With the many recent advances in technology, it seems, there has followed a diminution of quality. Electronic books have several advantages over their print counterparts, for instance. But for the time being, they're hard to use and unattractive to boot. Computers, which are supposed to make our lives easier, are commonly sources of frustration and wasted time. Movies are wondrously chock-a-block with special effects--but someone forgot the story. And so on.
Donald Norman, a retired professor of cognitive science, is bothered to no end by the fact that grappling with unfriendly objects now takes up so many of our hours. Over the course of several books, of which The Psychology of Everyday Things was the first, he has railed against bad design. He scrutinizes a range of artifacts that are supposed to make our daily living a little easier, and he finds most of them wanting. Why, he asks, does a door need instructions that say "push" or "pull"? A well-designed object, he argues, is self-explanatory. But well-designed objects are increasingly rare, for the present culture places a higher value on aesthetics than utility, even with such items as cordless screwdrivers, dresser drawers, and kitchen cabinets. In their concern for creating "art," many designers don't seem to consider what people actually do with things. Such disregard, Norman suggests, leads to few objects being standardized: think of all the different kinds of unsynchronized clocks that lurk in microwave ovens, VCRs, coffee makers, and the like--and of all the different kinds of batteries needed to drive them. Why, he wonders, must we reset all those clocks whenever the power goes off? Some designer somewhere, he ventures, ought to develop a master clock that communicates with all other electric clocks in a home--one that, when reset, synchronizes its slave units.
You don't need to be especially interested in technological matters to enjoy Norman's arguments. The book's underlying question is aimed at a global audience: will the design of everyday things improve? If this entertaining and, yes, well-designed book changes even a few minds, perhaps it will. --Gregory McNamee