

"The best way of learning about anything is by doing." —Sir Richard Branson

Losing My Virginity is as audacious and wide ranging as its author, Sir Richard Branson. As founder of the Virgin Group, a global network of companies that now number over 200 including Virgin Music, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Galactic, Branson penned this book back in 1998, but was recently updated in 2011. It is simply tremendous in its scope and breadth, and is one of the most inspirational books I have ever read. 

Beginning with the student-run newspaper he founded while still in school, through his late teens and early twenties and the launch of Virgin Music to the recent years that saw the launch of Virgin America, this book takes you through every phase of his life, and provides colorful and frank observations on life, business culture, and entrepreneurship along the way. 

The last portion of the book, about his work with the Global Elders and the Virgin: Unite arm of the Virgin Group is particularly moving, especially with the news from May 2013 that Branson would give at least half of his $4 billion personal fortune to charity.

This autobiography is one I'll be recommending to people for years to come. 

1. Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products

"The thing is, it's very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better." —Jony Ive

The number one spot in this roundup of books belongs to this biography of Jony Ive by Leander Kahney. Jony is the Senior Director of Design at Apple, and was first hired by Apple in 1992 at the age of 25.

This book takes a very thorough look at the life of the designer, from his childhood growing up in the UK as the son of a silversmith, through his education at Newcastle Polytechnic, his years after graduation at the design firm Tangerine, and finally his work at Apple, including his first assignment in creating the iMac, a project that Steve Jobs bet the company on following his return to Apple in 1997.

Even though I specialize in menswear, I have always found the field of industrial design exciting. This book is meticulously researched and extremely inspirational for designers and design thinkers in all fields, and is full of insight into a company that places design first.