Favourite Book: Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Front cover of Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, revised and expanded edition. The image is of a masochistic teapot, about which more in the book.

Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself.  Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable.

Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, revised and expanded edition (MIT Press, 2013); preface, p. xii.

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This was the book that made me see that perhaps I could be a designer after all. The focus on product design, engineering and empathy was refreshing because of the focus on people, and designing products and systems that work for the people using them, not the other way around.

Norman’s book is chock-full of anecdotes – some tragic, some humorous – and as you read through, you’ll find yourself feeling vindicated on every page – if not fascinated by his insights and revelations.  Much of his design philosophy is rooted in things we already know or sense about ourselves as human beings, but it’s articulated in a way that’s constructive and enlightening.

I came across The Design of Everyday Things after I’d finished my course at the London College of Fashion, having got the start I needed insofar as design development and realisation.  Much of the fashion design training at colleges and universities grooms you for a career in industry or running your own business.  A big chunk of HE tuition includes exploring your individuality and aesthetic or handwriting as a designer, and how you express that visually, but for me, it wasn’t well integrated with culture, society and technology.  Of course, you can’t squeeze geopolitics, sociology, and cultural history into a fashion course, but some encouragement to look beyond fashion history would have been nice.  I wanted to learn more of the hows and whys of what made things work well, and figure out what made me tick as a designer.  One path led me to mathematics; another to more fine art; and another led me to product design and Don Norman’s book.

Image of page 146, The Design of Everyday Things.

A quick list of chapters before I pull out some of my favourite quotes:

  1. The Psychopathy of Everyday Things
  2. The Psychology of Everyday Actions
  3. Knowledge in the Head and in the World
  4. Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability and Feedback
  5. Human Error?  No, Bad Design
  6. Design Thinking
  7. Design in the World of Business

One of Norman’s skills is to focus on the positive; more accurately, that problem solving is part of everyday life, and something that all people do whether they realise it or not: “We are all designers in the sense that all of us deliberately design our lives, and the way we do things.  We can also design workarounds, ways of overcoming the flaws of existing devices” [Norman 2013: xii].  We do this with tools, the knitting patterns we use, the books we read; it is about making things beautiful, useful and accessible.  We do this for ourselves and the people around us, but designers have the professional responsibility of creating beautiful, useful, and accessible products for thousands – sometimes millions – of people.  And when I say designers, in knitting and crochet terms I mean the three lions I talked about a little while ago 😊.

Problem solving cannot happen without a change in attitude, and there are a couple of meaty quotes that feel particularly relevant right now:

Most companies compare features with their competition to determine where they are weak, so they can strengthen those areas.  Wrong….  A better strategy is to concentrate on areas where they are stronger and to strengthen them even more…. Good design requires stepping back from competitive pressures and ensuring that the entire product be consistent, coherent and understandable….  The best products come from ignoring those competing voices and instead focusing on the true needs of the people who use this product.

[Ibid, pp. 263-4.]

I love this because it sums up an important shift in focus and culture: work on yourself.  The designer is forced to look within and think about what they are good at.  This point has been made many times in many different ways, but the advice is true: don’t look at what other people are doing or saying to the detriment of your own development.  What do you want to say or do?  Plus, focusing on what you’re good at allows you to see how truly great you are; qualities you might never have unearthed with undue focus on what other people are doing.  There is a world of difference between positive peer interest and compulsively feeding your insecurities.  This shift does wonders for your artistic development.  Feeling threatened does not make you grow; it makes you shrink.  It is all about you, yes, but not in a narcissistic way.  This is about what you can do well and how you can achieve things using your individual qualities.  If you celebrate your uniqueness and what makes you shine, you know that nobody can take it away from you, and you love to see it in other people.

Image of page 263, ibid.

Another important shift is getting away from blame culture and looking instead at what causes errors.  This succinct paragraph should be read by managers and business owners everywhere:

We can’t fix problems unless people admit they exist.  When we blame people, it is then difficult to convince organisations to restructure the design to eliminate these problems.  After all, if a person is at fault, replace the person.  But seldom is this the case: usually the system, the procedures and social pressures have led to the problems, and the problems won’t be fixed without addressing all of these factors. … Why do people err?  Because the designs focus on the requirements of the system and the machines, and not upon the requirements of people.

[Ibid, pp. 167-8.]

Human error is the symptom of a problem, not the cause of a problem: the systems, resources and processes need attention, and again, I love the focus on this.  It underlines the responsibility of any design professional to create systems, processes and products that serve not only the end user, but also the people involved in the production process.  If, for example, someone needs more time to complete a task well, that isn’t a personal flaw.  They might need more training, more support – or simply more time, because they didn’t have enough in the first place.  And that draws attention to the cause of the problem.  For problem solving to be successful, you need to be absolutely sure that you are solving the correct problem – and that takes empathy, reflection, and honest communication.

In addition, learning and knowing better automatically makes a person responsible for implementing change in their sphere, however large or small it might be.  Who wants to remain stuck or going around in circles?  As an aside, I often wonder why more managers aren’t more proactive about this in institutions or corporations; heaven knows they all hate spending time and money on recruitment!  It is not enough to get rid of problematic systems and the people who perpetuate them; there has to be collective effort and representational input into finding solutions.  It feels especially poignant writing this now, in the midst of yet another global crisis.  The changes humans need to make require deep thought, reflection, innovation – and courage.

Back cover, The Design of Everyday Things.

This is a book for professional designers, but like Don Norman, I feel it should be read by everyone:

One goal is to turn readers into great observers of the absurd, of the poor design that gives rise to so many of the problems of modern life….  It will also turn them into observers of the good, of the ways in which thoughtful designers have worked to make our lives easier and smoother.

[Ibid, preface, p. xi.]

This certainly worked for me, and I hope it does for you too.  The Design of Everyday Things is one of the most important books I have ever read. The link to my affiliate page at Bookshop.org is here again for you – and if you decide to grab this book or have already read it, please tell me what you think!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara says:

    Interesting to read your ideas on this! I just checked for the book with my local library. It seems that title of the Dutch translation is like ‘The dictatorship of design’, how about that?!

    And, I also found The design of future things’ by the same author. Did you read that as well?

    1. I haven’t yet; I have his book on Emotional Design but I’ll see if I can get The Design of Future Things – thank you!
      Also intrigued by the Dutch title – I wonder how that came about?

  2. That sounds like a very interesting book – thank you for sharing! It sounds like it really resonated with you. I will have to look for it!

    1. You’re welcome! It is a great book, and well written too; so important given the amount of info shared. I hope you like it too.

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