The Invasion of Norman, D.

by New Idiom


photo by Miguel Cervantes

Despite being swarmed by more people after his talk than Lindsay Lohan exiting rehab, the New Idiom was able to steal Don Norman for a quick interview after his keynote speech at the Design Research Conference. Who was that mystery man who kept asking all the tough questions at the conference? How does Norman experience Ikea? And what kind of seasoning does Norman prefer on his food? Read on to learn all this and more, including Norman’s beginnings in design, his view of the field’s evolution, and what he sees as the future of design.

Tell me little about how you got started in the field of design? I know you have a psychology degree and an electric engineering/computer science degree…

Well that’s a really long story.

Was there a sort of ‘aha!’ moment when it all came together for you and you realized you were now a part of the design field?

No. Many years ago there was the Three Mile Island accident, and I was called in as a psychologist to try and figure out how to train operators better so they didn’t make the same errors. We soon discovered that it was really the bad design of the control room. That triggered my engineering  background, so with a combination of psychology and engineering I thought, ‘well that’s perfect for working here,’ and I tried to understand  what the problem was [at Three Mile Island] and how to make people understand it.  So, I changed the work I was doing to look at more applied issues, and I started looking at flight issues, doing work for aviation safety, for NASA, and I became a consultant to a number of companies.

After a number of years I discovered I was more interested in these design and applied issues—I still didn’t think of myself as a designer, and I was in the scientific side of things—and I spent the year in England where I couldn’t work the water faucets and the light switches. I got so exasperated that I said, ‘you know, the same principles we’re applying to these complicated [issues] work on simple things,’ so I wrote The Psychology of Everyday Things.  And then at some point in that cycle, I just decided that academics were too academic and I really wanted to apply stuff. So I went to Apple Computer , where I eventually became the vice president of the advanced technology group, and it was there I worked with a design group, which was Bob Brunner, to start with, and then Jonathan Ive, and they really did a great job of opening up my eyes  to the entire design experience.

I also have to credit three people. When I was writing The Design of Everyday Things, I met Bill Verplank, whom I’ve known for many years, and I met him at a conference and he said, ‘well I didn’t know you knew about design’—I had no business writing about design—and he took me into a meeting he was having with Shelly Evans and her husband and that’s where I started to learn a little bit about design, when I realized I was complaining about what designers are also complaining about. But I started to really learn about design at Apple, working with their design team, and since then, over the years, my learning and training have been really slow. It’s by working with design teams, looking, getting products out, traveling around the world and visiting design schools—I was on the Board of Trustees of ID for quite a while—that I just slowly educated myself. I just had an interesting conversation with Victor Margolin, the editor of Design Studies—he’s a retired professor of design at University of Illinois at Chicago—and actually, in one of his books he commented on how uneducated I was about design issues. He really attacked me. We just discussed that, and I said he was right, but that I hope he’d be wrong today.

It’s taken me a long time to understand the design community. There is no design community! It’s strange, it’s bizarre, it’s all mixed up. In fact, as you well know, most of the design community does not think that ID teaches design, that you guys aren’t designers. So what is design?

When you say there is no design community, that it’s not a field…

I didn’t say it’s not a field. What’s interesting is that in this very conference I’ve had many talks. Dave [Weightman, from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champain] and I had a talk about what design is and what a Ph.D. means in research. I had lunch with [Kei] Sato, Larry Leifer and one of my students, and we were all talking about how hard it is to teach design, and what are the design principles and fundamentals. So all of us are struggling with it. That’s what I mean. Design is a field, but it has sort of grown up haphazardly into a mature and accepted discipline, which is what makes it exciting.

Do you think that there will be a time when design is a part of our everyday culture?

I think design is a part of everyday culture now.

Of course, but at the same time, when we talk to people outside of the design community about what it is we do or what it is those of us at ID are studying to do, they don’t understand what it is. This definition of design as we understand it is not part of the everyday cultural vernacular.

That’s right. There are many various meanings of design, but on the whole it means making things look pretty. Decoration or fashion or furniture or style, and style certainly is a part of design, but it’s only one small part. I think, though, that in business that notion is starting to gain accordance. I think they’re realizing that design is how you think about the problem, and what is the question. That’s what I goaded Victor for, I said, ‘come on, Victor, you’re jumping to the answer.’ We teach our design students not to jump to the answer, but to ask, ‘what is the real issue?’

Going back to your books, the evolution of your books, from The Design of Everyday Things to Emotional Design to The Future of Design Things, does that evolution reflect the field of design’s growth over the years, or does it reflect the growth of your own knowledge and understand of the field?

It reflects my personal growth, but a little bit the field’s. So actually, the first book was User Centered System Design, and that was a more technical book entirely about computer design. The second book was The Psychology of Everyday Things, and then that book got renamed The Design of Everyday Things, so even though the book didn’t change [the title did], and that’s important because it made me realize, ‘oh, I really am writing about design, not some esoteric part of psychology.’ So that was an important psychological moment for me. And then the next book was Things That Make Us Smart, which is about cognitive artifacts at play. Look, you’re using a tape recorder, which will amplify your memory, you use a camera to amplify your memory, and writing, that’s the most important of the cognitive artifacts and design. So that’s more of textbook, but it’s actually used a lot, and there are a lot of design principles in there, too; I have design graphs, and maps and relationships, but most people don’t know that book.  Then there’s a book of essays called Turn Signals Are The Facials Expressions of Automobiles. The turn signals are the only thing that signify intention. The brakes signify what’s happening, but the turn signals signify the intention of the single organism of car plus driver. I built on that later on. So the next book was The Invisible Computer, which talks about what is happening, which is several things. One is that computers are disappearing, [soon] we won’t notice them; they won’t be these complicated PCs, but your camera is a complex computer and this tape recorder is a complex computer, and the iPod, all of it is a computer, and the navigator system. So, it was all about this revolution, but it was ten years ahead of its time. But I also talk there about the design process, and one of my favorite chapters is if you want human centered design, restructure your company, because you can’t stovepipe the different disciplines. Designers must work with marketers who must work with engineers. You can’t separate them.

The next book after that was Emotional Design, where I finally realized how to put it all together. People criticize The Design of Everyday Things; they say, ‘well, Norman’s okay, but if we built this stuff the way he talked about it, it would be ugly.’ And that’s not the what I had in mind, and I finally realized how to put it together. Then the book The Design of Future Things was a little bit like I talk about these new creatures that are coming along, carless drivers and human computers, and we worry about the way that automation is entering our lives, and looking at the larger context.

So all along, as this has been my evolution and my growth, it also does reflect the field. I’m very pleased about the response to the books. I like to think that the books have had some impact on the field. It’s like all good designs. Design and technology changes the way people behave, and the way people behave changes design and technology; it goes in both directions.

At the end of your presentation, you showed a picture of Nudge [by Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein], but didn’t have time to discuss it. You are mentioned in that book, and, in a roundabout way, that book is how I came to be a student at ID, so it’s interesting that things are sort of coming full circle. Can you tell me about what you were going to talk about?

Richard Thaler called me up one day and said, ‘hey, I’m really doing design, so I want to come and talk to you.’ So we talked, and he’s doing behavior design. The point is that people don’t often do what is best for themselves, and yet [they] don’t believe in forcing people. The question is, ‘are there subtle things we can do to cause people to do the right thing,’ and that’s what Nudge is about. I think that’s a really good principle for social design. I saw that time was up [during my talk], so I didn’t want to impose, but that was meant to be the conclusion of my speech. I was going to discuss that and then show a floor plan of Ikea. Ikea nudges you, but it’s very subtle so you don’t notice and therefore you don’t really mind. They indirectly force you to go all the way to the [fourth floor] and then go all the way down, and of course you don’t have to, you can break loose, and that’s very good, but it’s the default and it actually gives you a better experience, but you don’t feel like they’re manipulating you.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I have just one last question: are you a salt or a pepper person?

Pepper. …Pepper. In our house we don’t have salt, for medical reasons. We’re not ill, but we just decided [to be healthy], and then we realized that we’ve learned that we actually like the straight taste of the food. We may have salt some place, because guests sometimes ask for it, but we’re pepper people.