Over the past two years I’ve built up a near-daily habit of starting my workday with some dedicated reading time. It’s my favorite morning ritual, and I can’t emphasize enough the immense joy and satisfaction it has brought to my life. As a remote worker, the time I formerly spent commuting is now allocated toward my sacred activity, reading a physical book as I savor my first cup of coffee.
A wonderfully unanticipated thing about my little morning ritual has been in how many people now ask me about what books I’m reading and if I have any particular recommendations for them. I love talking about books, and I enjoy being a person that people can turn to for these discussions. As much as I love giving my hot take on best-sellers, something I particularly love is recommending hidden gems, surprises from what the person is likely to expect from me.
I’ve been mulling over some of my favorite design system books, while our Chorus design team is currently reading Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems together. Of course, specific books about industry topics can be great educational resources. However, I think there is something to be said for spending time with books that maybe don’t give us the exact answers we need, but give us space to view things from a different perspective, and allow us to spend time with characters and situations that teach us something new.
Combining my love of books and my love of design systems together, here are some titles I recommend to those working on design systems—and I hope there are some you weren’t expecting. You have my permission to use your professional development budget on these.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
I find myself constantly recommending The Hidden Life of Trees to people—and it sometimes feel silly to say “oh my goodness, you must read this book about… trees!”—but I adore this book, and learned so much from it. Not only are trees important parts of our ecosystem on this earth, but trees are their own incredibly fascinating, incredibly complex systems that form communities in their own right.
The community that exists within a system is something that I care deeply about, and trees are no exception. Adult trees will grow in a way that nurtures healthy growth for adolescent trees, dead trees will provide fertile ground for new growth, and even the fungus that exists within forests connects all of the trees into a beautiful communication network (not unlike the internet, according to Wohlleben!)
Forests are beautiful representations of vast systems working together in harmony. There is a lot that we can learn from trees about systems thinking in general, and about how the various players within can be beneficial to one another to create something as vast and robust as a forest. This book will literally make you see the forest for the trees, and vice versa. An ability to zoom in and out of both the forest and the tree is a skillset that provides so many benefits to building a cohesive design system.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
The Death and Life of Great American Cities provides fascinating insights into enormous infrastructures that center humans. It is not an uncommon reference to find in relation to urban planning, but I find it to be equally valuable for teams to meditate on Jane Jacobs’ musings in context of building design systems. What makes successful communities work so well together, and what makes them fail? In this book, Jacobs examines the decline of urban communities in New York City during the 1960s, in no small part from the fallout of the urban planning of the 1950s. Highlighting distinct neighborhoods, she explores what makes for healthy feedback loops within thriving systems where people stay versus unsustainable systems that people ultimately flee.
At its heart, a design system is about the people who use it. Understanding factors that make for a healthy community, those which can trigger its dissolution, and, ultimately, what unites people can all be helpful in developing a design system. To build a great design system is to center the humans who use it. Any reader who works on design systems will finish this book with a fresh perspective around what centering human needs in our line of work can mean.
Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center by bell hooks
bell hooks is one of the most eloquent and revered writers on feminist theory. What does feminism have to do with design systems? Well, like most books on this list, it’s about the people that exist within these systems. Published in 1984, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center succinctly and clearly articulates the overlapping intersection of many different identities and the impacts those intersections have on people—I find much of her writing to be as relevant today as it was at the time of publication.
To understand hooks’ version of feminist theory is to begin to undo some of the toxic systems we are conditioned to be complicit in. She is an advocate of tearing down systems in order to create new ones, not unlike the work it takes to make a successful design system. It is important to examine what we are building, for who, and how it might fail someone—lest we avoid important segments of users and need to start over once our system devolves to a point of failure. As people building systems for people, it is important to understand intersectional values as a basis for everything we build. If we are only considering white, able-bodied, middle-class, cisgender people as those who we are building for—our design system will be flawed. We must understand the theories of these intersectionalities to build successful products.
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Now that you’ve read bell hooks and understand how systemic issues manifest in our society, it’s time to build new ones. Speculative fiction is a genre that lends itself to reimagining systems in new and different ways, and N.K. Jemisin is an expert at her craft. It’s not a stretch to say that spending time in a deeply immersive, speculative, science-fiction or fantasy world is a worthwhile endeavor for people who think about systems and wish to imagine new orders for them.
In Broken Earth, Jemisin builds a robust world where natural disasters and seismic activity have completely reshaped the Earth such that different human abilities and social structures are reshaped in kind. As Andrew Liptak writes for the Verge, “Jemisin lays out an ambitious narrative in an amazingly complex and vivid world, with a story that addresses systemic problems with oppression and power.” Immersing your brain into a new world is a healthy exercise for any reader, and spending hours exploring social systems that are completely reimagined from different perspectives is a meaningful exercise for anyone working in systems.
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Switch is highly recommended for traditional workplace organizational literacy for good reason. It offers clear, actionable ways for moving your ideas through teams while providing helpful ways to navigate some of the common challenges that make change hard. While you may have heard this title recommended elsewhere as a great resource for tech leaders, I encourage reading it through the lens of someone trying to activate change through a design system.
As anyone who has worked on a design system knows, the hardest work is not designing the components but rather in the governance and scaling of the people who use it. This book provides all of us working to govern design systems with tactics for engaging with our communities for positive change.
I hope you go forth and spend some time with books you otherwise might not have and find in these titles some pathways to better examine the design systems we build. What unexpected books have you found yourself reading through the lens of design systems?
Thank you to Laura Holder and Winston Hearn for their thoughtful input and edits.