a hand holding up 7 books

20 design thinking books to learn from and get inspired

December 1, 2021

We want books that are eye-opening; that show us the great work and initiatives of other people who care about making the world a better place; that inspire us to embrace, or even initiate change. And definitely books that remind us of our self-efficacy; that show us we can become more hands-on, become part of change processes.

We asked the entire Smaply team to share their favorite design thinking books about and around the topic – or service design, customer experience, UX, innovation, or whatever you may call it.

To be honest, we’re not sure if we really make the choice much easier, but with this list you will definitely have a great library to choose from!

Enjoy the reading! :)

Top 20 design thinking books

1. Good Services

Lou Downe

This book is a great starting point if you want to learn how to apply good design to services. It provides many examples and case studies that explain practical application and what makes a "good" service. It goes beyond a mere "digital transformation" in a non-holistic way and puts emphasis on changing customer and user expectations. Or, as Lou Downe would phrase it: "Good service is good for everyone: users, staff, your organization, the world". We think it’s especially helpful for such cases in which multiple sources of information need to be linked, as is for example often the case for public services.

Check out the book

2. Designing for the Digital Age

Kim Goodwin

For people like us, working in the software industry and service design world alike, this book is great in various ways. On the one hand it’s a complete how-to handbook on user experience design, on the other hand it allows you to step out of conventional patterns shaped by working with an existing software product on a daily basis. Moreover, it’s a great guide book when it comes to planning design processes that constantly put the user at the center of everything you do.

Check out the book

3. United breaks guitars

Dave Carroll

In 2008, Dave, the author of this book, observed staff of United Airlines breaking his guitar on a transfer flight – and everything that happened after this is legendary. In this book, the author tells about his frustrating experience, and how he handled it in a way that had a worldwide impact – by publishing a video on social media.

The case is an impressive and entertaining example of the power of customer experience, combined with the power of social media.

Check out the book

4. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

Yvon Chouinard

You don’t need to be a surfer to benefit from the learnings of this book. With the book title, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard refers to its flextime policy and strongly encourages all employees to balance work, play, and family.

Patagonia is a well-known brand in the outdoor industry, but most people don’t know about the company’s history and philosophy of radical social and environmental responsibility. The company aspires to do things differently and honorably and shows that there are other ways to earn profit as a business than by solely focussing on growth and consumption.

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5. Value Proposition Design

Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Greg Bernarda, Alan Smith, Trish Papadakos

A must-read for aspiring or current entrepreneurs and anyone interested in value creation or in “how to make customers’ lives easier”. The book gives advice on the entire process of creating such a service or product from ideation to prototyping, on how to empathize with customers and on learning which jobs they need help with.

Check out the book

6. How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today

John Thackara

We highly recommend books, talks, workshops from John Thackara as he is an advocate of a sustainable future and a “go-to-person” when you need inspiration or motivation. In this book, you will find real-world examples of how communities create a replacement economy from the ground up. In today's society, a service designer and creative thinker must be aware of alternative ways and of the forthcoming replacement of endless growth, money and things.

Check out the book

7. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation (Design Thinking, Design Theory)

Ezio Manzini

Design is around us and we are constantly affected by it. So, as the title implies, this book is about people and design in different contexts. Manzini is a leading thinker for sustainability and social design. In this book you can get a nice overview of several kinds of social innovation, social design examples and learn about the strength of communities. Even if you’re not an advocate of social aspects of design, we highly recommend reading and getting inspired by the power of people, design and social innovation.

Check out the book

8. The ten principles behind great customer experiences

Matt Watkinson

A great book for those who want practical advice. Easy to read, easy to follow, best practice examples, handy tools, and great tips about how to have first success moments early on.

Check out the book

9. The Design of Everyday Things

Don Norman

It’s a classic. Don Norman is the co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group. He introduced the term “user-centered design” to the world. So if you haven’t done it yet, read some of his work. You can start with the most famous book, this one, but we also recommend you follow his current thoughts about our profession. This book helps you discover the world from the perspective of a designer: how things work; what is a usable and good design; why some products/services satisfy users and others only frustrate them.

Check out the book

10. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things

Don Norman

Another book from this thought-leading author (also see the recommendation right above). In this book, Don Norman explains why we love or hate objects / services with reasons rooted in cognitive science. The book gives you a basic foundation for understanding the connection between a user and product or services.

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11. This is Service Design Thinking (TISDT) / This is Service Design Doing (TISDD)

These are a few recommendations rooted in the Smaply network. Co-authored by Smaply’s co-founders, these are two basic readings for all those people who want to grasp the basics of service design.

TISDT introduces its readers to the mindset of service design and won the Red Dot European Design Award for the actual reading experience that the book design offers.

Check out This is Service Design Thinking

TISDD is a more practical introduction to the tools and methods of service design, full of practitioners’ insights, case studies and best practice examples from service designers for service designers (to-be).

Check out This is Service Design Doing

By the way, as an addition to TISDD, the authors also published a free online library of 54 methodologies for organizing and orchestrating your activities in effective service design projects and workshops.

Check out This is Service Design Doing – Methods

12. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work

Nigel Cross

It’s another classic. Nigel Cross is a design researcher who had a huge part in developing the concept of design thinking back then. In this book, you can learn all about the topic as he calls it “designerly way of knowing”. It gives a good overview of how traditional designers work, think, collaborate and describes the design process. If you’re not familiar with the foundation of this often highly overrated and unfortunately too simplified practice, then we recommend reading this book as a good starter.

Check out the book

13. Designerly Ways of Knowing

Nigel Cross

If you enjoyed reading Nigel Cross’ book mentioned above (“Design Thinking”), and you’re interested in more depth on the theory and research behind design thinking – then this is for you.

Check out the book

14. The Design Way

Erik Stolterman

This book gives a good outlook on a wider area of design as you can read about design culture and the design-driven way to approach the world. If we talk about service design, user experience and user-centered services / products, then we think it’s important to mention design-driven ways of thinking. We recommend reading this book to look a bit outside of all the practical based books and have something more theoretical, something to think about.

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15. Things That Keep Us Busy: The Elements of Interaction

Erik Stolterman

It’s all about interactivity and interactions. Have you ever counted how many times you interact only with your phone in a day? It’s probably more than 100. So even if you’re not a service designer or UX expert, you are deeply involved in interactions with digital artefacts. In this book, you can learn about what interaction is and what interactivity means. Also, it gives you an overview of how interfaces changed over time and you can explore the manipulative side of interaction as well.

Check out the book

16. Ends.: Why we overlook endings for humans, products, services and digital. And why we shouldn’t

Joe Macleod

We talk a lot about onboarding, user lifecycle, customer loyalty, and rarely mention endings and churn experiences. This book is all about endings and how important it is to be well-designed. We tend to overlook closure. Well with this book you can get a nice overview of the social and historical context of endings, closure, death -- all the things that we usually want to avoid.

Check out the book

17. Just Enough Research

Erika Hall

Research is essential to improve products and services. Even in open-minded companies, it can be a constant battle to do proper user research. This book gives you a brief overview of user research. Easy to read with plenty of practical tips.

Check out the book

18. Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design

Kees Dorst

Design thinking in business has been a big hit for decades now, nothing new. But still, there’s room for improvement if one wishes to become a design-led company or at least partly be driven by design-lead innovation. Kees Dorst gives a practical approach on how to tackle difficult problems by applying design thinking. We recommend this book after you read the classic ones on the topic, so your opinions can be based on a wider range of information.

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19. Design for the Real World

Victor Papanek

If you ever wondered what you could do in order to be more conscious, sustainable and environmentally focused, then this book is for you. It’s a classic. Papanek wrote this book (and some others) in the 1970s but his thoughts are still valid and important. As the title says, it’s about design for the real world -- human ecology and social change. Thousands of people, designers and creative thinkers/doers use his thoughts as an inspiration today.

Check out the book

20. Change by Design

Tim Brown

Written by one of our idols, the CEO of IDEO, this is for everyone who wants to tackle the problems our society faces with the use of creativity and innovative thinking. Tim Brown presents a holistic approach to innovation challenges that focuses on real-word applications and implications of an idea. After reading this book, you cannot help but ask “Why?” at least once a day, and by this question current solutions to problems, reframe them and use it as a springboard for innovation.

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Closing words

As you can see from this list, not every design thinking book has the term in its title – so don't judge a book by its cover and better see what the colorful world of literature can teach you about service innovation.

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