rebecca's WIP

Reading: Norman’s Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design


[Images from Impossible Objects Catalog, based on Impossible Objects by Jacques Carelman]

Last week’s readings by Donald Norman and Tom Igoe brought up a lot of interesting questions about, and tensions within, my own background as both an artist and a designer (hence why I’m taking the time to write a very belated blog post about them).

At many points in the reading, I found myself asking: what exactly is a designer? What does it means to make things within that context, and precisely how is that different from what we conventionally think of as “artistic” output? (Obviously the lines between disciplines are quite blurry and there’s no single right answer. Critical design practice, often shown in museums and other artistic institutions that are removed from everyday use in the world, has complicated this even further). Moreover, what is the relationship between form and function? How do artists and designers conceptualize this relationship differently?

Norman has a very developed answer to the question of form and function, and how they are related. In the first chapter of Design of Everyday Things, he emphasizes utility and ease of use as the first priority in “good design.” He goes through a series different examples that illustrate his criteria for good design: affordances (the “psychology” of materials), constraints, feedback, mapping, to name a few. Mapping — the relationship between the controls of an object and its output — is a huge part of this, and lays the foundation for what Norman calls a “clear conceptual model.” Take, for example, a steering wheel. When you’re driving a car, you turn the steering wheel to the right and it turns the car to the right. This is a clear and straightforward example of natural mapping. If you turned the steering wheel to the left and the car went right, there’s no doubt in our mind that this would be a totally preposterous design. Same with the pair of scissors. There are visual cues in the design of a pair of scissors that signify to us where we should put our fingers, and how we should use them. For Norman, good design is all in the details.

Norman also provides some examples of “bad,” or at least very convoluted design, such as an overly complicated telephone system and a refrigerator he can’t figure out. His counterexamples are resonant (I thought immediately of a new digital camera I’d bought with so many controls and options for customization that it made me want to go running back to my 35mm manual one) and also make his priorities clear. If a person can’t easily figure out how to work a device or interact with an object, then the object fails in its design. Good design is marked by an elegant kind of utility, an ease of use that is natural and organic for people. In all of his examples, form exists in service of function. Usefulness comes first.

Design of Everyday Things, or at least what I’ve read of it, left me wondering where form comes into play. Design, after all, is a creative discipline, not a strictly scientific one. Does his model leave room for expressiveness and emotion? For beauty? For delight?

In Norman’s follow-up text Attractive Things Work Better, he addresses the role of form and starts to fill what I see as a major gap in Design of Everyday Things.  Here, he acknowledges that we as human beings have emotional connections and visceral reactions to objects that are not only based on their utility. We like beautiful things. We like to feel connected to the objects that inhabit our lives. We are motivated by aesthetics and a sense of what is naturally appealing to us. If there are two teapots that are equally “well-designed” by standards of utility, perhaps we will choose the one that we are more “connected to,” whether that’s the one which is more aesthetically pleasing to us or the one that looks like our grandmother’s old teapot and reminds us of childhood. Here, Norman refines his definition of good design. Good design, he says “means that beauty and usability are in balance. An object that is beautiful to the core is no better than one that is only pretty if they both lack usability.”

Tom Igoe’s article lines up with my thinking about Norman in a nice way. In it, he provides a good repository of references when it comes to thinking about projects and broader themes to explore within physical computing. I’m interested explore questions around presence versus attention, how the body can be a cursor and how works of art can become reactive and interactive. But most of all, I’m interested in thinking about how physical computing can be used in a poetic and artistic context as opposed to a purely functional one.

Some other related readings

What is a Designer by Norman Potter

The Craftsman by Richard Senett