I Read Somewhere

What's love got to do with it? Looking at 'Emotional Design' by Don Norman

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

{Quote by William Morris, from Emotional Design by Don Norman}


I started reading this book in complete defiance of the implicit graphic-designers-only-read-books-on-typography assumption. If you need only write to be a writer, this book is relevant to any user of objects. I now analyse my relationships with my stuff more than is probably normal. Perhaps I should have begun with Don Norman's more renowned book The Design Of Everyday Things, but sadly, like a reclusive celebrity, I've only heard it spoken about; I have to yet to ever actually see it in the library. 

Norman is a cognitive scientist, and he dedicates the chapter of his life this book falls under to looking at the very lively relationship humans have with non living things. This book was written sufficiently long ago (2004) that many technologies mentioned in it sound bizarre, but while times have changed, we have not. Humans, Norman says, are not logical. Despite the obscene amounts of functionality technology can bring today, we are still wired to use our emotional intelligence over our cognition. Products that capture the triad of heart, mind and body, can be products we create lifelong relationships with.

Norman describes the three levels of processing we use to interact with objects, which make a lot of sense when you think about them objectively (pun intended). I like to collect tourist t-shirts. They're rarely high-end in design or quality, but they're the most comfortable to wear, and when I look at my Istanbul t-shirt, for instance, I can almost see the sunlight dancing on the Bosphorus, the sticky sweetness of the roadside pretzels, the view of minarets on the topsy turvy hills that make up the city. It doesn't hurt that when worn, it creates conversation. My mother doesn't get it- she can't see why I hang on to the ratty old clothes when I can just buy new ones. We fight every year during Diwali cleaning, but I love them so much that I hide them so she can't get rid of them.

What's interesting is pitting usability against beauty. Which would win? William Morris says we should have one or the other, but in our saturated markets it just doesn't work like that anymore. We gotta have both, and we gotta have it now! We do more with our things than just use them- we give them values that we would to people. I find it very hard to use other people's laptops, even if they are the exact same model as mine. It isn't logical; there's no reason I shouldn't be able to. But I just can't. It simply isn't mine.

While all this can seem obvious in the age of human centered design, it seems to be unknowingly disregarded by the people who design things. We often forget that we are designing for people; people who love, hate, cry, laugh. Why make objects that bring delight, when it is simply cheaper to make new things once people are bored? Or is it that the upcoming field of interaction/experience design will take over, and create a design process that values feeling over functionality? And if our objects are external manifestations of our personalities, then we're designing lives, not products, and it's important to remember that when it comes to objects we love, the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

Watch Don Norman's TED talk or the Vox video on Norman Doors.