Don Norman, godfather of UX: “Bad design is bad for the planet”

Having won an award for services to design education, we chat to the designer about why craft isn’t as important as we might think, and why recycling is a con.

Few designers can claim they were set on their career path because of a nuclear meltdown, but for Don Norman, the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident set off a chain of formative events which led him to become a designer.

The now-85 year old designer was working at the University of California San Diego at the time, and was asked to join a committee tasked with investigating why the power plant operators made the mistakes they did. “What we found was that all of the operators were very intelligent, and did the best they could in an environment that was horrifically designed,” he says.

Don Norman

Establishing user-experience design

The experience caused Norman to take stock of his skills – he was an engineer, who had recently begun to branch out into psychology – and eventually led to jobs at NASA, working with an emerging technology: home computing. “The very first computers for the home were badly designed because they were created by technical people,” he recalls.

After coining the term “human-computer interaction” and beginning a career in design focused on human behaviour, a string of positions at several high-profile companies followed. Norman has served as an executive at consumer tech company HP; a fellow at consultancy IDEO; and as a vice president at Apple, where he coined another famous term, “user-experience design”.

In the field of design, Norman is technically self-taught. But as he explains, his education included working alongside some of the world’s most celebrated designers including Jony Ive.

“Climate change is a symptom to a problem that designers had a hand in creating”

In his own words, Norman has “lived a lot of lives” – and he’s already retired five times. Most recently, this has seen him awarded the Sir Misha Black Medal for distinguished services to design education, an accolade first established in 1978. Although it’s gratefully received Norman believes design education needs to evolve, quickly.

“Climate change is a symptom to a problem that designers had a hand in creating,” he says, giving examples like extractive materials and planned obsolescence. “But if design is going to offer solutions, we need to change design education to prepare students for tackling these issues.”

Echoing the sentiment of the Design Museum’s new exhibition on waste, Norman says bad design is bad for the planet. But with a wealth of experience in his field of human-centred design, he says using design to change the way people interact with the world will be tough.

Norman’s first book, which features the “masochist’s teapot” by Jacques Caralman.

“The future is going to be informed by what has already happened”

When it comes to how design is taught in the classroom, Norman says he takes issue with aesthetics and craft being valued over “academic depth”. “Students are taught how to draw, about materials and manufacturing, and while this is important to create the designs we know and love, it shouldn’t be the only thing they learn,” he says.

Design is at its most important, he says, when it is used for services and experiences. “If I’m designing a hospital, it’s going to be much more vital for me to consider how the building can service patients and care providers than it is to consider the aesthetics,” Norman says. Services and user-experience are “not taught today in the way they should be”.

In the context of climate change, knowing how to teach service and user-experience design can feel intimidating. Norman says design educators are best off looking to the past to help teach for the future. “I read a lot of history, economics and politics, because I know the future is going to be informed by what has already happened,” he says.

Of all places, Norman says teachers might find guidance for the future from the Luddites – the bands of English workers who, in the 19th century, destroyed machinery in cotton and wool mills. “The Luddites saw weaving technology as a threat to their jobs and that’s what they were against, rather than the technology itself,” Norman explains. “If we’re going to change people’s lives with similar upheavals of services and experiences, we need to know how to do so properly.”

“We shouldn’t be pushing for recycling”

A prime example of bad service design that is impacting the world negatively is recycling, Norman claims. He says the practice is complicated, unreliable and ineffective.

First of all, he says, there is the issue of material classifications, which are usually denoted with a number inside a triangle somewhere on the object. “No one knows what these mean, and worse still, most of the number categories can’t be recycled anyway,” Norman says. “Then you have to factor in that not every recycling plant has the capabilities to recycle every material.”

The final inescapable truth is that recycling “nearly always” degrades the material, he says. “We shouldn’t be pushing for recycling, we should be helping to design systems that make it easier to re-use and repair things instead,” Norman explains.

Norman is currently working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on how repair and re-use can be encouraged over recycling.

“I’m optimistic as we face the future”

While Norman is mindful of the imminent climate crisis, he says he remains hopeful. Alongside working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, his Rethinking Design Education initiative engages the help of more than 700 design educators globally and is co-sponsored by the World Design Organisation and IBM.

“I’m optimistic as we face the future,” he says. “The problem isn’t with today’s design – which is excellent – but with the world it’s in. The world has changed, and we need to expand our design work to fit that world.”

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  • Carl St. James October 25, 2021 at 3:00 pm

    I am glad he mentioned the hospital case study for user experience design. For far too long the internet has latched onto the idea that UX design is basically interaction with software. There are a large group of so-called UX designers who in reality are software designers.

    True UX is everything around us. It is the waiting room at the hospital, it is the signage on our roads and it is how we engage with the digital world. It is how a user experiences any process and UX design is how that process can be made easier.

    I had a student a few years back who looked at how the elderly made tea. Rather than redesigning the kettle (which is what many might have done) he came up with the idea of inductive wands that sit in a cup and heat the water, redesigning the whole process entirely. This to me is UX.

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