A few years ago, I listened to a podcast interview with a well-known UX designer. During the episode, when discussing UX books, the designer said, “Stop reading so many UX books and business books. Pick up a novel for crying out loud! Good designers need to learn more than just design skills.”
When I heard this, I immediately thought, “Oh no! Am I reading the right books? Should I be reading more novels?”
At the time, I was reading many nonfiction books about design and business. I remember thinking, “Nonfiction helps me learn new design skills. This expert says I should read novels instead. So what should I do?”
Yes, Fiction Can Help You Be a Better UX Designer
Since that time, I’ve learned that the gentleman on the podcast was right—reading fiction can help you improve your design skills.
I used to think fiction was for leisure and not for learning. Then, after reading many novels over the past few years, I’ve realized how much I learn from good fiction—it’s broadened my knowledge of the world in curious and unexpected ways.
When I read The Virgin Suicides a few years ago, I learned Dutch Elm Disease is a fatal disease, spread by beetles, that kills trees. Island Beneath the Sea taught me about the French revolution and the history of the island of Haiti, a former French colony. How Green Was My Valley, set in a 19th-century Welsh mining community, immersed me in the nuances of family relationships and ethical decision-making.
For me, the point of reading novels is not to learn about making better prototypes. I choose to read novels because they broaden my understanding of the world and my understanding of humanity. Therefore, I believe reading fiction makes me a better designer.
Research supports the argument that fiction can help you improve your life skills. Reading novels improves your capacity to understand and react to other people in social situations. Reading literary fiction can also amplify your creativity, help you empathize with other people, and equip you to overcome new obstacles.
Sound familiar? Working with others, harnessing creativity, and addressing obstacles are things designers regularly do. If reading fiction can help you accomplish these things, why not consider reading a novel?
So, Should You Read Fiction Instead of Design Books?
We’ve established that reading fiction can help you improve your design skills. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should discard your UX books and pick up novels instead.
I believe you can become a better designer by reading fiction and by reading nonfiction. You don’t have to choose one over the other. You can have a balanced collection of both.
In addition to reading fiction, you can learn new things by reading nonfiction books that aren’t about design. For example, an influential designer and business owner recently told me how much he learned from the book Moneyball. It’s a nonfiction book about the business behind Major League Baseball.
That book inspired him to explore new ways to price his business services. As a result, he increased his business’ revenue. By reading a nonfiction book that appeared to have nothing to do with design, he learned techniques for improving his design business.
I also believe there’s no generic, “right way” to read as a designer. The books that help me grow as a designer may not be the right books for you, especially if we’re at different points in our careers. (I’m not a business owner, so I may or may not learn something relevant to me if I read Moneyball.)
The best way to become a better designer isn’t necessarily by reading what other designers are reading. It’s about choosing the best books for your situation and your goals.
Make Intentional Choices About What You Read
Before you pick up your first book, determine your learning goals. Ask yourself questions like:
- Where am I in my UX career?
- Where do I want to be in my career? What are my goals?
- What do I need to learn to meet those goals?
Once you answer these questions, you can decide what books are best for your learning.
For example, imagine you decided to transition your career to UX design, and you need to learn UX basics. It probably makes sense to read UX books for beginners. (Google “UX books for beginners” and you’ll get many results with recommendations.)
You can read the occasional business book—or even a novel to give yourself a break and enjoy some fiction. But business books and novels probably won’t get you the design knowledge you need right now if learning core UX skills is a priority.
As you progress through your design career and learn more about UX, you may find that you gain less from design books. At that point, you may decide to read fiction instead.
Right Now, I Choose to Read Novels
I’ve been in the UX field for almost 15 years. I’ve read over 100 design books, and I’ve read over a dozen business books. I still have plenty to learn about design and business, and there are more industry books on my to-read list.
However, based on where I’m at in my career, and based on my learning goals, it’s better for me to learn about design through work experience and coaching from my boss.
So these days, I read mostly fiction, along with some self-improvement books and business books.
Find a Balance of Fiction and Nonfiction that Works for You
I agree with the designer on the podcast: Reading fiction can make you a better UX designer. But that doesn’t mean you have to choose fiction over nonfiction.
Design books can teach you a wealth of skills from sketching interface elements to running sprint retrospectives. Business books can teach you about the work world. Meanwhile, fiction teaches you about the nuanced realities of life. Fiction can broaden your world in ways that design books and business books cannot.
After you determine your learning goals, figure out how much nonfiction you’d like to read and how much fiction you’d like to read to meet those goals. Then, curl up with your first book, and enjoy the start of your learning adventure.
And lastly, feel free to share what you’re reading in the comments. I’m always open to a good book recommendation.
Thanks to Dave Hora for his help with this article.
Originally published on Medium.