Design forum with Norman/Maeda

Tonight I attended a rare and insightful conversation/interview featuring two of the biggest names in “Design”: Don Norman (no introduction needed) and John Maeda (ditto, currently president of RISD). Hmm, star power much? ;-) It was an uncharacteristically fully packed house at PARC’s Pake auditorium in Palo Alto. Clearly, there was a general expectation of something of interest arising out of this discussion! 

Overall it was framed as a debate between design and art, and the relationship to innovation. Exceptionally broad themes, of course, worthy of a 9 week seminar. Yet this was structured as a 90 dialogue and audience Q&A. Below are my main takeaways…

** Maeda, for his part, focused on “design doing” (rather than “design thinking” which he acknowledged has seized boardroom and buzzword consciousness), on what does design do exactly? For him, design is about “solving problems”, while art is about “making questions”. 

** The manipulation of content via typographic forms to convey mood, tone, tenor, voice. Maeda used “fear” as the content and demo’d how expressive presentations of varying degrees shape one’s interpretation of content. A fairly standard device for showing design’s persuasive power. Erik Spiekerman’s “Stop Stealing Sheep” does is beautifully in a short tome, published over a decade ago. 

** Maeda: “Artists find features, which they hold on to as references.” Points to the exploratory nature of discovery and inspiration that shapes the artist’s mind and eye as a lens upon reality.

** Norman began by identifying himself as an “interaction designer” but wondering aloud, what is an interaction, how do you design that, is it visible? He continued with his now-common critique of design education (Full article found here: ) 

** A key point echoed by Norman, which I firmly believe in as a distinguishing characteristic that separates a “designer” from a “design thinker” or other designer-types: “What you learn in design is how to draw”. He later replaced “drawing” with “sketching” to be all encompassing, towards prototype sketches as well. You learn how to visualize as a mode of thinking, analysis, synthesis, and generation, in a fluid hand-eye-mind manner. That’s essential to being a designer.

** Maeda’s response to Norman’s issues with design education: It’s about variety and role models, exposing students to a wide range of sources and opportunities.  It’s also about first principles and primitive systems/forms (chair, knife, etc.). 

What I found quite interesting was how Norman was very much interested in how “Design” can solve the BIG complex problems of systems, transportation, healthcare, etc. (3rd and 4th Order Problems, in Buchanan-speak). Meanwhile, Maeda was approaching it from the POV of first principles embodied in basic form/content/expression challenges. Maeda contended such massive complexity problems are not “Design” oriented per se, but more about leadership, society, and policy. Requiring higher levels of domain expertise and skills beyond what “Design” affords in the main. 

Another note-worthy aspect of the dialogue was Norman’s constant iteration of what it means to be a “great designer”. For example, a “great designer” makes the invisible visible, or perceptible. A “great designer” draws/sketches to think through a problem. A “great designer” doesn’t know much about the world but has the curiosity to ask why, how, etc. 

Norman also went on at length about different kinds of innovation, as iterated on his blog articles, specifically a) incremental and b) radical. The former being more common, while we romanticize and idealize and expect the latter, which is extremely rare and difficult to achieve. He emphasized that standard human-centered design (HCD) process amounts to basically “clever design by committee” that enables “hill climbing” but not great leaps of novelty. 

Referring to Apple, Norman stated that their big leap of innovation was really “systems thinking” around iPod and iTunes, not just a slick click wheel UI mechanism. There have been lots of portable MP3 digital players before the iPod (I used to own one, the Diamond Rio, which I bought at CMU Tech Store for $250 for a hearty 256 MB of storage in 2000 spring! yikes). The relative ease of transfer and purchase and playability of DRM content across devices in a unified ecosystem was the market-busting novelty. 

(A moment of classic Norman curmudgeony-ness: He said that he loves the iPhone but it’s badly designed b/c the gestures are non-discoverable…”swipe here, tap there, tap and hold someplace…who knows?” I personally disagree, as we’re still defining a vernacular of gesture, the patterns of which are being more established and learnable as pre-cognizant expectation with every quickly released app. Just ask a 12 yr old kid ;-) 

Maeda emphasized his point that “in any field, for innovation you must go back to first principles, the canonical thinking”, as personified in traditional design and artistic disciplines, for making chairs, knives, pots, etc. Form, content, expression, experience are essential ingredients. (Reminds me of John Dewey’s thoughts, which I’ve often championed)

Indeed, it’s the balance of both kinds of thinking, that enables innovation at varying scales. The real question is what challenge are you tackling, and towards what end? Norman and Maeda offering valuable points across the board for all designers to consider. 


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