At Instrument, we’re big on reading: We gift books to our designers and writers over the holidays, and we love sharing our latest reads and recommendations in our #books Slack channel. For us, reading is a vital part of exhibiting a growth mindset — one of our core values — which we embrace by continually working to expand our capabilities and cultural awareness.
So at the end of summer, we launched a book club within our creative discipline to get folks talking, sharing ideas, and thinking about our craft. After all, what better way to connect and spark conversations than over a wonderful new book?
Our writers and designers were given the chance to select from a reading list before gathering at the end of the summer to discuss their books of choice in breakout rooms. Selections ranged from chunky anthologies of creative work to tactical manuals, and the resulting discussions were lively explorations of what we do — and how we can do it better.
Here’s what we read, and a bit of what we learned.
Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience
In Writing Is Designing, authors Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle make the case for why writing is critical to designing clear, usable UI.
“As a designer, there's a tendency sometimes to think of writing as supplemental to design, when it's really an integral part of what makes design effective at communication.”
Throughout the book, the authors drop in useful tips for stronger, more accessible writing; words of wisdom for better collaboration; and tales from their own careers as content strategists and UX writers. While geared toward writers, the book is relevant for anyone in looking to build better, more user-friendly products.
"Writing is Designing is written from a UX perspective, but the basic tenets of clear communication can (and should!) apply to every discipline in our field — not just writers and designers, but strategists and producers,” says senior writer Sammi Chancey. “I would recommend the book to anyone looking for a how-to guide for making smart, thoughtful work.”
This anthology, curated by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, compiles impactful and inspirational works of Black creators.
“This is definitely a book that encourages you to read in a different way, as I often found myself leaping in and out of different stories,” says designer Suvani Dave. “It’s a book that is not traditionally linear, with a start and end, but instead a timeless and continuous collection.”
Ranging from essays to conversations with artists and activists to infographics and Instagram posts, Black Futures paints a vibrant picture of what it is to be “Black and alive right now.”
“The most compelling thing within this book is how these stories are filled with photos, narratives, interviews, tweets and snapshots, cementing Black people in the digital age,” Dave says. “It celebrates and commemorates a few of the Black voices that have made impacts over that past 20-plus years.”
“I love Taking a Line for a Walk because the prompts spark the reader to think across hundreds of entirely new ways for exploring creative possibilities.”
Taking a Line for a Walk: Assignments in Design Education
In this compendium of 224 educational prompts, editors Nina Paim and Emilia Bergmark examine design education through the lens of pedagogical assignments. As a collective, the assignments serve as fodder for conversations around how we develop design talent in the classroom.
“Taking a Line for a Walk takes you out of the box to creatively explore, consider, and experiment with the environment around you, or to uncover the unexpected through prompts of all kinds,” says Nishat Akhtar, VP of Creative.
The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Design Manual for Visual Communication
Designers’ work may be created with a specific audience in mind, but it has the potential to reach people all over the world — which makes it all the more critical that creatives understand how the symbols, images, typefaces, and colors they incorporate into their designs will resonate with audiences across cultures. In Politics of Design, author Ruben Pater has collected examples that help illustrate this need for visual literacy, while providing insights into stronger visual communication.
“The underlying premise of the book is that design is never neutral nor objective. The visual artifacts we create — whether we recognize it or not — are imbued with historical, cultural and political connotations,” says senior designer Michael Lo.
“As I read through Politics of Design, I was reminded that design does not live in isolation. It is important to carefully consider the cultural context that our work is situated in.”
Living with Complexity
In Living with Complexity, Nielsen Norman Group co-founder Donald A. Norman rejects the concept that technology is overly complex and in need of simplifying.
“My takeaway is that in design, trying to achieve simplicity for simplicity's sake is not always the best solution, primarily because people tend to crave some level of complexity,” says associate design director Kara Smarsh. “When something is too simple it becomes boring or worse, too limited in function to be useful.”
Norman extols the virtues of that which is complicated, rich, and meaningful — putting the onus on designers to make complexity more digestible, rather than overcomplicating things through poor design.
“We should strive to allow things to be appropriately complex for their subject matter or intent, to use natural signifiers (which might be otherwise termed ‘user behaviors’ in our field of work), and other thoughtful methods of design to create useful tools that enrich our experiences,” Smarsh says.
Strategy is Your Words
In this 400-page deep dive, author Mark Pollard unpacks the mind of a strategist, examines some of strategists’ biggest (and most damaging) buzzwords, and argues that strategy should be viewed as creative work. Strategy is Your Words also includes Pollard’s “The Four Points” framework, to help strategists better identify problems, define their insights, explain their ideas, work with other creatives, and run more efficient workshops.
“I appreciated how Pollard urges creatives to chase down and interrogate good ideas — and to remember that, rather than being the focus of our work, stuffy frameworks and jargon are, as Pollard says, ‘simply tools available to use when you have handiwork to do,’” says senior writer Erik Henriksen.
… and so much more
While this may have been our first official fall book club at Instrument, it certainly won’t be our last. Reading together, diving into these great minds, and discussing the impact on our work was time well spent.
"It was reinvigorating to spend dedicated time with our teammates from across the agency and across creative disciplines to discuss outside work that’s shedding new light on the way our industry is evolving, along with the way we do our jobs,” says writing lead Evan P. Schneider.
Until next time, we hope our reading list above inspires some deep thinking and memorable conversations. Stay tuned for the next iteration of “What We’re Reading Now” at Instrument!