A Reading List for WordPress Web Designers in 2018

Posted on January 9, 2018 by in Resources | 17 comments

A Reading List for WordPress Web Designers in 2018

One of the most common New Year’s Resolutions is “to read more this year.” Not only is it kind of a cliche, the whole thing is really too abstract to really enrich your life. Reading more doesn’t accomplish anything. Reading more of substance can. And that’s why we’ve put together a reading list for all you web designers out there, one that we think will help you all year long.

Think about this kind of like a Book of the Month club. You bookmark this page, come back every month, and read one of the books you haven’t read yet. By the end of 2018, you’ll be 12 (or more!) books richer and exponentially more prepared for your design career. And maybe life, too.

Yeah, this list is that good. So let’s go ahead and get to it.

1. “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon has it figured out. Instead of sitting down and throwing ideas against a blank canvas like undercooked noodles against the fridge, Kleon suggests taking something you love from other artists and re-purposing it for your own projects. Most of us aren’t innovators in our fields, let’s be honest. We aren’t trendsetters. So it shouldn’t hurt our egos to see things that work, that we love, and to imitate them to make something that’s not only great, but also our own.

If you’re looking to start 2018 off right, it’s time to start burgling the people you admire.

2. “The Year without Pants” by Scott Berkun

For WordPressers like us, how can I not include this book on the list? The back cover says it’s “a behind-the-scenes look at the firm behind WordPress.com and the unique work culture that contributes to its phenomenal success,” and that means we’re pretty much fully invested in it already. (Yes, it’s WordPress.com and not .org, but that’s okay.)

By breaking down the ways that remote work culture and creativity play into each other, Berkun really hits on a lot of what affects many of us in our daily lives. Sure, we might get to work without pants, but is that really the reason we’re so happy and productive? What is really neat is this book is written from a manager’s perspective–not the worker’s. I think that can give us all a bit of insight into what it takes to make this coming year a success.

After all, you know what they say about standing on the shoulders of giants. And it really doesn’t get much gianter than WordPress.

3. “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman

Have you ever thought about why doors are they way they are? What about light switches? Or even the swivel chair you’re sitting in and have to adjust to get it juuuuust right so your back doesn’t hurt all the time. Sure, they all take engineering to get put together, but there’s also a great deal of design work that goes in.

Because the things we use every single day are designed to be useful, simple (mostly), and generally unobtrusive. We don’t generally think about our doorknobs unless they don’t work right. The same goes for desk drawers and tea kettles and fountain drink dispensers. Someone had to think about how to design this stuff so that we don’t have to think about that stuff.

Especially important for UX designers (but we can all get something out of this one), Norman’s book is awesome and undoubtedly deserves a spot on your nightstand this year.

4. “Designing for Emotion” by Aarron Walter

If you’ve never looked at A Book Apart’s library, get ready to have your mind blown. When I came across these books, I got super happy. While not the cheapest texts on design, they’re some of the most interesting–especially for the Elegant Themes community, with our focus on (you guessed it) elegant design.

Walter’s book fits directly into that category. Pretty often when we’re working on a website or app, it’s easy to look at it either from a purely functional perspective or from a wouldn’t-this-be-cool perspective. We should, however, be looking at it from a real-people-have-to-use-this perspective. And that’s what this book does.

We’ve heard about the social web for years, and that’s not quite right because it’s in reference to social media. From a web designer’s perspective, social should be about making connections by eliciting an emotional response from your audience. Aarron Walter can teach you how to do that.

5. “JavaScript: The Good Parts”

A lot like A Book Apart, O’Reilly has made a name for themselves in the tech publishing world by putting out some ridiculously solid books. WordPress web designers may not need everything they publish (I mean, I am looking at a book called “Cloud Native Infrastructure” right now, and that’s not design-y at all), but they have an absolute plethora of books about front-end development and design.

While not directly about design, it’s just about impossible to dig into web design without a basic, at-least-passable knowledge of JS. This book will get you there. It’s not too jargony (for a programming book, that is), and it cuts out the stuff that just gets in the way of writing good code and making good designs. Whether you’re a newbie to JS or someone who just wants a refresher on the language and best practices, you should totally pick through this in 2018.

6. “Graphic Design for Non-Profit Organizations”

I sent this one to my wife (who does design and PR for a public library), and her response was “That was published in 1980.” And it was. It’s nearly 40 years old now. But I’ll tell you what I told her: Good design never goes out of style.

Sure, some stuff can be dated, but like Dan Norman’s book above, design is everywhere. If we’re only looking at what’s trendy and fresh right now, we’re going to be left behind by people who know how to design for the long-term. You might not think “Man, the ’80s were awesome for design,” but I guarantee that if you page through this one, you’ll get a good dose of inspiration.

After all, retro is trendy right now. So this one’s a twofer. Plus it’s free to download as a PDF. So what have you got to lose?

7. “Smashing Book 5: Real-Life Responsive Web Design” — Parts 1 and 2

Smashing Magazine is one of my favorite websites. I can’t count the times I’ve been casually scrolling through my Feedly, click an article that sounds super interesting about web development and design, and then it turns out that it was from Smashing. And their books are absolutely no different. Jam-packed with more awesomeness than almost everything but the Elegant Themes blog (tee hee!), the Smashing Book series is a full reading list in and of itself.

But the fifth book, “Real-Life Responsive Web Design,” really knocks it out of the park. If you haven’t noticed the theme of this list yet, here’s another entry to knock you on the head. The web is about people. It’s about humans using the internet. You have to design for that, and Smashing is ready to teach you how. Part 1 alone is 446 pages, and Part 2 comes in at 424.

That’s so much web design goodness they had to split it into two books, people. You just can’t contain this much awesome in one book, apparently. Go get it.

8. “Design for Real Life” by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Again, touching on the theme of 2018–humanizing your work–Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher give you 132 pages of looking at your design realistically, compassionately, and focusing your intent.

As the product page puts it,

You can’t always predict who will use your products, or what emotional state they’ll be in when they do. But by identifying stress cases and designing with compassion, you’ll create experiences that support more of your users, more of the time.

9. “All Marketers are Liars” by Seth Godin

Everyone loves Seth Godin (despite his still using Typepad as his blogging platform. I mean…what?). If there’s a single dude who can be called the internet guru, it’s Godin. So when he tells us that all marketers are liars, we believe him.

He makes a lot of good points about how we present our work, and it does into us here at Elegant Themes because we really care about storytelling–and that’s what marketing and design are. You just have to make sure you’re telling a good story.

10. “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

I found out about this book by listening to Gretchen Rubin’s podcast “Happier.” I’m very glad I did. In a nutshell, the book is about making time to do things that make you happy every day. It’s a very interesting take on the idea, and by the end of it, you really get a feel for the concept that happiness is a skill, not so much a way of being or emotional state.

The reason web designers need to read this is because we’re often caught in the minutiae of our projects, getting overwhelmed by client demands, working late into the night, yelling at Illustrator or Photoshop for being, well, Illustrator or Photoshop. We can get flustered by design by committee to the point where all of this affects our lives, our moods, and our relationships–not just our work.

Rubin really puts this impact in perspective, and it helped me take a step back and work on me, which in turn, made my productivity and quality of work spike.

11. “Demystifying Public Speaking” by Lara Hogan

You gotta know how to talk to people. If you’re a designer, especially in WordPress, you have to learn how to sell yourself. You don’t get to sit behind a computer all day, poking around and making things pretty. Public speaking and being comfortable in front of folks (you know, for pitching projects and making sure you explain your ideas coherently) don’t come easily for most people.

Thankfully, the A Book Apart folks grabbed Lara Hogan, who honestly titled this book perfectly. It’s just an advice book over pure design, but once you get through it’s 83 pages, you’ll absolutely be better equipped to land and maintain your clients. And probably get some bigger fish in the process.

Also, it’ll prepare you for different conference presentations (such as WordCamps), where some of the most interesting talks I’ve ever seen have been by designers.

12. “10% Happier” by Dan Harris

I was a college English teacher for nearly 10 years. And I can say with complete and total honesty that this is the only book I’ve ever read that truly changed my life. It introduced me to meditation and dealing with anxiety in a healthy way. My life has improved, my relationships have, too, and in no uncertain terms, this book set me on the path that culminated with my getting this job with Elegant Themes.

It takes the buzzwords and hokeyness that surrounds mindfulness these days and puts them in everyday contexts. His followup is called “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics,” if that’s any indication of the tone of the book. A lot of us deal with problems in unhealthy ways, and the voice in our heads can be real jerks sometimes. This book helped me, as Harris puts it, overcome some of my “profoundly stupid decisions.”

I wanted to fully recommend this book to round out your year of reading because of how important it is to get in touch with yourself as well as your audience. The more you can recognize and be mindful of how you work, you can recognize how you can better serve your clients, employers, and audience. Even if you’re a skeptic, I think you can get something out of this book that will enrich you–I speak from experience on this one.

Happy Reading

You now have a full year of reading (maybe more than that!) that you can tackle in any order you choose. Don’t feel the need to read these 1-12. Take a look at them, see what works for you based on your currentl

This sounds hokey I know, but taking the time to focus this year on yourself as a person–and the folks you work with/for as people–will dramatically improve your work and personal life in a way you might not have thought about before. So happy 2018, Divi Nation. Let’s dog-ear some pages together.

What are you planning on reading this year that’s not on this list?

Article featured image by venimo / shutterstock.com


  1. Great list of books to read! I noticed a mistype.. Dan Norman should be Don Norman 🙂

  2. …I think, “Everyone lives Seth Godin…”, should be “Everyone loves Seth Godin…” Thanks for the tips though! Will take a look around!



    • I don’t know,… having read most every Seth Godin book out there I think “Everyone lives Seth Godin…” while maybe a mistake is the better sentence.

      Kind of like how in the same fashion the line in Springsteen Born To Run that reads:
      “Beyond the palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard”
      …is a much better lyric if you mishear it as..
      “Beyond the BALANCE hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard”

      • B.J. Keeton

        Hah, you do have a point! #justrollwithit #datgodinlife

  3. Wonderful list, I like your theme of people. Happier people! I’d like more websites that don’t make me feel like a mark on the fairway. Make a website that I like so much there’s no need for the intrusive box to keep popping up no matter how many times I kill it. I get it, you want me to subscribe, but once I feel like I’m being held hostage by a website, I just want to run away and not look back.

    Also, the insistence of constant social media presence is making for not happy people. Post twice a day to ten different platforms, always be present, this is some crazy stress.

    Reading sounds great to me for this year. And bonus thanks for not titling this “The 12 secrets that will …”

    • B.J. Keeton

      I am the same way. I usually run one single scroll box on websites that I build to get people to opt-in or to inform them of something. But even then, I keep it as unobtrusive as I can.

      And I can take zero credit for the non-clickbait title. Nathan is the one who did that for us. 😀

  4. What a great reading list! Thanks, Elegant themes, I look forward to the Automattic story.

  5. Great list of books! How can I write for Elegant Themes?

  6. “One of the most common New Year’s Resolutions is “to read more this year.” Not only is it kind of a cliche, the whole thing is really too abstract to really enrich your life. Reading more doesn’t accomplish anything. Reading more of substance can.”

    While it is great to get recommendations from others of good books, I really have to take issue with this opening. First of all, in a society where reading seems to be a truly endangered activity, I think the last thing we need to do is criticize others’ reading choices. Second, if we limit our reading to books of substance, or books which “enrich” us, the likelihood that we will read for pleasure greatly decreases.

    Reading should not be limited to making us smarter, or more informed, etc. We should be able to take pleasure in the act of reading for its own sake. Please, recommend books. Don’t imply books that “lack substance” aren’t worth our enjoyment.

    • B.J. Keeton

      Oh, I am right there with you, Jason. I was an English teacher for the better part of a decade, with my specialty being pop culture in film and TV studies. I taught college-senior-level sci-fi and horror classes, and I was working on my PhD dissertation on LOST. I am _all about_ me some fluff books as bearing weight in our lives.

      You’re absolutely right. When I said that just “reading more doesn’t accomplish anything,” I was generally thinking of the fleeting social posts, clickbaity time-wasters, and those kinds of things. As someone who has spent the past 6 months re-reading all the Brandon Sanderson Cosmere books in order to prep for the release of Oathbringer’s release (which I still haven’t gotten to, HAH), I am all about enjoying me some literature, 😀

  7. Great book list, and I’m so glad you didn’t just throw out the standard technical manuals, how to market and grow rich, etc. I’ll take a look at these for sure!

    • B.J. Keeton

      I know! I think those are important, too, but not the be-all/end-all!

  8. Your brief explanations for why we need to read each book were helpful. Thanks.

  9. Reading is what sets us apart. Great list ET.

  10. great list thanks.

  11. I think that JavaScript has changed substantially since 2008.

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