An Inside Look on Design of the 21st Century from Don Norman

By in Community Stories May 15, 2019

The man, the legend. There is no designer in the world who hasn’t heard of Don Norman at some point, probably because his book, The Design of Everyday Things, is the first step on the design path. One might wonder what the person who came up with the term “User Experience” is doing at 84 years of age. Chances are that you think of things like spending time with grandchildren or gardening. Well, in this case it is more like taking transatlantic flights to attend conferences and giving speeches to emerging design crowds who treat him like a rock star.

This year, Kiev, Ukraine based Projector, organized the interaction design conference KRUPA, with Don Norman as the headliner for the event. Since I live in a neighboring country, I immediately decided that I would go and check it out. At first, he surprised us by showing up at the pre-party of the event, where the smile on everyone’s faces said it all. We were so honored to be able to talk to this man even for a couple of seconds. On the day of the event, he signed books for long-long hours. Then finally at the end of the day we could hear his speech.  

Design is Harmful

Mr. Norman started out with a quote from Professor Victor Papanek’s book, Design for the Real World: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today.” Knowing exactly what he meant by showing his iPhone as an example, he suggested that he will tell us what we can do about this problem.

Papanek was wrong – Norman suggested – as he assumed that designers have the power to decide what to design or what not to. Design is an undoubtedly powerful tool that is used in a negative way to serve the business model of companies focusing on short term profits. Instead, designers should use the positive power of design to do social good. Norman decided to show the way once again to us – he is not going to continue practicing and writing about the design of consumer goods any longer, as he doesn’t want to help in destroying our environment. On the contrary, he is tackling more important issues like hunger, education, health etc. with the help of design frameworks, and he invited us to do the same.

What are the Problems Here?

Norman suggested that the main reason for design going in the wrong direction is the lack of designers at C-level. Human-centered design is not part of the decision-making process. We are not designing for users, but to please clients. If we would like to ‘sell’ something to our clients or bosses, showing nice drawings is not working, we have to show them numbers, ROI as that is their language and interest.

Another problem is the stubborn business model of short-term profits. Shareholders think in weeks or months, so companies are forced into increasing profits even it this behavior might be harmful to the workers, the environment, or even the long-term viability of the company.

Then there is the sensitive subject of privacy. The more we know about our customers, the better we can serve them, right? So, companies are selling our data for anyone who is willing to pay. The notion of privacy actually doesn’t exist anymore.

Complex Societal Problems

The United Nations has identified the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that are targeted to be achieved by 2030. Noman was wearing the colorful badge of the 17 SDGs during his speech, and finds it essential to solve these important problems and described the right way to approach this. Poverty, hunger or climate change are way too complex to be solved easily. At The Design Lab in San Diego, Norman and his team are using design as a way of thinking to attack complex problems of the world to see if they can make a difference.

Use the Four Principles of Human-Centered Design

1. Focus on people

Designers know what this means, but other professions optimize for different things such as a price, efficiency, productivity, time, cost etc.

2. Solve the right problem

Do not just look at the surface of the problem, but ask WHY, try to find the root causes and fix those, otherwise the problem will keep on coming back.

3. Think about the entire system

Everything is interconnected and actions have consequences, so it is important to consider the whole picture.

4. Iterate

You are going to get it wrong. Life is too complex and conditions change continuously, so you have to monitor and keep on modifying your products.

Overcoming Other Obstacles

Solving complex problems is a huge task, so it may fail easily. In addition, many times the feedback loop is difficult to understand and to see the results of a change applied today may take several years or even decades. A solution for this is approaching complex problems by small incremental, opportunistic steps that would take us in the right direction.

Moreover, just sending experts to, for instance, remote places to prescribe solutions for the people there wouldn’t work either. Local knowledge has to be considered as well, and it should be combined with expert knowledge. Combining top-down and bottom-up approaches would be the right way here, that would produce the right solutions.

Next book?

After the speech Norman was asked if he is planning to write another book about design, and the answer was that he will know when it is ready. If there would be a new book, he would name it as ‘Design for the Real World’ to commemorate Victor Papanek. I hope he is hiding some pages of this already on his laptop.

Do you have any ideas how we could contribute to this new design field Don Norman described? Let’s discuss it in the forum!