20 web design books recommended by the pros

16 min read
Andrew Claremont

Web designers these days have dozens of ways they can learn to improve their craft.

YouTube videos, blogs, online courses and in-person classes are all wonderful options—but there’s still no medium quite like a physical book for quickly leveling up your web design knowledge. Authors spend years refining their knowledge, collecting best practices, examples, and tutorials and distilling them into a format you can absorb in a short amount of time from the comfort of your own couch.

The one downside? There are a lot of web design books on the market—Amazon lists over 30,000 books on web design alone—and sorting the wheat from the chaff ain’t easy. There are, however, a handful of web design books cherished by the pros—books that any web designer or developer should have on their shelf.

To kickstart your own collection, we’ve put together 20 must-have web design books. Ranging from typography and CSS, to client management and research tips, there’s a book here to suit everyone. The list is broken down by category to easily find the right book for you, and each title on the list is available as either a hard copy or as an ebook, for those who prefer the convenience of digital books.

Without further ado, here are 20 must-have books for web designers. Enjoy!

Browse web design books by category

Books on web design

Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty by David Kadavy

Instead of directly teaching the principles of web design before providing examples, David’s 2011 book deconstructs classical designs in order to find out what makes them remarkable—and how they could be better.

Drawing on eclectic examples ranging from Target’s red shopping carts to ancient graffiti from Pompeii, the book explores colour theory, interaction design, composition, and more, teaching web designers how to apply the principles and techniques to their own work.

“Kadavy’s book does an excellent job of linking the theoretical to the practical in a very readable format.” – Brad Feld, cofounder of Techstars

Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton

First published in 2004, design educator and historian Ellen Lupton’s book is the definitive guide to using typography in visual communication.

The book covers numerous visual examples of typography in practice, explaining the principles and rules behind great type (along with when and how to break them). Whether you’re just starting out or brushing up on your type skills, Ellen’s signature wit and down-to-earth style make this book a must-have for all web designers.

“Type is the foundation of print and web design. Everything you need to know about thinking with type, you will find here. This richly detailed update to the classic text belongs on the shelf of every designer, writer, editor, publisher, and client.” – Jeffrey Zeldman

Tragic Design: The Impact of Bad Product Design and How to Fix It by Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier

If your clients think good design is expensive, wait until they see the cost of bad design.

Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier’s provocative book shines a light on the impact of bad design—how poorly designed products can anger, sadden, exclude, or even kill users. The book looks at real-life examples of UX gone wrong, explaining how design can adversely affect users and telling stories through in-depth case studies and interviews with design industry experts. It’s an insightful read for any designer creating digital experiences, and gives a starting point for creating positive change in UX design.

“Tragic Design shows how thoughtful design solutions drive positive change and make more meaningful products.” – Andy Law, Director of Product Design, Mobile & Website at Netflix

Theory of Type Design by Gerard Unger

A great balance to the practical approaches in Ellen Lupton’s book, Gerard Unger’s guide to type swings more toward the theoretical and historical side of typography. “Of all designed objects, letters are probably the most pervasive,” Unger explains at the beginning of the book. “Very familiar yet amazingly diverse in their appearance … there seems to be no limit to human ingenuity when it comes to varying letterforms.“

The book presents wide-ranging theories behind how we make sense of text, explaining how our eyes and brain process letter shapes in order to understand text, what type designers were trying to accomplish with each design choice, and how designers can include those ideas in their designs.

“It was perhaps one of my favourite books on type that I’ve read so far … the book [is[ an essential for users of type (designers especially)!” – Jason Pamental, author of Responsive Typography

Art Direction for the Web by Andy Clarke

Art direction has been central to the “look and feel” of print design for decades, but conversations on art direction in digital design are few and far between.

Andy Clarke’s new book brings art direction into the digital age. The book teaches designers the basics of art direction, providing a framework for applying art-direction theories to the web. Packed with examples from influential art directors across both digital and print, Art Direction for the Web will help make your designs more compelling and effective.

“With historical context and real-life examples, Andy inspires each of us to be more purposeful about the choices we make. And true to form, he follows up all that inspiration with demos and the practical knowledge needed to see our ideas manifest online.” – Trent Walton, co-founder of Paravel Inc.

Books on web development

Web Design with HTML, CSS, JavaScript and jQuery Set by Jon Duckett

Jon Duckett’s two books—one covering HTML and CSS, the second teaching JavaScript and jQuery— are highly recommended both for those new to web design, and as a reference for experienced front-end developers.

The books are highly visual, teaching beginner to intermediate web design and development topics as a series of bite-sized concepts. Readers can also download the code for each example from the companion website, making it easy to play with the code and learn more effectively.

CSS Secrets: Better Solutions to Everyday Web Design Problems by Lea Verou

Building on the concepts presented in Duckett’s set of books, CSS Secrets covers nearly 50 undocumented techniques and tips for solving web design problems using CSS.

Rather than focusing on design, each chapter presents a specific web design problem, along with one (or sometimes more) clever CSS-based solutions. Lea talks through her process behind how she developed each technique, teaching readers how to develop their own CSS secrets for future problems they might come across.

Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte

After introducing the world to responsive web design in his 2010 article, Ethan Marcotte expanded his ideas and recommendations for web designers to think beyond the desktop in his book Responsive Web Design.

Ethan’s book explores design principles and CSS techniques that let web designers deliver a high-quality experience for users, no matter how big or small their display. Now in its second edition, the book includes up-to-date code samples and expert guidance on using modern techniques, like grid layouts, flexible images, progressive enhancement, and more. It might be a short read, but it’s a handy reference for any web designer or developer building responsive sites.

“Day by day, the number of devices, platforms, and browsers that need to work with your site grows. Ethan’s straightforward approach to designing for this complexity represents a fundamental shift in how we’ll build websites for the decade to come.“ – Jeffrey Veen, Design Partner at True Ventures

JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford

Published in 2008, Crockford’s guide approaches JavaScript from a completely different angle to most other programming books.

The book digs into the history of JavaScript to explain why the language mixes outstanding ideas with so many that are downright awful. The lowlights of JavaScript are scraped away, leaving a detailed look at all the most useful and elegant features behind the most popular programming language on the web. It’s certainly not aimed at beginner programmers; for advanced web developers looking to up their game, it’s a must-read.

The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

Most software development practices in Pragmatic might seem simple on the surface, but internalizing them can take an entire career’s worth of practice. Instead of teaching what to program, the book gives guidance on how to program.

Hunt and Thomas present an approach to software development that goes beyond just typing code or copy-pasting examples. The book breaks down 70 practical tips and anecdotes learned over the years by successful programmers, from mastering your development environment, to taking pride in your work, and fixing problems when they come up instead of leaving them for others.

Instead of teaching what to program, the book gives invaluable guidance on how to program within the boundaries of real-world projects. It’s filled with practical programming “life advice” for any web developer.

Books on the business of design

Design Is a Job by Mike Monteiro

Design is a job—a fact designers often overlook in favour of focusing on their craft. Mike rightly calls his first book “a guide to making a living as a designer,” packing it with sage industry and business advice for freelance web designers.

The short but dense book gives a map for navigating the business of design. Mike focuses on his experience running the design consultancy Mule Designs, teaching freelance web designers how they can (and should) build better businesses, how to value their time, and how to work with clients. It’s a great resource if you’re freelancing for clients, or looking to go independent in the future.

“This is crucial—[to help people] understand what it is that we do as designers, how to present, how to manage feedback (and give feedback!) and how to operate as a professional.” – Anton Sten, UX consultant

You’re My Favorite Client by Mike Monteiro

Most web design projects require equal participation from both designer and client, but to most clients, the design process feels like a black box.

Mike’s second book is a great companion to Design Is a Job, explaining the business of design from a client’s perspective instead of the designer. He demystifies the design process for clients, giving guidance on the right questions to ask, how to provide effective feedback on designs, how to hire the best designer for your project, and what to do when things go wrong.

The book makes a great gift for web design clients, with discounts available for buying a pack of books to share with clients or colleagues. Give a copy to your favourite client, and help them get to know the design process!

“Businesses finally understand the value of investing in design. Mike has created the guide to making sure every dollar spent on design produces real results.” – Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch

Pricing Design by Dan Mall

Pricing your web design services is one of the trickiest business decisions you’ll make—but it can also have a huge impact on the success or failure of your business.

Dan Mall’s short guide can help you earn more, explaining what your clients really want—and what they’re willing to pay for. Dan teaches the right questions to ask your clients and when you should ask them, how to turn your clients’ requirements into hard prices, why hourly rates don’t work, and much more. Whether you’re running an agency or freelancing for clients, it’s an essential resource for earning more.

“This has been really helpful for me as a freelancer, not just at pricing design projects but how to think of the value I provide.” – Anton Sten, UX consultant

Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing For Business by Paul Jarvis

The tech industry loves to celebrate scale—but what if the real key to a richer and more fulfilling career meant working for yourself, setting your own hours, and becoming a (highly profitable) and sustainable company of one?

Paul’s book explains how web designers can find success by staying small. Through his own experience and the stories of other businesses, he explains how staying small gives the freedom to find more meaning in your work, and avoid the headaches that come alongside growth. He explains how you make this counterintuitive strategy work for your business, with practical advice for staying profitable, keeping clients happy, dealing with crises, and more.

“Jarvis makes a compelling case for making your business better instead of bigger. A must-read for any entrepreneur who prioritizes a rich life over riches.” – Cal Newport, author of Deep Work

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Kleon’s bestselling manifesto on creativity in the digital age challenges readers to inject more creativity into their work and life. The book outlines ten concepts for artists and creators of all kinds, all centred on one idea: nothing is original, so you should remix and re-imagine to discover your own path. It’s a short read full of inspiration no matter where you are in your web design career.

“Equal parts manifesto and how-to, Steal Like An Artist aims to introduce readers to the idea that all creative work is iterative, no idea is original and all creators and their output are a sum of inspirations and heroes…” – Forbes

Books on usability, research, and psychology

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug

Designing easy-to-use, intuitive websites that perfectly match users’ needs isn’t easy—but Steve Krug’s guide to web usability is a great place to start learning.

Don’t Make Me Think is a lightweight and practical manual for creating usable websites, covering topics like intuitive navigation, information design, usability testing, and much more. The recently revised edition also includes updated examples and new content on mobile usability and accessibility. Steve’s signature wit shines through on every page, making the book feel less like a textbook and more like a book you’d casually read for enjoyment. It’s a great read that belongs on the shelf of every web designer and developer.

“After reading it over a couple of hours and putting its ideas to work for the past five years, I can say it has done more to improve my abilities as a web designer than any other book.” – Jeffrey Zeldman

Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences by Stephen P. Anderson

An inspiring read for design and psychology buffs, Stephen’s book belongs on the shelf right next to Don’t Make Me Think.

The book examines what motivates people to act, explaining how to create seductive designs that users can’t resist through the universal (and delightful) analogy of dating. Stephen includes dozens of detailed examples throughout the book, explaining how to apply psychology principles to create more effective user experiences.

“If you’re a UX designer, a designer, a web developer, or any person interested in learning more about human behavior, or interested in making your products more popular or trying to build a stronger online existence, then this is definitely a must-read for you. I cannot recommend this book enough.“ – Sara Soueidan

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinschenk

Psychology is something not many designers consider in their work. But according to Dr Susan Weinschenk, designing without an understanding of what makes people act is like exploring a new city without a map: inefficient, confusing, and likely to fail.

100 Things delves into why users behave the way they do, and how to use design to elicit responses from users. The book combines Susan’s 30 years of experience with psychological principles and practical examples, delivering a handy guide that teaches you how to create more intuitive and engaging designs that match the way people think, work, and play. It’s a great place to start for web designers who are interested in what makes people tick.

Just Enough Research by Erika Hall

Good research is the basis of every successful design project—asking questions and thinking critically about the answers are skills every web designer should learn and practice.

Just Enough Research brings together Mule Design co-founder Erika Hall’s years of experience in design research into a concise cookbook of research methods. The book explains how to identify your competitive advantages, spot your own blind spots, understand your findings, and apply your newfound knowledge to create more effective designs.

“The relationship between design and research is one of the most misunderstood parts of product design. Erika finally presents a guide to research, in the context of making great interfaces. Bravo.“ – Nate Bolt, founder at Ethnio

Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content by Colleen Jones

The final book in our series covers something that’s an unfortunate afterthought for many web designers: content. You might have a great design for a client site, but without great web content, you simply won’t achieve the results you want.

Colleen Jones’ book Clout teaches designers how to create high-quality, compelling content that attracts people and achieves results. Filled with practical examples and principles showing how to influence users with content, explaining how to create a content strategy, understand (and sell) the business value of great content, evaluate the performance of web content, and more. Compelling web content can boost the effectiveness of your web design work, and Colleen’s book is a great place to begin learning.

“Clout is for any professional who wants to create content that people will actually care about…put this on your short list.” – Kristina Halvorson, coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web

Boost your web design game with these books

There you have it: 20 essential books for web designers and developers.

Of course, this is by no means a complete list: technology is constantly changing and improving, and new web design books are being released every day. But these particular web design books have stood the test of time, and have been recommended by beginners and experts alike as a solid foundation for web designers everywhere.

One last thing: don’t feel like you need to read all of them at once. Start by picking just one, apply your newfound knowledge to your design work, and watch your web design career blossom.