The ultimate list of web design books

The ultimate list of web design books

While web design is a web-centric gig, there’s still room — and need — for web design books in your office and on your nightstand. Design books offer a new way of seeing things — one that doesn’t involve eyestrain and monitor glow. It does, however, involve things your fingers can touch and nose can smell — not to mention years of experience and expertise hand-delivered to you in a neat, easy-to-consume package.

Whether your aim is to pick up a new skill or you simply want to browse some hard-copy beauty, we’ve got some book recommendations for you. While this list is meant to give you an overview of the books available to you as a web designer, it’s by no means exhaustive. That said, these are some of the very best volumes out there for every aspect of your web design career.

Design concepts and theory

Understanding the basic concepts of good design may seem like a no-brainer, but there are many web designers who have never fully studied the fundamental theories of the craft. If this is you, or if you’re looking for a new book to explore what you already know, give any of these books a shot. Many of them are considered classics and belong on your design shelf, no matter what your skill level is.

Universal Principles of Design: The subtitle of this book is 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design, and it offers exactly that. Not specifically geared to web designers, it serves as a cross-disciplinary exploration of what constitutes good design in all forms, as well as how to apply those concepts to whatever you’re designing. It’s known in some circles as the “gold standard of design books, and it’s one you need to read if you want an understanding of design and all its facets.


Thinking With Type: This book lays out what type is and the role it plays in visual communication, exploring type as the critical visual element it is. It makes no assumptions of your experience with type and covers everything from the fundamentals to actually designing with it. It’s described as “a type book for everyone” that teaches the rules and then teaches how to break them.


Principles of Beautiful Web Design: An excellent volume for web designers who know how to put together a website but want to have a deeper understanding of what good web design actually is. From grids and type to textures and colors, the book will give you everything you need to know to boost your “good design” game specifically from a visual point of view. Symmetry, balance, lines, fonts, all of it is covered and all of it is useful.


The Shape of Design: This book is out of print and hard to find, but if you know where to get your hands on a copy, do it. It’s a wonderful explanation of how design works — and what doesn’t work.


Will these 2015 design trends make it until next year? You be the judge.

Skill development

As creative professionals, we’re never at a loss for skills that could be developed or sharpened further. For many designers, this means learning HTML, CSS, and even JavaScript. These are some of the very best books available for delving into the nuts and bolts of the skill-driven aspects of web design, from coding to lettering.

Learning Web Design: This book is a beginner’s guide to the major code languages you’ll need to build a website, including HTML, CSS, and a little bit of JavaScript. It also delves into how to optimize web graphics for the web. If you’re looking to go deep into coding (and be able to call yourself a front-end developer while you’re at it), check out Jon Duckett’s books on HTML and CSS and JavaScript and JQuery.


Design for Hackers: Rather than showing you how to design with rules and guidelines, author David Kadavy gives you an understanding of great web design by reverse-engineering current designs (both on and off the web) and demonstrating why they work as well as how to improve them. Topics cover basic design principles like color theory, white space, scale, composition, and type.


CSS: The Missing Manual: CSS is critical in any web design, but it’s a much more powerful tool than many of us realize. This book gives not only tips and tricks, but a deeper understanding of just how much there is to CSS and how to harness its power. Future-you will thank current-you for picking up this one and skyrocketing your CSS skill level.


Creative Lettering and Beyond: If you want to pick up or strengthen your hand-lettering skills, this is the go-to manual. It compiles the expertise of several calligraphers and hand-letters and presents it in accessible projects and exercises that take you from basic shapes to a full understanding of how to use lettering in any kind of design.


Type Matters!: A guidebook in typography for beginners, and a close companion to Thinking With Type, for those who want to dive deep into typography and how it enhances visual communication. (Hint: This should be you.)


The Elements of Graphic Design: This full-color primer on the basic concepts of graphic design gives designers (of every shade and level) a good understanding of the four elements of good visual communication — the keys to connecting with your audience. This book lays out the four concepts in a visually captivating, clearly and thoughtfully presented manual that addresses the fundamentals for designers of every level.


Free ebook: How to add a sticky back-to-top button to your website.

Improving your design business

Being a web designer, whether you’re working for an agency or you’ve got your own business, requires quite a few business skills. From branding and client communication to understanding what it actually means to be a designer and entrepreneur, this short list of books will give you a good understanding of the basics as You, Business Entity.

Communicating Design: Effective communication between you (or your team) and the client is an absolute necessity, and this manual sets out an effective way to stay organized with ideas, progress, and client communication. Think project management, wireframes, concept models, and presentations. You’ll find tremendous relief in knowing exactly where you are and where you’re going with any given project, and your clients will thank you for being so easy to work with.


Design Is a Job: Geared for freelancers, this guide lays out the very real ways in which your freelance web design “gig” is truly a business, and how you need to be running it. From weird clients to setting up contracts, the book covers all the basics for a freelance web design business.


Web Design Confidential: Author Amanda Hackwith surveyed more than 5,400 web designers and presents their insights in this fun, expansive volume on what it’s really like to be a web designer. The advice within covers everything from deciding your rates, to whether or not to go freelance, to getting up-to-date on current design practices. If you can get your hands on this one, you’ll have a tremendous new understanding of what it means to be a web designer, from all angles.


Designing Brand Identity: You may think of yourself only as a web designer, but what you’re doing with every website is establishing the client’s brand identity in its web presence. Branding is an important concept for web design, and having a good understanding of teasing out your client’s brand (or your own) and then executing it well is essential for your long-term success.


Ready to hand off finished websites to your clients? This ebook has 10 tips for a seamless transition.

Workflow and approach

In addition to knowing good design and effective execution, you need to have an understanding of how to pull everything together in a way that your site visitors will appreciate. After all, you can design the most visually stunning website ever designed, but if your users don’t connect well with it, it’s useless. Don’t let that happen to you.

Designing for Emotion: One of the hardest things to do with web design is create a human connection. This short book shows you how to incorporate emotional response into your designs to create websites that users simply love. From classic psychology to case studies, you’ll come away with a good understanding of what makes people connect with your designs and what makes a great user experience.


Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: The updated volume of the 2000 classic helps present-day designers understand the essential concept of usability. This book goes over basic principles of how people understand and use things, rather than how to wield any given technology (though it does have a new section on mobile usability). It’s short, entertaining, and highly valuable, especially for those whose budgets can’t absorb usability testing.


A-Z of Visual Ideas: This book is all about ideas — how to come up with them and put them to work. It’s a fantastic creative primer that serves as a how-to for solving creative briefs and design problems. It’s laid out in a fun A-Z format, covering a wide range of important visual communication topics. The techniques and ideas explained in this book give you a greater understanding of how to explore your creativity and apply design principles to your ideas. While you’ll learn some things from this book, you may find it serves more as a valuable source of inspiration than a study guide.


Do you include your developer in your design process? Here’s why you should.

Responsive web design

With responsive web design becoming more and more important, it’s imperative that you understand the basics of this new way of designing. These are four of the most highly-recommended books and ebooks in this topic.

Responsive Web Design: This book teaches you to think beyond the flat page and consider how to make your designs beautiful across platforms, no matter what device your site’s visitors use. This essential manual in adaptability covers CSS techniques and the specific design principles relevant to responsive web design (namely fluid grids, media queries and flexible images). If CSS isn’t a strength for you yet, you may do best to read the text and skip the coding.


Implementing Responsive Design: This book is a valuable resource for responsive web designers. The focus is not just on techniques but on fully understanding how to set up an effective design workflow from the ground up, and then how to move through that process to create the fully functioning responsive site. You’ll also pick up ideas on enhancing content for different devices and providing richer user experiences. The second edition, due in 2017, promises to be even better.


Redesign the Web (Smashing Book 3): Looking for a guide to redesigning websites to be responsive? This is the one for you. Building on its predecessors, this book delves into understanding SEO and the target audience as you consider a redesign. It also covers topics including coding, user experience, photoshop tips, and other practical elements of web design. You’ll come away not only with more skills, but a new mindset.


Mobile First: This short, clear guidebook lays out the principles of responsive design and fully functional user experience that continues to serve designers long after its 2011 publication date.


Want to learn more about a mobile-first approach? Check out this short blog post for an intro.

What did we miss? Would you add anything else to this list?


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