15 Books for Creative Domination

OK, we can’t really promise creative domination, but we can promise motivation, organization, and realization. In the spirit of giving the gift of 99U for the holidays, we’ve rounded up a shortlist of promising new books on powering through the creative process and a handful of unbeatable, kick-in-the-pants classics. Go forth, read diligently, and conquer…


The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together– Twyla Tharp

Choreographer Twyla Tharp follows up her bestselling book, The Creative Habit – which we would list below in “classics” if we weren’t already mentioning it here – with a slim volume on lessons learned from collaborations with Jerome Robbins, Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Byrne, Richard Avedon, Frank Sinatra, and many, many more.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

A memoir by one of Japan’s most famous contemporary novelists, What I Talk About (new in paperback) is only nominally about running. Murakami uses in-depth descriptions of his marathon training as a vehicle for talking about his writing practice, and ultimately for an inspirational treatise on the value of discipline, focus, and endurance.

Inside the Painter’s Studio – Joe Fig

Artist Joe Fig digs deep into the painter’s creative process as he describes the daily routines of 24 painters using text, photographs, and miniature models. So what do Chuck Close, Mary Heilmann, Ryan McGinness, Dana Schutz, Fred Tomaselli, and more all have in common? They work incessantly, and follow rigorous daily routines.

Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World -Warren Berger

Berger sets the subtitle bar high with this ambitious how-to book, which draws heavily on the wisdom and insights of Bruce Mau. Chapters riff on concepts from Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto” – with titles like “Go Deep,” “Ask Stupid Questions,” and our personal fave “Begin Anywhere” – as Berger puts forth case studies of IDEO, OXO, and Apple as well as Yves Behar, Lee Clow, and Dean Kamen.

Unclutter Your Life In One Week – Erin Doland

“Being overworked, overbooked, and overwhelmed is passé,” says Erin Doland (aka The Unclutterer). Covering everything from your desk to your closet to your schedule, Dolan breaks down how to get closer to zen in just seven days. A good option for new year’s resolutions about getting more organized.

Art/Work – Heather Darcy Bhandari & Jonathan Melber 

Written by a gallery director and an arts lawyer, Art/Work is a clear-eyed look at what happens outside of the MFA bubble. The authors – who interviewed over 100 curators, dealers, and other arts folk – dig into the nitty-gritty of the gallery system, from negotiating contracts to dealing with studio visits to packing and shipping your artwork.


Designing Obama – Scott Thomas

Progressive to the core, Obama for America Design Director Scott Thomas – a speaker at last year’s 99U conference – raised money for the first run of his new book using the new crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. Beautifully laid out by Thomas, Designing Obama chronicles the design and grassroots artwork that fueled a historic campaign.

We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion – Sep Kamvar & Jonathan Harris

Since 2005, the website We Feel Fine has collected over 12 million feelings, using complex alogorithms that comb the Internet for blog posts with the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling.” Rich with imagery, provocative blog snippets, and loads of infographics that break down our collective emotional landscape by type, gender, age, weather, time of day, and more.

Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision & Reality – Scott Belsky 

Though it’s not quite off the presses yet, we thought we’d give you – dear 99U reader – advance notice on Behance founder and CEO Scott Belsky’s new book due out in April 2010. A distillation of six years of research at Behance and the 99U, Making Ideas Happen illustrates how to harness organization, communal forces, and leadership capability to push ideas forward.


Designers Are Wankers – Lee McCormack

“Making the transition from design student to successful creative often involves a lot of reassessment, adaptation, and resignation,” says Lee McCormack in this pragmatic (and clever) book on what you need to know about becoming a professional designer. Includes interviews with Neville Brody, Karim Rashid, Paul Smith, and others.

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

“Art begins with resistance – at the point where resistance is overcome.” So said Andre Gide. Half warrior field manual, half self-help treatise, Steven Pressfield’s slim book offers easily digestible insights on overcoming the Resistance to turn daydreaming into doing.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

Groundbreaking at the time of its release, and no less impressive today, Csikszentmihalyi’s bestselling book outlines the psychological conditions required to achieve “flow,” a state characterized by intense focus, a lack of self-assessment, and loss of time awareness. Anecdote-heavy, Flow offers great incentives for altering your priorities and mindset.

The Laws of Simplicity – John Maeda

Written with simple language and great wisdom, this compact book outlines 10 laws of simplicity for design, technology, business, and life. Ranging from basic to intermediate to deep simplicity, Maeda’s insights apply to everything from arranging your living room to designing a visionary product.

How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul – Adrian Shaughnessy 

Despite its title, this book – which contains an intro by Stefan Sagmeister as well as interviews with other major designers – is not just for graphic designers. Rather, it outlines need-to-know basics and tricks of the trade that will pertain to small creative studios of all kinds. From finding new work to managing persnickety clients, How to Be gives a straightforward breakdown of the commercial design business.

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

Less a how-to book than a reality check for aspiring authors, Bird by Bird humorously outlines the trials and tribulations of the writer’s life. Not surprisingly, Lamott reveals that getting published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, so you’re best off if you enjoy the process.

What books have offered you new insight into the creative process, or led you to a watershed moment? Tell us your favorites in the comments.

load comments (13)
  • Kirby Ferguson

    Wonderful list. I look forward to checking many of these out.

    Below are some books that made big impressions on my creative life.

    The Creative Habit
    Twyla Tharp

    If You Want to Write
    Brenda Ueland

    A Technique for Producing Ideas
    James Young

    Malcolm Gladwell

    The Art of Woo
    G. Richard Shell

    Made to Stick
    Chip Heath, Dan Heath

    And I’m currently flying through “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin, which thus far seems worthy of adding to the list.

  • He's So Phamous

    Currently in the process of reading the Shaughnessy and Maeda titles listed above. Also reading:

    Never Sleep
    by Andre Andreev and Dan Covert

    Guidelines for Online Success
    Ed. by Rob Ford/Julius Wiedemann

    Art and Fear
    by David Bayles and Ted Orland

    Creating a Life Worth Living
    by Carol Lloyd

    Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far
    Stefan Sagmeister


    I’m always open for suggestions

  • Drew Melton

    This sums up my entire christmas wishlist!

  • Sam Parvin

    I’m adding several of these to my list of “must reads”. A couple other impressionable books worth checking out:

    The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
    by: Malcolm Gladwell

    The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World
    by: Eric Wiener – not directly related to creativity, but certainly will motivate and inspire creativity in you

    The Giver
    by: Lois Lowry – actually a kid’s novel, but a story that will get you thinking about life all new ways

  • Margarita

    A nice booklist to share with those striving to improve…

  • Gail McMeekin

    This is a super list. I have to add my own book as it talks about the unique challenges of highly creative women. It is The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor(Conari Press, 2000). It has been read around the world and sold out its first printing in 8 weeks. I also have 3 e-books on creativity on my website: The Path to Creative Success(which you can download for free), Boost Your Creativity, Productivity, and Profits in 21 Steps, and Creativity Courage Card e-book. I am looking forward to learning more about your products and recommending them to my Creative Success newsletter audience. I will be in touch.

  • Jim Gray

    war of art is my fav

  • Sue Mitchell

    On a much lighter note, check out Jill Badonsky’s The Nine Modern Day Muses (and a Bodyguard). Full of humor and practical strategies for developing a creative habit and overcoming the usual resistance and fears.

  • PaulH82

    Shelly Carson’s Your Creative Brain is #1

  • Henri

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Henri

    Let me reply to myself by saying that “The Art of Non Conformity” by Chris Guillebeau would deserve to be in that list

  • Heidi Haaland

    The Heart Aroused, by David Whyte. Mustmustmust read.

  • Heidi Haaland

    I have a copy of this. Well, I used to – it hasn’t been returned. Yet…

  • Jonny Elwyn

    Great list! Here are my top 5 books for creatives everyone should read
    http://jonnyelwyn.co.uk/cool-v… – which includes Scott Belsky’s excellent Making Ideas Happen.

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