University industrial design programs are usually cloistered in schools of art or architecture, and students in such programs are rarely required to study science or technology. That bothers Don Norman, former head of research at Apple and an advocate of user-friendly design. Having traditional design skills—in traditional artistic pursuits like drawing and modeling—isn’t enough, he says, because the creators of good products and services also must have a working knowledge of everything from the technical underpinnings of microprocessors and programming to the policy aspects of information security.
Norman, 75, is the author of The Design of Everyday Things; his latest book is Living with Complexity. He consults through a firm he cofounded, the Nielsen Norman Group, sits on the board of trustees of the Institute of Design in Chicago, is finishing a teaching engagement at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and was just elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He spoke with David Talbot, Technology Review’s chief correspondent.
TR: Why should designers get any technical education?
Norman: Design is badly misunderstood to mean “making something look pretty.” The modern designer is much more concerned with ensuring that the product or service meets fundamental needs. They make sure that things function well, and that they offer a great experience for the person. Craft skills are fine for the design of furniture and relatively simple mechanical devices. But today, communications features are fundamental to products, from appliances to automobiles. Knowledge of technology, security and privacy, and social networks are critical to design. Designers need to deploy microprocessors, actuators, and sensors. And their end products are really applied social science.
So what’s the problem with design education today?
Designers have almost no formal training in these topics. But let me start off with what is wrong with university education in general. In the universities, we train specialists, hire specialists, and we promote faculty if they are the very best at whatever they do. In order to be the very best, people have to be very deep, which also tends to make people narrow. The university scorns the generalist—they say, “Ugh. In any given area, you don’t know very much, do you?” This is what worries me. Engineers and MBAs are really good at solving problems. People who create products and services have to be generalists. Good designers do not rush to a solution. First they ask, “Is this the correct problem to solve?” They need to know something about everything, enough so they know how to consult the world’s specialists, enough so they can combine and create across the narrow specialties, putting together novel, exciting products and services.