Norman Doors

By | April 16, 2016

I used to work in a tech company full of clever people. A company book club allowed clever staff members to nominate clever books for everyone else to read. Pressure. The reading list looked a bit intimidating but I tried a few and was glad. My favourite was Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate.

But this one I left to one side for years as it looked a bit technical and I’m not interested in design.

A few months ago I was pretty desperate for something to read and decided to give it a shot. Well worth it! Donald Norman was one of the guys who investigated the Three Mile Island disaster and discovered that staff had quite understandably made some basic errors because a warning light and dashboard were very poorly designed. Norman turned his attention to all those everyday disasters we have and which we attribute to our own thickness and uselessness.

Pushing a door you’re supposed to pull.

Not knowing how to set a timer on your oven.

How to set the temperature right in the fridge.

Put someone on hold and transfer a call on the office phone system.

It goes on and on. He blamed designers who are into aesthetics and ignore utility.

So a book about design turned into an epiphany of validation. IT’S NOT ME. IT’S BAD DESIGN.

Then a few months ago I was watching Room to Improve. A great old show with the usual predictable wall of windows Dermot adds to Every Single House.

In this show  the girlfriend/fiancee objected to the timber frames on his wall of windows where it wrapped around the room. The image here is a poor view but you get the idea. The GF said – but the timber frame makes the window look like a door. People are going to keep going over there and try to use it to get outside onto the patio. Dermot said no, it has to be the same to make it look all uniform and samey and nice. i.e The Aesthetic.

In my newly informed well-read state I was able to shout at the telly; “But she’s right! That’s a Norman Door!” i.e. a badly designed door (that wasn’t even a door) that would confuse people and make them feel stupid and all because it looked nice. Like the architect wanted.

It’s a pity people on the telly can’t hear you, isn’t it?