Interview with Donald Norman: Design Skills in a Complex World

(Originally posted here, the blog of Manifesto Ibridi)

Donald Norman is an Electrical Engineering and Cognitive Psychologist. He’s co-founder and principal of the User Experience/Usability consulting firm, the Nielsen Norman group.

He’s an Hybrid Guru in the transdisciplinary fields of Usability, Interaction Design and User Experience Design with an amazing career.

We think that in the design of the last 20 years, as a profession, there are interesting emerging balances and combinations of competencies to front a more complex world. So we proposed to Norman for questions about the main skills of the future designers.

We asked him a few questions:

  1. What are the necessary skills for a designer to face the future challenges of a more complex world?
  2. Could the transdisciplinary attitude and skills of brilliant designers be a model useful to be adopted in other fields?
  3. Do you think that the future of user experience design will need a different level of competence on the several psychological and social layers of the users?
  4. Reading the Manifesto Ibridi, what is the most important concept that captured your attention since you are working in the same direction?

To which he answered:

“The skills of the traditional designer are not adequate to cope with the requirements of today’s world, especially not adequate for the new areas in which design is asked to play a role.

Traditional design education is still, well, tradition: craft based. The undergraduate education is all about craft skills and the professional graduate degree is simply more refinement of those skills.

Today the designer must know more about the world, about art and science, technology and engineering, social and behavioral sciences, political science and economics. Business. But very few designers receive the broad kind of education necessary to work on the problems that are so desperate in need of good design skills.

The problem is made worse by the fact that most academic disciplines are very narrow and abstract. Academics focus upon academic, deep knowledge. Designers work in the real world: they need to knowhow to apply the knowledge of the other disciplines, but the university is perhaps the worst place to learn the practical implication of the necessary other disciplines.

Although I think it is time for design education to change, I believe that the larger and more important problem is that it is necessary for all education to change. Instead of narrow, theoretical disciplines, we should have problem-based areas of focus, where theory and practice share the issues, where people with different backgrounds add their knowledge and experience. We need to reward practical applications, not just theoretical ones. we need to reward people with wide, generalist knowledge at the same level we know reward people with deep, narrow knowledge. Designers need the knowledge within the other disciplines: the other disciplines can use the unifying vision of great designers. But today, neither knows quite how to work with the other – the broad, generalist knowledge of the designer who wishes to build and accomplish things versus the deep, narrow knowledge of the academic scholar who wishes to understand things. Both are needed. We need a way to make them work well together, for each to respect the skills of the other.

Design has to move away from its base as a skill-based discipline. People who design services and communities need not have craft skills. But they are still designers. Different kinds of designers need very different skills.

Why do I support the Manifesto Ibridi: because it is making an argument quite compatible with the one I just wrote, to live and understand complexity, to deal with the rapid acceleration of knowledge and technology, to understand the interaction of humans and technology (cognition and artifacts) – except cognition must include emotion and action – the body as well as the mind.”

— Don Norman

(Image courtesy of John Knox)