Design for a Better World by Don Norman


MIT Press describes Don Norman’s new book like this:  “The world is a mess. Our dire predicament, from collapsing social structures to the climate crisis, has been millennia in the making and can be traced back to the erroneous belief that the earth’s resources are infinite. The key to change, says Don Norman, is human behavior, covered in the book’s three major themes: meaning, sustainability, and humanity-centeredness. Emphasize quality of life, not monetary rewards; restructure how we live to better protect the environment; and focus on all of humanity. Design for a Better World presents an eye-opening diagnosis of where we’ve gone wrong and a clear prescription for making things better.”

Today, the 87-year-old professor emeritus and director of the Design Lab at UCSD is considered by many a legendary mind in the design world. He helped coin the now-ubiquitous term user-centered design, and was the first person with “user experience” in his title at Apple. He cofounded his Nielsen Norman Group consultancy in 1998, and he’s served as an adviser for entities including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Panasonic. His success is due largely to his constant career evolution: He’s been an engineer, a cognitive psychologist, an academic, an executive, a consultant, and, yes, a designer, too.

Having worked at Apple when Don Norman was flittering about with his insights on the cross section of computing and anthropology and cognitive science, I’ve been a fan of his intellectual wildness and boldness even before he gave deep thought to what being a designer really means. 

Norman has always been at his best when he’s roasting idiotic decision-makers of all types. Yet his authoritative thinking doesn’t mesh so well with the current culture of design.


A mere 3% of designers today are Black, a fact that’s led to a generation of products with a baked-in racist viewpoint, including medical textbooks and AI systems. Meanwhile, Norman’s own field of UX may very well be the most diverse contingent within the design world. In recent years, UX thinking has become more attuned to its own power dynamics, and more inclusive as a result. This awakening is thanks to a new generation of designers who’ve actually grown up dealing with the intentional and careless prejudice built into so many real aspects of their lives. That prejudice would not be there if the white-dominated fields of design and technology had acknowledged the value of all people decades ago, or in the decades since.


One of Norman’s key solutions to fixing the world’s inequity is the idea that people can “design for themselves.” He writes the phrase as a source of empowerment, citing how Ikea hacking demonstrates the power of community action to remake the world for itself. The solution does seem inspiring for a moment—across the disability community, hacking has been an important aspect of survival—but then I found myself wondering, Would you ask a family in Flint, Michigan, to hack their own water supply? (And would you ask a family in Burlington, Vermont, to hack theirs?) In any case, aren’t we asking a lot of people who don’t have the luxury of spare capital, time, and extracurricular pursuits? “Design your way out!” is a slippery slope to “It’s not my problem.” 

Fast Company Article 


I like him and here’s why…


Norman has always poked and prodded at the hardest but in many cases most obvious things to think about. The Psychology of All Things came from his frustration while writing a book at Cambridge University psychology department and couldn’t do the obvious expected things, like opening doors, flipping light switches and gaining direction in and out of spaces. He churned out this book fast, blaming the field of design for these experiences. He got TOLD by his friend Bill Verplank in a one on one crash course in design. Norman realized he didn’t have a clue about how design and how it worked with intersecting market, manufacturing and business drivers. 

He then made some edits and changed the title to the Design of Everyday Things. He loves a good debate. He pokes and hopes to get push back. This in my mind is the very definition of a designer. Humble, revisioning and transformational. I love that he’s 87 years old and will not rest until justice has been served. He has seen so much in his lifetime and is on a mission to change things. This coincides with my opinion that the elders of this particular time and space are the ones who are taking the ball of justice making. At the end of the day that is what Don Norman is after. He is appalled. So many of us are. Time to design a better world.