research design laboratory

The Design of Everyday Things: Observations from Brooklyn

Spending this week in Brooklyn & Manhattan (with Jacquie Wallace of former Veer cofounder and All Beefer) to think through design in preparation for the Archinodes talk at the Swedish Archives in April: in particular, I'm here to see and be inspired by the Applied Design exhibition at the MoMA (NY).

On this trip, I'm reading Donald A. Norman's The Design of Everyday Things and, in discussing it along the way, it's been influencing our travels and the way we encounter design in the city. The book is not about bad design per se, but it does call to attention the flaws, assumptions, and directions built into everyday objects. Since we've been here, both Jacquie and I have been noting -- at first in our minds and later on paper for a longer reflection piece -- our experiences navigating Brooklyn. As an exercise, we made observations about how objects are designed, and in turn, what their affordances (Norman's term) are.

Much in the style of Norman's analysis, we considered elevators, doors, household appliances, signage, and so on. The elevator where we stayed in Brooklyn required a card key. With this card key you could go up in the elevator, without it you could not. However, when the doors shut, there was no indication on the  number pad that reinforced our floor selection, nor any indication of movement. This meant inserting the card several times and pressing on buttons repeatedly until the upward movement was felt. If you forget your card, I imagine you'd be stuck in there for awhile. That evening we went out for a bite to eat and the restaurant entrance had two set of glass doors (a favourite object in the book). The two sets were completely different, aesthetically and in terms of design, and demanded a different kind of 'movement vocabulary.' As detailed in an example in the the book, one of the doors had the obvious flaw of having a pull handle on a push door. Back in our hotel, the inside of the bathroom door - also made of glass (!) - had no handle at all, though we wondered if the extended bolt was an attempt (almost ingenious) at providing something for the fingers to grab onto, to slide the door. Doors are an amazing object for this kind of design observation as so many are flawed and demand each person to adapt to its unintended but embedded design features (such as that bolt). Shortly after commenting on this door, Jacquie's hair got caught in the hairdryer, which also made it onto our list of objects with serious design flaws (this happens more than you think, and there's no saving the hair that gets eaten by the machine). As we wandered the city, we ended up taking the subway going the wrong way because as much as the signage was poor and required some decoding -- colours, numbers and letters for each train -- it was a person who gave us the wrong directions. Humans are also flawed technologies... Jacquie and I, having both traveled a fair bit, talked about the culture of public transportation, and how it seems above all else to run on assumptions and familiarity about space and location; in other words, public transportation feels built by and for locals, often with little to offer tourists or travellers in terms of guidance, legends, trajectory and so on. 

What's noticeably missing from Norman's 1988 account of design is the interface and our everyday interactions with screens, mobile devices and digital media more generally. A good project would be to update and adapt the concepts of the book to this realm. The book's layout also causes interruptions in reading, and so fails to apply the logics of the content to itself. A revised version would necessarily reconsider this, too.