A book that I have on my shelf (as well as on iBooks now) is Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (on Amazon or Chapters in paperback. It also available on Apple’s iBooks if you search for the title). The book is basically a catalog of various principles in design, and although it is focused more on physical or interface design, I find it a useful way to get ideas for just about anything. The iBooks version isn’t as easy to use, mainly because the book hasn’t been optimized for iBooks. This is one of those times where the print version is vastly superior to the electronic version, simply because the printed page lends itself well to the way the information is presented. I would strongly recommend that anyone associated with product development, even if the product is purely server-side or computation-only software, get this book.
What I have not done is read the book cover-to-cover. You can, but it isn’t really that kind of book. It is a catalog, and it is useful either because you have a specific topic you want to think about, or you can just randomly flip around the book and find interesting nuggets. I’ve used the “randomly pick a topic” to get my mind thinking, sometimes to gain a different perspective on a problem I may be attempting to solve, sometimes to take my mind away from the problem for a bit.
The book itself is organized such that each topic takes exactly two pages. The left page is descriptive text, providing insight on the topic, and noting any references that are used for the topic. At the bottom is a “see also” topic list, showing related topics. The right page shows specific examples, using pictures for the most part, to illustrate the points presented in the topic. No topic is presented in more or fewer pages than 2.
As I mentioned, I like to use the book for inspiration. When I’m thinking about a problem, sometimes to do with user interaction, sometimes to do with straight computation, I’ll pick up the book, and randomly turn to some topic. Sometimes I’ll go to one of the related topics listed at the bottom. Sometimes I’ll just pick another random part of the book. What I find is that, for me, it gets me thinking about things with a different perspective. It’s like putting a lens or filter between my mind and the problem at hand. Sometimes the topic gives me a different view on the subject, sometimes it gets me thinking about something different, which can then give my mind “a rest” from the problem at hand by giving it something else to work on, rather than mentally “shutting down”.
Again, I highly recommend Universal Principles of Design. It can be a great reference, but it can also be a great source for creative inspiration.