Book Reviews for Houston Creatives, no. 3

As designers, creatives, and makers, our role is to disseminate information and objects that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also functional. Whenever there is a breakdown between an object’s intention and its effect there is a problem. In The Design of Everyday Things (originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things), Donald Norman attempts to explain why these breakdowns occur, how they effect the user, and how to remedy the issues to create effective, useful design.


Donald Norman — image courtesy of No No Book Project

Originally published in 1988, The Design of Everyday Things, is one of many essential guidelines for understanding how design effects the viewer or user. As a basic example of everyday design Norman espouses upon in the first chapter is: doors. Doors can often and unfortunately be complicated and difficult to use, as Norman points out in an endless string of examples—doors which confound these user are since referred to as “Norman Doors.”

While a complicated door is a problem on its own, the issue becomes even more entangled when someone attempts to use it. Norman expresses that humans are likely to become frustrated and blame themselves when confronted with a door that won’t open—or any object they cannot immediately understand. This is the central issue: design cannot change unless humans recognize the ineffectiveness of an object is not fault of their own shortcomings, but rather of the object’s design.



An example of a “Norman Door,” as the object does not immediately let you know what its affordance are. Do you push, or do you pull? — image courtesy of

Norman, a scientist working in the fields of usability engineering and cognitive science, specifically focuses on user-centered design in his acclaimed work. His study of design and its effect on users culminates succinctly in The Design of Everyday Things. Along with diagnosing the problem of ineffective design and its psychological consequences, Norman also suggests a number of ways for reevaluating and recreating more effective systems. These include the seven stages of action, which Norman explains in depth in the text, focuses on function versus aesthetics, simplifying tasks, and creating obvious affordances. Affordances are what an object allows a user to do: do you push or pull it? Twist or a knob or press a button? Does the design of the object afford its understanding? Affordances should be obvious, and should work as they appear to.


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In this chart, the designer expects the user to see and understand the system in the same way they do. However, the designer does not communicate directly with the user, but through the system image. If the system is flawed, then the user’s engagement with it is also flawed.

While many of Norman’s examples focus on industrial and object-based design, the theories and ideas he discusses apply to graphic design, web-design, and all iterations thereof. Norman wants to know if the object accomplishes its immediate purpose, and is that purpose easily accessible? If not, the user will become frustrated, blame themselves, and no longer exchange with the object meaningfully.


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An ineffective and complicated solution to user issues with telephones, alarm clocks, and radios. Norman’s intent here is to explore the paradoxes of technology and the difficulty with attempting to solve complicated device-to-user issues.

The Design of Everyday Things is by far the most text-based book on our list thus far, but an important and easy-to-read one nonetheless. It’s an essential tool in learning how to create a meaningful exchange between the audience with the object, and gives a long list of anecdotes and solutions regarding issues which serve to break down that exchange.

We suggest everyone have a copy of this book on their shelves, if only to serve as a purposeful reminder to improve our work, and to engage with those around us without the intrusion of cumbersome design.


Find this and all the books in our series at Brazos Bookstore, located at 2421 Bissonnet Street in Rice Village.

Book Reviews for Houston Creatives is a shared collaboration between Jeremy Ellis, store manager of Brazos Bookstore; Josh Higgins, AIGA Houston’s Associate Director of Education Programming; and Chelsea Thomas, AIGA Houston’s Chief Blogger.

By Chelsea Thomas
Published July 24, 2013
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