Norman Doors Show Us How Dangerous Bad Design Can Often Be

Injuries and deaths from Norman doors are often later chalked up to human error, designer Don Norman says. But the error is not the user's. It's the designer's.
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Who among us has not experienced the silent embarrassment of struggling to push open a door, only to realize it is clearly marked "Pull"? Or perhaps you've puzzled over an unfamiliar faucet, or been flummoxed by a light switch that defies logic.

If so, you have fallen prey to a "Norman door"—a beautifully designed yet tragically dysfunctional object. Computer engineer-turned-psychologist Don Norman laid the groundwork for this concept in his landmark book The Design of Everyday Things. Norman, a pioneer of design that values usability, decried design collections filled with "alarms that cannot easily be set, can openers that mystify."

But the stakes can be much higher. The EpiPen, an instrument used to inject epinephrine into someone experiencing a severe allergic reaction, and prescribed to 3.6 million Americans each year, is a notorious Norman door. The look and feel of the device—not to mention its very name—suggest that it should work like a ballpoint pen, with its plastic cap covering the needle. However, the EpiPen's cap is a safety release that, when removed, exposes a needle on the opposite end—causing many users (bystanders and trained medical professionals alike) to accidentally stick themselves.

Even when a Norman door is just a door, the results can be more than just a humbling moment of humiliation. One horrific incident led to stricter safety regulations when, in 1903, the newly built Iroquois Theater in Chicago caught fire. A sea of more than 600 frantic theatergoers pushed up against the exit doors—which were designed to open inward, fatally trapping them inside.

Injuries and deaths from Norman doors are often later chalked up to human error, Norman says. But the error is not the user's. It's the designer's.

This photograph originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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