Design for a “Mess”

Book review by Anirudh Dhebar: “The world is a mess,” reads the opening sentence of the blurb for Don Norman’s latest book, Design for a Better World. Compelled by that phrase, I was left wondering: Does Norman, an influential voice on user-centered design, perhaps best known for his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, have workable solutions to offer so we can design our way out of the mess?

Thirty years ago, I read Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, which was originally published in a hardcover version as The Psychology of Everyday Things and retitled for the paperback edition. In his preface to that new edition, the author suggested the title change was a “lesson in design.” I could not agree more—many readers may find a book on design less intimidating than a book on psychology. By changing the title, Norman was practicing what he was preaching: making its design more user centric.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman preached effectively. He offered a distinctive perspective on something commonplace (everyday things), with an approachable style and a persuasive pitch to casual readers who otherwise may not have given much thought to the good, bad, and the ugly of the designs of the many things they interact with in their daily lives. His message helped bring user centricity to the front and center of product design and was part of a widespread shift toward more intentional design.

In his new book, Norman shifts the focus to something much more ambitious: the role of design in transforming the world from its present “mess” into something “better”—more sustainable, meaningful, and centered on humanity. While I applaud the author’s ambition, a shift from a relatively narrow focus on the design of tangible everyday objects to something as vast as a moral reform of the economy and its relationship to the environment is a tall order and requires more than a call-for-action-on-multiple-fronts message…(More)”.