Jeff Zych

Books Read 2019

In 2019 I read 30 books, which is pretty good considering some were huge like The System of the World and The Power Broker. Also, I got married 🤵👰, and it turns out planning takes a ton of time. Other books, though, were glorified picture books, like Palette Perfect, so I guess it all evens out. It’s also 7 more books than I read last year, and more than double 2017.

Favorite Non-fiction

The Power Broker by Robert Caro.

Hands down the best non-fiction book I’ve read. It took me a long time to work up the courage to start it since it’s huge, but boy was it worth it. I was worried it would be dry since it’s about the political maneuvering of Robert Moses, the NYC Parks Commissioner (among other titles) who shaped NYC, but Robert Caro is an excellent writer (and even better researcher), so the book has a strong narrative arc that pulls you through the story. He somehow turns a vote on a bill into compelling drama. If you’ve been interested in reading this book but are too intimidated to start like I was, then stop whatever you’re reading now and start The Power Broker. You won’t regret it. I loved it so much I’ve started his 5-part Lyndon B. Johnson biography.

Favorite Fiction

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.

This book is autobiographical and based on real events in Dave Eggers’ life, but he calls it a work of fiction (and it’s generally classified that way by libraries). This book is deeply moving and sad, but worthwhile. And that ending… oof.

Favorite Design/Product Book

Tied between Beauty by Sagmeister and Walsh, and The Designer’s Dictionary of Type by Sean Adams.

Beauty made the argument that industrial design and architecture of the 20th century was overtaken by Bauhaus and “form follows function,” at the expense of beauty. In other words, we valued objects and buildings being functional, and devalued beauty as frivolous “ornamentation.” This book is an argument against this trend. People’s lives and society can be improved by having more beauty in it. As a product designer, I got caught up in “form follows function” and not valuing beauty, and this book pushed me to re-evaluate that (which is part of the reason I visually updated my site recently).

The Designer’s Dictionary of Type gave me a deeper appreciation of typefaces, more so than any previous type book I’ve read. I’m not sure why, since this book follows a familiar format of grouping type into different families (serif, blackletter, script, etc.) and giving the history of the most famous typefaces in each category. But it may have been the right book at the right time. I’ve been doing hand lettering for the past couple of years, which got me to engage deeply with letters and their shapes and curves and forms, which may have magnified all the minor differences between each font that I had previously overlooked.

Biggest Disappointments

Play Bigger. This talked about a lot of ideas I have seen batted around for awhile (specifically, being a “category defining company”), so it didn’t feel particularly novel. Maybe that’s because I’m a few years late to it. It also rang hollow because it basically says to create a category for your product, but then pays lip service to the fact that your product actually has to be different enough to be a new category. It also cites Apple and Facebook as examples throughout the book, but they are such wild outliers of success, and so many factors (many out of their control) contributed to their wild success, that citing them as examples is not particularly helpful or compelling evidence for why their ideas are correct or can be replicated. You know, survivor bias and all that.

The other disappointment was The Messy Middle. I didn’t disagree with anything in this book, but I also didn’t get anything new out of it. I’ve seen all these ideas in other books/articles/podcasts. It had a lot of vignettes of ideas about the creative process that weren’t particularly deep, and didn’t make me see anything in a new way.

Full List

  • Sagmeister & Walsh: Beauty by Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh (1/1/19)
  • The System of the World by Neal Stephenson (1/6/19)
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield (1/8/19)
  • Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, and Students by Ellen Lupton (1/11/19)
  • How To by Michael Bierut (2/3/19)
  • The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky (2/12/19)
  • Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz (2/19/19)
  • Company of One by Paul Jarvis (2/24/19)
  • The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair (3/10/19)
  • The Designer’s Dictionary of Type by Sean Adams (5/16/19)
  • The Power Broker by Robert Caro (6/3/19)
  • The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou (6/17/19)
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers (7/6/19)
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (7/14/19)
  • Working by Robert Caro (7/24/19)
  • Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (8/25/19)
  • Next Level Basic by Stassi Schroeder (8/26/19)
  • The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker (9/6/19)
  • On Writing by Stephen King (9/18/19)
  • The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (9/19/19)
  • Design Leadership: How Top Design Leaders Build and Grow Successful Organizations by Richard Banfield (10/6/19)
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (10/10/19)
  • Play Bigger by Christopher Lochhead, Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, and Kevin Maney (10/23/19)
  • Palette Perfect by Lauren Wager (11/10/19)
  • Keep Going by Austin Kleon (11/11/19)
  • Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat (11/18/19)
  • In Progress by Jessica Hische (11/21/19)
  • The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler (11/24/19)
  • Ways of Seeing by John Berger (11/28/19)
  • Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick (12/12/19)
Previous article « A cautionary tale about the importance of designing every screen
Next article Site Redesign I: The Guiding Concept »