Why Design Education Must Change

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College days

Written by Don Norman from Core77

“I am forced to read a lot of crap. As a reviewer of submissions to design journals and conferences, as a juror of design contests, and as a mentor and advisor to design students and faculty, I read outrageous claims made by designers who have little understanding of the complexity of the problems they are attempting to solve or of the standards of evidence required to make claims. Oftentimes the crap comes from brilliant and talented people, with good ideas and wonderful instantiations of physical products, concepts, or simulations. The crap is in the claims.

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.

Related problems occur with designers trained in engineering, for although they may understand hard-core science, they are often ignorant of the so-called soft areas of social and behavioral sciences. The do not understand human behavior, chiding people for not using technology properly, asking how they could be so illogical. (You may have all heard the refrain: “if only we didn’t have people, our stuff would work just fine,” forgetting that the point of the work was to help people.) Engineers are often ignorant of how people actually behave. And both engineers and designers are often ignorant of the biases that can be unwittingly introduced into experimental designs and the dangers of inappropriate generalization.

The social and behavioral sciences have their own problems, for they generally are disdainful of applied, practical work and their experimental methods are inappropriate: scientists seek “truth” whereas practitioners seek “good enough.” Scientists look for small differences, whereas designers want large impact. People in human-computer interaction, cognitive engineering, and human factors or ergonomics are usually ignorant of design. All disciplines have their problems: everyone can share the blame.”

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