Opening the Door to Design
Q&A With Don Norman
Somewhere between the Salk vaccine and the Molotov cocktail, you’ll find the Norman door. Author, innovator and educator Don Norman joined the ranks of notable personas whose names have been attached to some theory, product or gadget thanks to his groundbreaking book The Design of Everyday Things, originally published in 1988. A polymath who started his career as an “experimental/mathematical psychologist in psychophysics,” he has become one of design’s leading oracles, studying and critiquing everything from self-driving cars and healthcare to homelessness. Dubbed “the guru of workable technology” by Newsweek, he has written some 20 books, delivered TED talks and worked as a vice president at Apple in the advanced technology group. He has taught at Harvard; Northwestern University, where he was professor of computer science and design; and at the University of California, San Diego, where he founded and chaired the department of cognitive science. In 2014, he became director of UCSD’s The Design Lab, a multidisciplinary undertaking that is set to not only become a world leader in design theory, but also to assist San Diego designers and civic leaders in collaborating on the city’s future. The group’s most recent Design Forward Summit took place last month at Liberty Station.
Is The Design Lab a think tank or a degree program? The lab is a think tank moving to a degree program.
How did it come about? I had retired from UCSD in 1993. I went to work at Apple, then taught at Northwestern in Chicago and retired from that. I was living in Palo Alto, did not want a job and was very busy traveling around the world. I was on lots of company boards. Pradeep Khosla, the chancellor of UCSD, came to my home and asked me to start a program in design. He said I could do anything I wanted, but there were two requirements: It had to be important, and it had to be exciting. How could I resist?
What’s the focus? We said, “We don’t really need another great school of design; there are already a number of those. We’re going to take design on as a way of thinking, solving complex problems and making sure we’re solving the right problem. Moreover, it has to be people-centered, so we’re going to solve complex problems, focusing upon people’s needs, not upon the technology — starting with trying to understand what the real problem is.” I have a rule when I consult: Don’t solve the problem I’m asked to solve, because it’s usually a symptom, not the real problem.
Is good design inherently simple? People say they want simple things. But if I give you something simple, you’ll say, “Yeah, but it doesn’t do everything I need.” I read an article once by somebody who said, “Look, I have a garage-door opener. It’s one button. I push it and the garage door opens. I push it again and it closes. Why can’t everything be this simple?” But do you want a telephone with just one button? We don’t want simple; what we want is understandable. If you understand it, it’s simple. If you don’t understand it, ooh, what a mess. Simplicity is all in the head.
With so many smart people working on a project or product, how does bad design happen? Because those smart people are trained in universities. They’re trained in marketing departments. They’re trained in engineering school. They’re really good at solving problems. They’re not good at stepping back and asking, “Is this the right problem?” Secondly, they don’t understand people. Because you either study people or you study technology. Good design is about merging of the two: making technology understandable by people. You have to know both, and that’s very rare.
So technology should be aspiring to us, rather than us aspiring to the technology? I call it people-centered technology. We start with what people need and how people think and we make the technology fit us. The way it’s done today is that all these smart people design something where they understand the technology and then they force us to behave like machines. And we’re not good at that. We’re good at being creative, at being different, not at repetitive accuracy and precise memory. When they force us to act like machines, basically they force us to do things we’re bad at. And when it turns out we’re bad at it, we get blamed.
Do you feel design is underappreciated in San Diego? Yes. When I came back to San Diego, it was to build a world center for design, so I looked around to find a few designers. To my great surprise, I found three or four thousand. But most of these designers aren’t aware of the other designers. So one of the things I have tried to do is bring together the design community — hence the annual Design Forward Summit. The other thing is that there are all these technology companies here and very seldom do they understand the power of design. The very few that do don’t realize there’s a big design community here and so they go off to San Francisco to find designers. We’re trying to do two things: have them appreciate the power of design and have them realize there’s a big, thriving community here.
What makes a good designer? A designer has to put together everything. I have to understand the problem. I have to understand the people. I have to understand the technology. I have to understand manufacturing techniques. I have to understand how you service something. I have to understand how business works. I have to understand how an object is distributed. That’s why I love design: It’s taking all these wonderful academic principles and putting them together in a way that makes a difference in the world.
Do you consider yourself a futurist? No. A futurist tries to predict the future, and I don’t do that. There’s an old saying: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So we try to develop things that will really help people in the future in positive ways.
What’s the story behind the Norman door? With The Design of Everyday Things, I talked about water faucets and light switches and doors. Why do you need an instruction manual to work a door? [Initially referring to a door that confuses the user whether to push or pull it open, the term “Norman door” has been adapted to refer to any poorly designed object.] Gee, with all the research I’ve done on various topics I’m famous for doors you can’t open. But you know, take fame where you can get it.
Why was the analysis of everyday objects important? I had been doing work on why people make errors, and that got me involved in the nuclear power accident at Three Mile Island. I was part of a committee to decide why the operators had made errors and we said, “No, the operators were intelligent, smart and did sensible things; but the plant was so badly designed that it led to the errors.” That made me realize that my background in engineering and psychology was a really good way to start thinking about design issues.
Now that you’ve become an adjective, do you aspire to be a verb? [Laughing] I don’t think anyone has “Normaned” anything.