• Interview Excerpt: Don Norman, Co-Founder & Principal, Nielsen Norman Group, Palo Alto

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    AH: What characteristics or qualities are necessary to be a successful industrial designer? What do industrial designers need to know in order to succeed?

    DN: There are two parts to this question: one is what makes a person succeed in any job and the other is what is special in the design field. In any job you want someone who is dedicated, enthusiastic, creative. If you’re doing a job because it’s a job, or because you think you’re supposed to, you’re not going to be very good at it. The first thing is, you have to find a match to your talents and things that excite you. Sometimes that means changing companies, or within a company it might mean trying to find the correct projects and somehow talk yourself into them. It’s amazing how many people do things or take jobs because they think they’re supposed to.

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    Now, what makes a designer special? We train people in specialties. In engineering, you can’t say, “I’m an engineer.” You have to say what kind of an engineer, and you can’t even say I’m a computer scientist, or an electrical engineer or mechanical engineer—that’s too broad. You have to say what you do: fluid dynamics, nano-technology, programming. Even programming isn’t specific enough. What kind of programming? Is it kernel, is it operating system, input/output, is it mobile phones? So they become very great specialists.

    Designers are not specialists. Designers are generalists. To make a product means you have to take specialty knowledge from all across. Building a medical product, you have to understand the situation of medicine, who’s going to be using it—is it the physicians, is it nurses, is it technicians, is it patients? What’s the setting? Is it the home, is it the clinic, is it in-service, out-service? In-patient, out-patient? And you have to figure out all the different technologies that are involved, which today are microprocessors, and actuators and sensors, and communication networks, and the materials, and the size requirements and somehow make it all come together into a wonderful system. Not an isolated product, but a thing that works well in the system.

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    AH: You get asked frequently how to break into industrial design or design in general by people who don’t have a background in design. You yourself have managed to do that successfully. How would you answer that question for them?

    DN: Well the road that I followed isn’t going to work for most people. I was here at the very beginning of the home computer revolution, and also helped establish interaction design. I was also a company executive. So, yeah, start off by becoming a vice president of Apple, that’s a good start. What I mainly do is give strategic advice to companies. I do not design their products. I tell them that they need to hire designers and I recommend design firms, or individuals. I look at their companies and say: “You have really good people here, but they’re not structured properly so you can most effectively make use of them.” I give the kind of strategic advice that an executive consultant gives. The major difference between me and most executive consultants is that I’m focused on the product, on giving pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction to the customers.

    It is hard to break into the design field. There are many, many design schools and not as many jobs. This is true of any discipline. What you have to do is hone your skills, try to find a job as close to what you are interested in as possible. Develop your portfolio and figure out what you’re good at, and not so good at. Now, many people develop portfolios that all look the same.

    Here’s what I tell people: use human-centered design to design your portfolio. Put yourself in the place of a busy hiring manager who has no time to do this, who’s busy with three other projects, and is actually understaffed—that’s why they’re hiring. Now suddenly, somebody comes in and says: “Hey, here are the latest portfolios,” and plunks 20 down, as they’re late for a meeting, having all sorts of crises…and so what do they do? They thumb through them, they give each one five to 10 seconds and they cull a set of a couple that just look interesting. Now, how do they choose the interesting ones from the non-interesting ones? There has to be something unique.

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    AH: What is the designer’s role in business these days?

    DN: Designers are essential to business. But before I discuss that, what is design? Design is not just making a product, and is certainly not just making the product attractive. Design is trying to solve the problem that people may not even realize that there’s a problem. One of the rules I have in my own consulting is: do not solve the problem that I’m asked to solve—and I try to teach this to my students. The first thing you do when you’re given a problem is say: “What’s the real problem?” This is what the emphasis on design thinking is about. When we’re given a problem we have to back off and think: “Well, why do people think this is a problem?” Really, the underlying issues—what can we do to address the fundamental issue, the root cause, the root problem? If we can do that, that may actually lead to whole new businesses and whole new ways of thinking, and along the way the original problem will turn out to either be solved, or will turn out to not even be an issue.

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    AH: How have you seen industrial design evolve over your career? Where do you see the future of industrial design going as it evolves further in the 21st century?

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    The traditional design education today, especially in industrial design, originally came from art schools. Many, many schools of industrial design are inside the schools of art or architecture, and I think that’s unfortunate. I would like to see more of them in schools of engineering because the emphasis at schools of art and architecture is on art, and industrial design is not art. The fact that you spend years learning how to draw and do two-dimensional sketching and three-dimensional sketching, and building models—that’s craftsmanship. It’s important that we have good craftspeople, but I want people who think.

    The one thing that’s not taught in design is thinking. We’re proud of design thinking, yet we don’t teach thinking, and designers don’t know much about the world. They don’t read literature, they don’t read history, they don’t read sciences, they don’t know mathematics, they don’t know new technology, yet they’re supposed to be building things that rely on this new technology, that require some knowledge of mathematics and science, that require tremendous amounts of knowledge about people because we’re designing things for people—to change people’s behavior, or society’s behavior.

    The result is that I’ve heard designers make the most outrageous statements about how their ideas will transform education, or transform business, or transform medicine, or whatever. They don’t have a real clue about the complexities of these problems and also, they have no idea about how to verify these claims. I consider that modern design is a form of applied social sciences. After all, we are using our design skills to take technology and solve social issues, whether for an individual, or a group, or society, or a company, or a country. I think the training today is bad, and that the design field is ill served. Design today has become a very powerful influence. Designers need to have a much broader education in the world, maybe less education in technique.

    AH: What would you say to those that would argue against your statement, noting the success of designers like Philippe Starck or Karim Rashid, who focus strictly on aesthetics of product design and have managed to build quite a career around it?

    DN: The great designers have built simple things. Take Philippe Starck; there’s a Philippe Starck—I’m pointing at Juicy Salif, his orange juice squeezer. Notice it’s in my living room, not in my kitchen. I’ve only used it to squeeze an orange once, and that was because I wanted to see if it could be done. I consider it art, I don’t consider it function. But if you look at what people like Starck do, they do chairs, wristwatch design—not the interior, just the shell of the watch—hotel interiors, they don’t design anything with complexity that modern life requires. They don’t design educational systems, they don’t design the innards of an airplane, they don’t design automobile interiors. If they did it would be maybe beautiful, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t work very well. They don’t design, they don’t understand interaction design, or the feedback that’s so essential for people to understand what’s going on. So these great designers are trained as craftspeople and they produce great crafts.

    We need people like that, we need the Philippe Starcks of the world, but don’t confuse them with the sort of products frog works on, or the sort of products any of the major design companies work on. They’re simple in comparison to this complex interaction of multiple technologies, invisible microprocessors inside, and the tasks that people are trying to accomplish.


    Don Norman

    Don Norman

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