5 non-design books for designers

I read 19 books in 2019. Okay, technically I listened to 17 books and read two on my phone. I don’t remember the last time I actually picked up a physical book — am I pronouncing that right? BUH-kuh?

Titus Smith
6 min readDec 31, 2019


I finally finished a few design-specific resources that had been left on my virtual shelf way too long (Design Is a Job by Mike Monteiro and Run Studio Run by Eli Altman, among others), but for the most part I spent a lot of time learning about soft skills, leadership and prioritization. In retrospect, it’s a no-brainer that these topics aid in professional development, but for years I shied away from books that didn’t exclusively have words like “Designer” or “Creative” in the subtitle — as if anything else didn’t apply to me or something. I don’t know if other designers struggle with that same kind of nuanced narcissism, so just to be safe here’s a quick list of the best non-design-related books that I read in 2019.

1. Emotional Agility by Susan David

TLDR: Funny and thoughtful, this book explains emotional intelligence in no uncertain terms which helped characterize thoughts and actions in ways I’d never comprehended before.

Dr. David’s charge to “recognize that life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility” took hold of me early on. I’ve always thought of emotions in binary terms (you’re either angry or pleased, happy or sad, lonely or elated), so coming to grips with the multi-faceted complexities of human emotion is kind of a daily struggle for me. I describe this book to others as Pixar’s Inside Out, but for adults (then I clarify that it’s in the “advanced” sense of the word, not the gross sense, c’mon).

The day I learned about Emotional Intelligence is the day I learned I wasn’t good at it. Dr. David’s term “Emotional Agility” suggests people can remain active in how we become our most authentic selves for everyone, everyday. Removing pretense or performance-based expectations, our actions are given greater power because they emanate from our core values and strengths. Her book outlines tiny steps over the course of a lifetime that helps the reader learn how to take ownership of their career, while also accepting themselves fully — good and bad emotions — with compassion, courage and curiosity.

2. Range by David Epstein

TLDR: An encouraging resource for anyone whose career has experienced (foundational) transition, this is the most interesting and professionally validating book I’ve ever read.

Epstein began studying late specialization in sports while finishing his first book, The Sports Gene. His interest uncovered numerous similarities between athletes and other professionals. For example, one scientific study showed that early career specializers jumped out to an earnings lead after college, but that later specializers made up for the head start by finding work that better fit their skills and personalities. Learning that creative impact increases with cumulative and varying experience was a huge confidence-booster for me (my work history is so random that my résumé reads like a child listing whatever jobs come to mind).

There are so many anecdotes and studies that prove careers (over time) can benefit from breadth more than depth. His opening examples of Roger Federer (played a variety of sports before eventually honing in on tennis) and Tiger Woods (focused solely on golf from childhood) paint a perfect picture of how people can succeed because of their experiences, not in spite of them. This book will ease the fears of anyone who feels less accomplished because they’re a few steps behind younger contemporaries.

3. So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

TLDR: This book was the first to point out to me that passion doesn’t exist without first developing talent, which helped me stop worrying about how I felt at work and start focusing on what I’m working towards.

Newport’s book really helped me during a rough season at work, so I moved it up from number five to number three (my ranking is a science, people). My biggest takeaway was that the idea of “doing what you love,” shouldn’t be contingent on a pre-existing passion (hopefully what you love and what you’re good at are simpatico). When you place too much emphasis on doing work you enjoy, unrealistic expectations get set so that even the tiniest inconvenience seems world-shattering. Newport calls this “the passion trap,” which is how indie rock band Passion Pit got its name (no it isn’t).

This book actually pairs well with my second-place pick, Range, in that it emphasizes gathering experiences before focusing on a single career path. Newport identifies properties that lead to people consistently enjoying their work — autonomy, mastery, and relationships — and encourages their pursuit as a means to finding professional contentment. When things aren’t going right at work, and you feel the pull to look for a new opportunity, try considering what you’re working towards and see if that doesn’t help you realign your expectations.

4. Essentialsim by Greg McKeown

TLDR: This book helped me put labels on the priorities I value most and declutter the unnecessary responsibilities I’d committed to without feeling guilty.

McKeown introduces the concept of essentialism by likening it to closet organization: if we fail to manage our time, by accepting any and all responsibilities that present themselves, we become overwhelmed by the demands of our commitments and hamstrung by our own good intentions. His suggestions for gracefully saying, “No,” helped me out a lot in a work environment where I often don’t feel empowered to stand up for myself (or my time).

This book doesn’t show you how to get more done, but rather how to get the right things done. An “Essentialist,” doesn’t just do less for the sake of doing less, they aim to operate at their highest point of contribution by investing time and energy at the most optimal intervals. Through the commitment of routine and prioritization, people can free themselves up to multitask and focus on things that matter most.

5. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

TLDR: A former international hostage negotiator for the FBI gave me tips on how to negotiate, work with others and get the most out of every situation.

Voss shares easy-to-understand negotiation tactics, always backed by real-life examples — usually with stories 100 times heavier than I expected. It feels ridiculous to compare asking for a raise with talking a bank robber out of killing a hostage, but the extremism of these life and death situations kept my attention and helped with retention.

Whether I’m negotiating for more money on a freelance project or asking for more time to wrap an assignment at work, I see the seeds planted by this book coming to fruition on a regular basis. I don’t encounter a ton of designers who feel poised to push back when a client blindsides them with a last-second revision (our equivalent to a villain’s “list of demands”). If correctly implemented, I can see how this type of resource might totally change a person’s livelihood. The book starts off with some easier strategies and works up to more challenging scenarios, so it feels like you’re always making progress, and the final chapter includes a short section on creating a “onesheet,” which helped me see how all the tactics could be applied at once.

Honorable Mention

In no particular order: Deep Work by Cal Newport, Meaningful Work by Shawn Askinosie, No Hard Feelings by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Read more book reviews here.



Titus Smith

Design Dad. Running things at The Hideout Design Company LLC. If I were a typeface it would be something heavyset.