Non-Engineering Nonfiction Books for Engineers?
March 24, 2016 12:33 PM   Subscribe

I've long held that anyone who makes things for humans should read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. What other books should engineer types read?

Another example is Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I'm a software-making person, and I mostly with with software-making people, so books like Peopleware are a little too close to home. I'm really looking for books that aren't likely to be known to engineers.
posted by reventlov to Technology (14 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm a software engineer, and I adore Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building. It has no direct application to my work, but it fundamentally changed how I think about my work.
posted by AaRdVarK at 12:52 PM on March 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The Foucault Reader
posted by rhizome at 1:27 PM on March 24, 2016

Best answer: Everything by John McPhee, starting with Annals of the Former World.
posted by Bruce H. at 2:00 PM on March 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Tufte, Norman, and Alexander books are all parts of a series; in each case the other volumes might have differing levels of direct relevance to your work, but will add breadth to expand your thinking as a designer.

Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things is maybe more widely known by engineers but still relevant.
posted by a halcyon day at 2:05 PM on March 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding McPhee. Big fan of Henry Petroski and his entire series of design books, many of which are great for different reasons.

- His books about the toothpick, bookshelves and pencils really talk about a lot of human aspects of design.
- His books about failures, how they happened and what we learned, are great ways of looking at systems thinking. (see also classic book How Things Don’t Work by Victor Papanek)
- His books about Big Projects are great at looking at how giant risky things ever get creaetd in the first place

I'm currently reading To Forgive Design which is about design failures but also talks a lot about the history of engineering education which is fascinating. There's also the standard The Measure of Man and Woman: Human Factors in Design which discusses how we aim for normatives and how we determine those (so if a chair should work for 90% of all chair sitters, how do we determine that, what measurements do we use?). Also you might like digging in to Paco Underhill who wrote The Call of the Mall and talks a lot about the design of the places where we BUY the things (that other people make) and the research that goes into that. Lastly I think the topic of Accesibility/Usability is always a good one to know more about. I learned a lot from Access by Design by George Covington (now a little outdated) that uses specific examples of how things designed to be "accessible" often wind up being usable by more people generally, a win/win of designing things, especially for public consumption.
posted by jessamyn at 2:52 PM on March 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would say the Feynman report on the Challenger, but that's pretty well known to engineers. I think most people could benefit from at least a quick read of How To Make Friends and Influence People and The Elements of Style.
posted by Candleman at 3:37 PM on March 24, 2016

Best answer: How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand changed the way I think about structure. A lot of people from other disciplines (such as programming) have also found it influential.
posted by deadwax at 3:59 PM on March 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: this book on assertiveness. it's fairly short, is intended for people who are too aggressive as well as too timid, and gets to the basics of negotiating.

(also, the worldly philosophers is an amazingly good introduction to economics. i don't know why engineers would want to read it more than anyone else, but i think everyone should do so.)
posted by andrewcooke at 5:02 PM on March 24, 2016

Best answer: I'm not sure if Normal Accidents counts as an "engineering" book to you, but I think that anyone who every deals with anything safety critical should read it.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:56 PM on March 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Long out of print, and somewhat out of date (1967) , and not the similarly-titled David Macaulay book, but unique and informative:

The Way Things Work: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology
posted by Chitownfats at 7:20 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Something on systems thinking, e.g., Fifth Discipline

Checklist Manifesto or something similar - this is from a healthcare angle

Something on emotional intelligence, the classic is How to Make Friends and Influence People

Maybe something on cognitive bias (previous ask mefi as I don't know a particular book to recommend)
posted by typecloud at 7:53 AM on March 25, 2016

Best answer: The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.

Did you know that forks are only about 300 years old? Everyone in the West just ate with a knife and their hands.
posted by xammerboy at 7:58 AM on March 25, 2016

Best answer: How to Solve It, by G. Polya.
posted by storybored at 6:47 PM on March 30, 2016

Best answer: I have mentioned this here before, but I feel it bears repeating.
James Gordon was a pioneer in the fields of materials science and biomechanics. He was one of those old British scientists who could really write. He wrote two books,
The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor
Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down
Scientific American knitted them into a single volume called,
The Science of Structures and Materials
A few graphs, a few equations, but mostly Gordon's very clear prose.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:56 AM on October 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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