Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

More on what makes for a good design book


Following up on last month’s posting, we’re sharing more of what we’re learning from our conversations on book design with UX professionals:

  • Structure, structure, structure: The ability to navigate books in multiple ways (e.g., reference look-up, “quick dip,” slow read) comes up again and again. So does the concept of small but useful, easy-to-find “building blocks” of text that can stand on their own.
  • The books we love but haven’t read: Many people guiltily mentioned owning books that they haven’t gotten around to reading. Edward Tufte’s books are high on this list; they’re wonderful once you read them, but does their visual richness get in the way of plowing through and actually consuming the text?

Once again, Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! was mentioned multiple times
for a variety of reasons, including its:

  • Wonderful cartoons
  • Use of color to emphasize important text
  • Support of note-taking within the book through wide margins and large amounts of vertical white space between sections
  • Short sections that allow the reader to learn something even when only a few minutes of reading time are available
  • Compact size (7″x9″, 225pp) makes it easily “stuffable” in backpacks and other travel gear

In general, good practical design books set expectations by clearly stating who the audience is, what the objectives of the book are, and what the objectives of each chapter are. They also may provide:

  • A summary or an abstract for each chapter, which is especially useful when chapter titles are a bit on the cutesy side
  • A glossary
  • Checklists
  • Pros and cons for a method
  • Examples of how a method was actually applied

Some other interesting findings:

  • As expected, many readers use Post-it notes for annotation. But some use Post-its solely as markers of “past journeys” through the book; different color Post-its may represent journeys taken at different times. And at times Post-its are used to augment or replace a book’s “built-in” navigation systems, such as a table of contents that’s too shallow to be useful.
  • A surprising number of readers want to write in the margins; Robin Williams The Non-Designer’s Design Book was mentioned as an example of a book designed to support this form of notation.
  • Dorling-Kindersley books were suggested as examples of excellent book design. Among other reasons, their books’ callouts are numbered and presented in a consistent way, and they employ thorough and detailed headings at the sub-section level.
  • Some readers would like to see more and better visualization for showing readers where they are and how far they have to go in the book.