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The Problem with Design Education

Design—central to successful technologies—is too isolated from science education, argues design guru Don Norman.
April 6, 2011

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.

How should universities change?

The first thing to do is ask: “What is the purpose of all the technology we are developing?” And the answer is, obviously: “To help people.” But the understanding of “people” is in a different school—the social sciences—than the school where the understanding of technologies is taught. Right now, people in one area don’t understand what someone else in their own department does, let alone what is being done in other departments.

If you want to be broad, you have to be shallow. In fact, you are shallow, because that’s what journalists are: very broad and therefore, of necessity, relatively shallow in any area.

Thank you.

Broad and shallow shouldn’t be a negative. What a great designer does, and what a great journalist does, is try to step back and figure out: “What is the interesting problem here? What things have to be combined to make this work?” 

How can universities get started in making the necessary change?

I think that the current emphasis on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—needs a “D,” for design. Designers need to learn STEM (where S includes both the hard and the soft, social sciences). But similarly, engineers need to learn D: after all, the point of engineering is to develop things for people and society.

Despite the problems you’re citing in the educational system, aren’t companies that are making the exploding numbers of smart phones and tablets producing excellent design?

As things get better and better, they also get worse and worse, in part because there is such a rapid growth in companies developing all sorts of new things. Many of our newer devices have exciting potential, but because of their newness, they tend to frustrate.

What flaws do you see in them?

Sometimes you accidentally hit the screen, and it goes to some other location, and you have no idea where you are, or how to get back. Or you want to change something or edit, and you can’t figure out how to get there.

Such as?

Here is a simple example I give in lectures. I say “Oh, you have an iPhone—how nice. We are located in Milan, or New York, or San Francisco, or Seoul, so your phone is set to this time zone. Please change it to a different time zone.” And they say “That’s easy—you go to settings, you go here—and, oh no, that’s not it …”  It’s fun to watch them.

Here’s the neat part: when they finally find it, they look up and smile and say: “See, that was easy.” Even when you have trouble doing a task, it still feels like it’s fun. You don’t say, “What a bad design.” You say, “Oh, it’s my fault, I forgot how to do it.” This shows both the strengths and weaknesses of modern technology: it is fun, it is exciting, and it is revolutionary. But we have forgotten some of the design lessons of the past. We can do better.

We need fewer screens and keyboards and more physical devices, more full-body motion, more integration with the world. With today’s new displays, sensors, computation, and communication technologies, it is all starting to happen. This is an exciting time.

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