The Design Observer Twenty

Don Norman | Books

Design for a Better World

Design for a Better World

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered out now from MIT Press. The major points of this book are outlined below but can be summarized as follows: The world is a mess. And the key to change, says Don Norman, is human behavior.

Much of the world we live in has been designed, not by today’s design profession but by people over the history of civilization. The objects we wear, live in, and rely on and the ideas, beliefs, laws, and forms of government and customs that govern our lives are all artificial. This is both good and bad. It is good because if the critical issues facing us revolve around these artificial ways of being, of living, and of governing, their very artificiality means they can be changed, redesigned. It is bad because all these artificial designs have been in existence for so long that for most people they no longer seem artificial: they seem natural, so natural that the thought of change is, first, inconceivable and, second, if they accept the possibility, frightening. Path dependency, the impact of decisions made at some earlier time, affects the way decisions are made today.

Different societies, groups, and religions have developed with different underlying beliefs, all of which seem perfectly natural to those in the group (who often wonder how others can hold such discrepant views). The conflicts between short-term and long-term values show up strongly as the world considers how to adapt to the requirements of developing a sustainable world, where changes in behavior might bring immediate suffering, and the long-term benefits seem far away and insubstantial. And finally, many people are motivated by personal gain and seem reluctant to give up their comfortable lives simply to save the world for future generations.

Today’s world is dominated by the remaining traces of modernism, where technology, science, and economics rule. The result is an unwise emphasis on measuring everything, even things that cannot be measured, which turns almost all aspects of life into abstract, meaningless numbers. The result is that decisions and actions are made through abstractions, calculations, algorithms, and other mechanisms that are devoid of meaning and unintelligible to nonexperts. Worse, phenomena are studied in artificial situations, in the cold, isolated world of the laboratory, where the conditions can be completely controlled, or, in the case of economics, either through abstract “logical” thinking devoid of observation of the real phenomena or by analyzing the abstract numerical statistics that economists are so enamored of. As a result, when the findings of these analyses are applied to the real world of multiple, uncontrollable, messy variables, they fail.

The dogma from the physical sciences that everything must be measured on a numerical scale, even things that cannot be measured in this way, must be modified. The physical and economic sciences are of clear importance to the world of human beings, yet their studies seldom focus on people. The focus should shift to an emphasis on people’s needs, resources, and abilities—to an emphasis on the critical needs of humanity for all people across the globe. This is especially important now when massive pollution affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we use to sustain our needs for food. In principle we need more emphasis on the social sciences, except that these disciplines have also been infected with the need to study things in isolation, in carefully controlled, artificial environments, with an emphasis on measurement, even of things that are not measurable.
The dogma from the physical sciences that everything must be measured on a numerical scale, even things that cannot be measured in this way, must be modified. The physical and economic sciences are of clear importance to the world of human beings, yet their studies seldom focus on people. Don Norman

Many of the most important aspects of life cannot be readily measured, but this does not minimize their importance. The whole point of humanity-centered design is to focus on humanity’s needs: if these needs cannot be measured by traditional metrics, we must develop nontraditional measures. The social science community already has ways to do this: we must make use of them. Psychologists have devised different measurement scales that allow the study of issues that cannot be specified by the numerical methods of the physical sciences. Qualitative measures, stories, and narratives can greatly expand our knowledge and understanding, but they tend to be discounted by the scientific community that is dominated by those trained or working in the physical sciences. Yes, it is true that measurement is essential for assessing the impact of our work, but the measurements must be of things that matter to the lives of people as opposed to the general focus on costs, productivity, efficiency, and schedules.

Qualitative methods can describe and make prominent the important issues, showing where things are in good shape, where some attention must be given to problem areas, as well as where the situation is dire and requires considerable attention. The qualitative statements of where one’s attention should be focused do not require numerical values. Items can be ranked in importance without them. Obviously, the ordering must be done rigorously, and some of it might require precise measurements, but qualitative presentations avoid the difficulties of attempting to summarize complex, multidimensional factors into a single numerical measure that hides the underlying issues, each of which must be addressed separately. These summary numerical measures are extremely misleading. Finally, the use of monetary measures for things that are not fundamentally about money (such as the state of the nation or the value of human lives) is hurting the ability to place emphasis on the factors that really matter. Many of these apparently reasonable numerical methods of measuring an organization, a community, a state, a nation, or a system, such as cost–benefit analysis, result in reinforcing inequity. These measures are long overdue for change.

Among the many methods of summarizing the issues that need immediate attention in complex systems, the discussion on information dashboards in chapter 11 demonstrates how graphical depictions can provide meaningful representations of the activities of companies, cities, states, and countries. These depictions make it easy for viewers to quickly assess many of the critical dimensions of a problem and to decide where attention and effort are required. Instead of using a single numerical value to represent a complex state of affairs, we can show the critical components. Of course, any summary of the top few issues impacting the world leaves much to be specified. Nonetheless, the high-level summary may be sufficient for the highest level of decision makers. Once the important areas are identified, each can then be broken down into multiple components, displayed on their own, more specialized dashboard, which in turn can lead to the perusal of more detailed specialized displays. The important point is to avoid the joint dangers of oversimplification and, by showing too little information and over-specifying, burying decision makers in reams of data, numerical tables, diagrams, and graphs.

Dashboards are important ways of summarizing complex problems so that decision makers know where to focus their attention. Once attention is focused on one sector, then it will have to be represented by its own, specialized dashboard, which in turn might lead to multiple other dashboards, each dealing with different components of the issues. Yes, the complexity of the world requires a complex representation, but the complexity can be managed by dividing the analyses into different levels, each with a meaningful, understandable representation. Thus, the highest levels of analyses will be the ones discussed in chapter 11. As problems are handed off to specialized teams, each will have their own specialized ways of viewing the issues. If we were to put all the different analyses together, it would indeed be cumbersome, complicated, and unmanageable, but this is probably never necessary. We make meaningful sense by breaking complexity down into meaningful segments.

Narratives and stories are essential additions to the usual emphasis on graphs and tables of numbers, helping translate the abstraction of quantitative and qualitative measures into the described impact of a problem on people’s lives and experiences. Stories and narratives do not replace the need for measurements, but they supplement them and make them understandable.

Finally, the domination by technology and STEM in assessing and dealing with problems has to be undone. Yes, STEM is important, but so too are all areas of knowledge. Technology has too much control over our lives. We have to change the entire fundamentals of technology to ensure that machines and technology are the servants of people, not the other way around.

These changes impact primarily governments and industry through changes to the measures used by financial analysts, investors, and government monitors, including international alliances. These changes are on the one hand relatively straightforward but on the other hand a huge policy challenge, one that must be met to win over those who are reluctant to change their methods. The cost will be substantial, but it will be a one-time expense because once the new ways of measuring actions are in place, they will be no more difficult or expensive than current methods.

Changes in the way that governments and industry operate will have major impacts on everyone, but people’s lives will be affected primarily for the better. They will have to do little once the changes are implemented. Moreover, the new methods of measurement by companies and governments will be considerably easier to understand than today’s highly abstract procedures.

Waste must go away. Here is where the design profession can play a major role by switching to materials that are sustainable and by designing for repair, regeneration, and reuse. Waste destroys the environment, leads to climate change, and kills innumerable species of animals and plants, making life unbearable for millions of people and creatures on earth. For the best approach to this problem, I recommend the principles of a circular economy.

Today people have been trained to recycle, although it is the rare group that does it properly. How could they? To recycle properly, one has to be a materials scientist as well as knowledgeable about the actual capabilities of the local recycling facilities. But with the circular economy in play, recycling will become reusing and returning. There may still be some small amount of pure recycling, but it will be much simpler to do, much easier to understand.

Homes will change their sources of energy, but this will not have much impact on how people live their lives. The major source of energy for homes will probably become electricity as coal, oil, natural gas, and wood-fired heating systems and fireplaces go away. The amount of electric power required to run heat pumps is much less than that for more traditional heating and cooling methods. That electricity can come from a variety of sources, some on the property (the most logical being solar panels for homes and perhaps wind turbines for those in remote areas), others at a distance, where geothermal, hydroelectric, solar, and wind technology can be used. Nuclear power still has a role to play if the waste-disposal problem can be solved. Power by nuclear fusion might play a role years in the future, as has been predicted every year for the past 60 years. Research is ongoing.

A better way to reduce the dependency on energy sources is to reduce the need for energy. Buildings can be designed to use natural ventilation and sunlight to be cooler in summer and warmer in winter. The general rise in temperatures across the world might also lead to a change in the clothing we wear: lighter and cooler throughout the year. These relatively simple actions can yield enormous reductions in the use of energy.

Increasing the efforts to make every citizen better at recycling waste is addressing only the symptoms, not the causes. The problems of waste originate in the methods of industry: in how raw materials are accessed, how things are manufactured, how purchasers cannot efficiently and easily repair, upgrade, or reuse products, and how the design and manufacturing methods make it difficult to reuse basic materials. Once industry implements circular-economy methods, waste problems will be greatly reduced, replaced by much easier abilities to repair, reuse, and return. If designers attack the underlying cause of a problem, the problem becomes manageable and, in the best of cases, disappears.

The United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals
The United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. The UN points out that these seventeen goals are not isolated issues but part of the large sociotechnical system of the world. Goals 1 through 16 point to the desirable attributes of a healthy and happy citizenry. Goal 17 points to the need for societies, countries, and organizations around the world to unite in a global partnership to work on the goals, so this goal is a metagoal: it is the organizational structure and focus required to accomplish the other 16 goals. From United Nations Development Programme, “United Nations: Sustainable Development Goals.

Humanity Centered
Designers, governments, and industry must broaden the notion of design from human centered to humanity centered. Consistent with respecting the rights of all humanity, they must change the design process to be supportive rather than prescriptive. In other words, when involved in projects to solve a community’s specific problem, it is essential to gain the trust and cooperation of the people being served. This is done by resisting the temptation of experts to tell people what to do or what is good for them. Instead, let them live their own life. Designers and other experts must act as facilitators and mentors. Designers and the many NGOs and foundations seeking to help distressed communities must avoid imposing their ideas on the communities. Let those who live in the community have a say in the changes. This can be difficult because even in relatively small communities there will not be full agreement. However, if the design team works with the community organizers and recognizes the humanity of the people they intend to help, their designs could start to change the world on a local level.

The Need for Change
There are many barriers to change, the most difficult of all being human behavior and the human resistance to change, sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes owing to a lack of understanding or reluctance to give up the current way of living, but also sometimes because of individual selfishness, fear of losing wealth or power. Here is where great social skills are required. The need for meaningful and sustainable actions must be satisfied primarily by groups of people, the organizations of the world, not by individual citizens here or there. This gives us hope because many major, international organizations have already indicated their willingness to modify their behavior and governments have begun to change policies to encourage or in some cases force the needed changes. The more major organizations and governments change, the more pressure there will be on the stragglers.

Why am I optimistic even after my remarks about the slow progress by the United Nations on climate change, especially the minimal progress made at its international meetings? Because I believe there has been some progress, but the very structure of the meetings hides it. Any statement must be approved by 100 percent of the parties participating, all 194 of them. This is a high bar, so it is amazing that there is any agreement. These votes suffer from the same problem as the economic models discussed in part II: the attempt to have a single number (in this case, a single vote) represent the complexities of all the underlying issues. Why should these complex bylaws be voted on as a whole? Why not make the bylaws themselves modular? And why not have a normal vote, in which individual nations’ responses are tabulated? Then for each of the modular parts of the bylaws, everyone would know how each nation voted.

If the bylaws were to stipulate some defined threshold for passing a module (a simple majority of those voting or perhaps 60 percent of the eligible countries or of those voting), some agreements would be passed and would look much stronger because of the number of important countries that agree to a strong statement. Nations that do not agree would be visible through their vote (or abstention), which might cause their citizens to pressure them to vote positively. The United Nations is well known for the weakness of having to accommodate every nation and every point of view. As a result, so many compromises are necessary that statements are often reduced to nice-sounding platitudes with no actual substance. Today is the time for action. It is time to overcome these weaknesses.

What is preventing us, the people of the world, from staving off the disasters that are bound to befall us? The scientific evidence is clear. The early signs of harm are already present—signifiers of the growing difficulties we will face. The problem is the human tendency to postpone action until after a calamity. These are the issues that define this book.

In 1972, Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome released a pioneering work, The Limits to Growth; a Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, which argued that the activities of people were starting to exceed the world’s capacity to sustain life. The book caused a sensation that died down after numerous savage attacks by the academic community, which focused on the details while ignoring the book’s important message. Today, a half century later, the authors’ predictions prove to be correct—in spirit, even if the numerical estimates are wrong. In 2022, the Club of Rome published a follow-up book, Limits and Beyond: 50 Years On from The Limits to Growth, What Did We Learn and What’s Next?, to discuss the impact (and lack of impact) of the original publication, despite the veracity of its predictions. This book points to one of the great weaknesses of the original study: the absence of any discussion of human behavior. Both the very first chapter and the concluding chapter, written by the book’s editors, Ugo Bardi from the University of Florence and Carlos Alvarez Pereira from the Club of Rome, respectively, point out that the major missing component in the earlier study was a realistic understanding and treatment of human behavior.

Human behavior is the most critical aspect of today’s difficulties. Yes, there are numerous physical, technological, and economic issues that must be solved. But underlying all of these is human behavior and its impact on what can be done. Human behavior is what drives political behavior, and without appropriate political responses to the ongoing crises, we will fail. We, the people of earth, have work to do: we must make our voices heard. We must mobilize to insist on change, so that all political and industrial leaders understand and act on the necessity of changing their policies.

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