The best books on Design Thinking

DR. PAVAN SONI
7 min readSep 17, 2020

Design Thinking has come to become the definitive approach to creative problem solving in startups and large enterprises alike. Think of this approach as a meta model of problem solving, that builds on the extant practices of Lateral Thinking, Lean Startup, Sprint, Agile, Scrum, Blue Ocean Strategy, and the likes to solve problems systematically.

In this article, I present to you the top books that I have found to be exceedingly useful to appreciate and practice design thinking. The idea is to not necessarily look at the word ‘design thinking’ but to learn the essence of what it takes to hone the skill sets, learn the tool sets, and, more importantly, embrace the mindsets of expert problem solvers.

Creativity Inc. (Ed Catmull, 2014)

Now, you may not necessarily relate the incisive work of Pixar’s Catmull to design thinking but what the Pixar’s co-founder practices is indeed design thinking of the highest level. Creativity Inc. is a fantastic starting point for one to understand what it takes to be systematic and adopt a ‘process’ of creation.

Some of the highlights of the book are: importance of honesty and candor in offering feedback, how to perform quick and dirty prototyping, fostering a climate of trust, embracing failure, building a ‘living process’ that brings the best in your people, and ‘shipping’ great stuff. A must read to appreciate how leaders build a climate of ‘psychological safety’ for cultivating a culture of innovation.

The Ten Faces of Innovation (Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman, 2016)

IDEO is arguably a name synonymous with design thinking, and Tom Kelley and David Kelley have perhaps done the most to build, proliferate, and practice the principles of design thinking.

The Ten Faces of Innovation is one of the most useful books when it comes to understanding the importance of diversity in a problem solving and innovation context, and how to identify and foster great talent. In this book Tom Kelley identifies ten personas that make up an ace problem solving team — anthropologist, experimenter, cross-pollinator, hurdler, collaborator, director, experience architect, set designer, caregiver, and storyteller.

I encourage you to check The Ten Faces of Innovation for your own team profiling as well, and of course read this highly incisive book.

Creative Selection (Ken Kocienda, 2018)

The one company that has brought great design to the lives of millions of people is Apple. There are several books written on the company and the legendary Steve Jobs, but none offers a better perspective of the design process that goes at the secret teams at Apple the way this book does.

In Creative Selection, Apple long-timer Ken Kocienda presents the process the company adopts to create products like Safari, iPhone, and iPad, and offer a peek into the working of Jobs, on how he drove great design systematically. Of special importance are several references to demos, how heuristics complement algorithms, minimalism, secrecy, and the demands that drive design choices. A hidden gem of a book, I must say.

The Lean Startup (Eric Ries, 2011)

The one technique which has possibly the greatest similarity with design thinking is lean startup. The book by Eric Ries is a wonderful starting point for startups and product managers alike who want to appreciate the discipline of ‘validated learning’.

The Lean Startup very elegantly brings the tenets of lean thinking to the realm of product development and explains the Built-Measure-Learn cycle. It presents methods of idea validation, how to build a Minimum Viable Product, and rallying a team around a common objective. A very useful book indeed, even if you are not associated with products or startups.

Business Model Generation (Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, 2010)

Business models have come to define the way competition is shaping up and startups are sketching their growth strategies. The work by Osterwalder remains a seminal contribution to the domains of problem solving, innovation, strategy, and agile product development.

Apart from detailing out the now-famous Business Model Canvas, the book explains Empathy Map, offers practical ideation techniques, means of visual thinking, prototyping, storytelling, scenarios, and a whole host of examples of how to scale your ideas. A very well designed book.

The Art of Innovation (Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman, 2001)

Another masterful, but a highly underrated book, on design thinking by IDEO’s Tom Kelley is The Art of Innovation. Published in 2001, the book was way ahead of the design thinking movement, and perhaps that’s why most people missed out on this gem.

In this book Kelley offers brilliant insights on how to conduct user research, perform productive brainstorming sessions, build paper prototypes, inventory failed ideas, design memorable experiences, and how IDEO manages to remain highly creative and relevant in this fast paced world. It’s an honest work offering a peek into the working of the world’s foremost design company- IDEO.

Change by Design (Tim Brown, 2009)

Another masterful book from an IDEO veteran — Tim Brown — the book brings the essence of organizing for design thinking to the fore. Beautifully written and peppered with incisive case studies from across sectors and countries, the book presents how design has evolved over the years to address problems which are truly beyond products.

Change by Design presents methods of prototyping, designing compelling experiences, how to form a diverse team, importance and means of storytelling, and how to look at solving wicked problems elegantly.

Sprint (Jake Knapp, 2016)

In the Sprint, Jake Knapp and his colleagues from Google Ventures offer details of a five-day design thinking expedition. Practiced and perfected by the scores of teams at Google and elsewhere, the Sprint is a time tested method of how to lower the ambiguity in your project, and address the unknowns early and methodically.

Sprint has the following five stages — Map, Sketch, Decide, Prototype, and Learn. Apart from detailed chapters on each stage, there is material on how to conduct user research, thinking in teams, a to-do on sketching your ideas, and how to improve your team camaraderie. A solid reference guide if you are a design thinking coach or a practitioner.

Creative Confidence (Tom Kelley and David Kelley, 2013)

Finally, the most humble and readable book on design thinking and creativity — Creative Confidence. Written by Kelley brothers, the book is special for multiple reasons. Firstly, it takes the myth that only a select few are creative, and offers much needed ‘creative confidence’ to its readers. Secondly, it presents a series of methods that you can adopt to pep-up your team’s and your personal creativity. Thirdly, the language is so simple and inviting, that you feel like you’re taking to the authors.

Apart from discourse on insight generation, brainstorming, prototyping, and testing those concepts, Creative Confidence offers a sobering reminder that we all can gain from being more disciplined and collaborative, and that success can be a matter of design.

Design Your Thinking (Pavan Soni, 2020)

Here’s the final one, my own book! This one is titled ‘Design Your Thinking’, with a belief that design thinking is not about thinking what to design but instead to design your own thinking.

Why this book:

  1. It offers a revised and updated five stage model of problem solving: Inspire, Empathize and Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test, and Scale,
  2. Presents over 20 Toolsets, Skillsets and Mindsets appropriate for effective problem solving
  3. Showcases 30+ case studies from India and abroad on how leading firms have embraced design thinking as a means of creativity and fostering an innovation culture,
  4. Presents a step by step guide to implement design thinking in your team without depending on external consultant or advisors,
  5. With a comprehensive mindmap of the entire book that serves as a good reference, anytime anywhere.

So, that’s my list. The books I have re-read several times, have learn from, have taught using, and would strongly recommend. Would love to hear your views, and if I missed on something important.

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DR. PAVAN SONI

Innovation Evangelist and author of the book, Design Your Thinking.