Books are a surprisingly good way to learn about design.

I say “surprisingly” because it’s easy to assume digital design is best learned with digital tools. But I always seem to learn the fundamentals best when reading paper books.

These are the books I recommend to designers — to my students, clients, coworkers, and friends. With a few exceptions noted below, I’ve actually read all of these books (no Tufte), and I think they each have something important to say to new designers.

This list skews towards product design and creative process. If you have recommendations for books on graphic design, industrial design, or design history, let me know!

If you’re curious about UX/design

The Design of Everyday Things is the classic “first book” people read about design and user experience. I found my mom’s dusty copy on a bookshelf as a teenager, and it’s what got me interested in becoming a designer. I still roll my eyes every time I see a Norman door.

If you want a quick overview of important design concepts

I really wish I could recommend more books in this category. If you know of some, let me know.

If you want to learn how design works in “real companies”

Bonus: if you want to books about startup disasters to make you feel better about your stressful job, read Bad Blood and Disrupted.

If you want to learn how to build product at a startup

Neither are books, but Paul Graham’s startup essays and Design doesn’t deserve a seat at the table should be required reading for anyone at a startup.

If you want to improve your creative process

If you want some next-level design theory

Here are two books by Christopher Alexander that fundamentally changed how I work.

If you want to learn more about…

Someone once told me that creatives should be frugal — except when buying good tools and a good education. Great design books are both.

If something on this list catches your eye, buy it, or rent if from your library. Many of these books have been important to me. I hope they can be important for you too.