Five Design Thinking Books to Learn the Principles

Can you think that following a design thinking process with five steps turns you into a creative innovator?! Believe me, it isn’t and never has been this way. The spread of the term design thinking is aligned with a significant amount of misleading criticism. The doubts about the effectiveness of design thinking are influenced by the promotional language used by some companies, training places, and public speakers. The truth is that there is no secret recipe to turn someone into a creative designer. Yet, there is a way to use the design expertise inside each of us. Understanding the design thinking core values can help team members to improve their design ability and appreciate the creative practice inside the organization to achieve the next competitive advantage. This is why I wanted to share with you those key design thinking books to learn the core principles underpinning the design practice.

Previously, we explored different challenges that can face applying design thinking inside the organization ( Why Companies Need to Apply Design Thinking and Why Companies Need to Apply Design Thinking). The majority of these factors rely on the lack of understanding of the core value of design thinking, which can be a reason for over-promotion and misuse of a commercialized language (check Why Design Thinking Doesn’t Work). Above all, many design thinking trainers are not designers themselves and never practice the creative practice before teaching it which causes the gap between classrooms and practices.

Design Thinking Books

To expanding my knowledge of the core values behind design thinking, I thought to share with you some of of the book titles that highlight design characteristics. Each of these books explores design from a specific perspective. Learning about these design aspects is essential for both designers and non-designers before jumping to learn design thinking. While there are several books about design thinking toolkit, the below books don’t teach you design thinking methodology, but the core principles behind design thinking to develop new alternatives of ideas and improve the analytical thinking of problems and solutions . They aim to guide you to understand the core values and practices of design as a collaborative process. By acquiring this knowledge, you can effectively apply any of the design thinking processes we discussed earlier in previous articles with effectiveness. I am sure that those are not the only books out there, so please share with us your book suggestions in the comments below the article.

Related article:

Design Thinking Guide: What, Why and How

Why Design Thinking Doesn’t Work

Measuring the Impact of Design Thinking

Design Expertise

The Design Expertise, written by Lawson and Dorst, focuses on the understanding of design practice in the creative industry. The book aims to explore the nature of design from a practitioner’s perspective. It starts by exploring the different definitions of design and how they contributed to identifying the border of the discipline of design.

Design Expertise
Design Expertise by Kees Dorst

The book presents design work for different designers and tries to use this overview of their work to provide a practical example of design characteristics. This book provides you with a base idea about design, what it is, and its characteristics. Exploring the characteristics through design thinking case studies, and examples helps you see design’s core value. This value is the main cornerstone behind the application of the design thinking process.

Frame Innovation

One of the main design characteristics is to solve problems or move from one position to an improved one. However, this can’t be achieved without a clear idea of the problem and its different borders. In his book Frame Innovation, Dorst explores the cognitive design process’s problem and solution frames. Also, he explores how designers move from one frame to another and how this feedback process contributes toward an optimum solution for wicked problems.

frame innovation
Frame Innovation by Kees Dorst

Many of the design thinking process models move from the exploration stage (divergent) to defining the solution (conversion). While this practice has a shared principle with critical thinking, they all move between the problem frame and solution frame. Through this book, you will explore the principle and practices of problem/solution frame to develop creative potential ideas.

The book extends discussion of of the principle of frame innovation by covering the opportunities and challenges related to its application in creative industries. The book ends by putting a practice action plan to move toward using the frame innovation in different business models.

Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work

In this small yet informative book, Design Thinking, Nigel Cross explores how designers think and reach creative ideas in the design field and what is the nature of design from the perspective the idea formation. To this goal, the book overviews design practice based on observing and interviewing creative designers and explore the expert tips with them. Design processes try to explore the design expertise from creating the idea to applying it. However, the design ability comes earlier when ideas are formulated. The book’s first chapter explores this design ability and how each of us has a level of design ability to develop new ideas. Yet, some people are more designers than others, which is known in Lusy Kimbel’s’s two papers as the creative class (Rethinking Design Thinking: Part 1 and Part 2).

Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work
Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work by Nigel Cross

The book overviews designers” practice in different fields and stories. The aim of this overview through creative designers’ experience is to build an understanding of the inspiration or exploration stage in the design thinking process. For instance, what is brainstorming and why it is applied at an early point of the design thinking progress (How to Successfully Apply the Inspiration in Design Thinking)? Linking similar questions to the practice helps you to map your practice to rational reasoning and subsequently improve the progress of the process in the future.

Change by Design

Change by Design, by Tim Bowen CEO of the IDEO, is probably one of the commonly known books about design thinking because of the popularity of the IDEO in the application of design thinking in various social innovation contexts. In his book, Tim Brown manifests  his ideology about design thinking and interprets it from the organisational perspective. The book aims to clarify what is design thinking? And where to go from theory to practice. In the first part, the books focus on the main concepts of design thinking (check Design Thinking Tools and Methods Complete Guide) such as extending behind the aesthetics, shifting toward a human-centred approach (i.e. improve customer experience and build inclusive design), the power of prototyping, and the importance of storytelling. The second part of the book aims to interpret these principles for practicality to identify the business opportunities for design thinking and the use of design to achieve innovation inside organisations through creative collaboration between stakeholders. 

Change by Design book
Change by Design by Tim Brown.

The book is a good resource for both designers and business people to understand design thinking and its applications. Although several criticism on IDEO design thinking model, the book describes the theoretical base of design thinking which could have a positive innovative impact  inside organisations especially if applied properly to develop viable business strategy. The IDEO Field Guide can be a good companion for the book as it presents a toolbox to apply Tim Brown’s ideology in practice.

The Design of Everyday Things

Don Norman is one of the leading professors in behaviour psychology and human-computer interaction (HCI). His book, The Design of Everyday Things, is based on a simple observation: why do we love and hate some elements in our life? And what is the psychology behind our behaviour toward products? Addressing these two questions presents a cornerstone of your design practice. For example, why do some people love products such as Apple, a Mini Cooper, or IKEA? By understanding how consumers love or hate products, the design team can target these features to build an empathic relationship between the product (or service) and the client, known as emphatic design.

The Design of Everyday Things
The Design of Everyday Things for Don Norman

The book explores human-centred design and its impact on usability and interaction design principles and user experience. While other books covered this aspect of design experience, Norman studied the experience from a psychological point of view to examine this complex design process. The book covers the psychology behind our daily actions, knowledge, design limitations, and human error. Later, the book explores design thinking as a tool to solve problems and the usage of the Design Council Double Diamond design thinking process. The book is not only for UX designers, but for designers from different practices as you can learn the following:

1) How the brain works and the psychology related to products and services,

2) The limitations related to our experience with interacting with designs around, and

3) Human error and a bad design can cause mistake it.

Each of the above books focuses on specific aspects of design, such as 1) design characteristics, 2) problems and solutions, the core values of design, 3) and design from a psychological perspective. The different design thinking models are based on appreciating these characteristics of design and encouraging it inside the organization. By applying the steps alone, you will never reach any improved status. You need to recognize these characteristics of design and try to practice them during the design process. Again, the above books came to my mind as key books in design. I am sure there are other titles. So, please share it in the comments below.


What are the design thinking books to learn the principles?

1. Design Expertise by Kees Dorst
2. Frame Innovation by Kees Dorst
3. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work by Nigel Cross
4. Change by Design by Tim Brown
5. The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Dr Rafiq Elmansy

I'm an academic, author and design thinker, currently teaching design at the University of Leeds with a research focus on design thinking, design for health, interaction design and design for behaviour change. I developed and taught design programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University and The American University in Cairo. Additionally, I'm a published book author and founder of I am a fellow for the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA), and an Adobe Education Leader. I write Adobe certification exams with Pearson Certiport. My design experience involves 20 years working with clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider. I worked with the Adobe team in developing many Adobe applications for more than 12 years.

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