A response to Don Norman’s “Why Design Education Must Change”

Don Norman posted an article recently on Core77 discussing design education and the increasing need for designers to possess broad and deep knowledge as they take on ever more complex problems:

In the early days of industrial design, the work was primarily focused upon physical products. Today, however, designers work on organizational structure and social problems, on interaction, service, and experience design. Many problems involve complex social and political issues. As a result, designers have become applied behavioral scientists, but they are woefully undereducated for the task. Designers often fail to understand the complexity of the issues and the depth of knowledge already known. They claim that fresh eyes can produce novel solutions, but then they wonder why these solutions are seldom implemented, or if implemented, why they fail. Fresh eyes can indeed produce insightful results, but the eyes must also be educated and knowledgeable. Designers often lack the requisite understanding. Design schools do not train students about these complex issues, about the interlocking complexities of human and social behavior, about the behavioral sciences, technology, and business. There is little or no training in science, the scientific method, and experimental design.

My reaction to Don’s commentary is that in focusing solely on design education, he may be looking at too narrow a solution space.

The complexity of many problem spaces being tackled by contemporary designers, with physical, technological, psychological, cultural, and organizational factors to be understood and leveraged in creating solutions, necessitates a multidisciplinary approach. It’s usually not realistic to expect one or even several people to possess adequate knowledge and experience across so many domains, so this would suggest taking a team approach — at least including appropriate experts as advisors to a core team.

If the designer is posited as the ringmaster of this effort, then the primary skill set starts to become one of broad familiarity with a variety of domains/disciplines and skilled facilitation of conversation and work across these areas, coupled with the ability to express the ideas that emerge from this effort in a variety of physical and narrative forms. Is this really the province of just the designer, or is this a wider issue?

Perhaps what’s needed is not so much a new approach to the designer. Perhaps it’s a new emphasis on the idea of collaboration as the natural way of doing things, and an increased obligation on experts of all sorts to also be skilled contributors to these types of collaborative efforts.

It’s always worth broadening the designer’s knowledge base, but what might a “collaboration curriculum” look like — one that could be implemented across many domains and disciplines? Could that yield more bang for the buck?

One response to “A response to Don Norman’s “Why Design Education Must Change”

  1. Dan, I totally agree with your assessment here. Although, I also agree that there are probably many ways to improve design education. To me what resonates in your response is that the design-build process must be collaborative. I believe that setting aside team members as “the designers” gives the false impression that the product vision belongs to some, but not others. In such a situation, the engineer can easily fall into the role of builder (without thinking about the design solution, or without thinking about it until much later in the build process — which is usually too late). The teams we’re trying to create to build mobile apps are succeeding because of a shared responsibility for the design process (exactly like you’ve stated).

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