Don Norman: We need more 'generalists'

I found this speech tucked away in the Q&A section of Don Norman lecture at Stanford University. As usual, Don is completely on the money. However, Its not only only design education that needs to change.

The industry still hires designers as 'artists' - and yes, I believe this is a hangover from the historically focused art & design education. We seem to be in a vicious circle of focusing on appearance alone and its doing little for the reputation of the wider interaction design industry.

Designers should have a broad understanding of technologies and their given audiences/users, but they should also be hired at the right level and be expected to quickly assume a deep knowledge of the business in much the same way as a product manager might.

Of course, we still need the ability to communicate visual concepts effectively, but without an intimate understanding of a given business model or product, our value or impact on ROI is significantly impeded.

Please note: I have edited slightly in places in the interest of readability.

The main principles you learn were (I think) historical, you look at previous designs and you copy them or you change them. Most of Apple comes from Braun (the German company), if you actually look at the iPods and you look at the early Braun products - they are very similar.

I'm not criticising them, in fact Johnny Ive (who is the main designer) is proud of that fact. Because design in the traditional sense is like art in a traditional sense; you learn about the other artists and you learn about them and you build upon them whilst doing your own thing.

...but all thats about appearance and its not about how we use it (interaction). Its not about what we call human centred - so that people can understand how to use it. Thats been big change and that change started with the home computer.

Interaction design started with the development of the first PC's. We started to realise there were psychological principles like feedback, like conceptual models, like affordances, like constraints (etc) that could be applied and thats very far into most designers.

...and today design is still taught as an art. At CMU (technology school), the design department is located in the School of Arts and the Dean is a piano player. At most schools the design is located in the arts and humanities or they are separate design schools (he gives examples). They care about art...design is art.

So we need a new breed of designer and what we now have human computer interaction as a discipline with people really learning to understand how new technologies are evolving and used...and we have a design discipline but they seldom talk to each other...and so the stuff that HCI people put out tends to be ugly. They are not very good at communicating the real principles that they themselves are talking about...and we have communication designers (people study a lot about how we communicate concepts) but unfortunately they don't work with the technologists. So I think that we are getting better, but we need to change our educational practices.

In the university, we pride ourselves on specialists...and the way to be bonafide is to become very specialised and quite narrow (you are really good at this). In the world of business and industry, we have to produce products, and products require expertise across a wide number of specialties - you require generalists. Well universities don't train generalists. Because actually a generalist faculty member would either never get hired, or if they were hired by accident they wouldn't get promoted. Because in any given field they would need letters to see if this was a great person.

We need more generalists. Designers are generalists, but right now they are generalists in art...and maybe on materials - but not enough. I think they need training in social sciences and the technologies. A lot of designers hate technology, they hate numbers.

Where I teach <snip>, the ones who hate technology are the ones who end up in the design department...and in a similar way, engineers hate people. But whats engineering about? Its about designing things and developing things that are to be used by people. And if you look at what modern design is about, its applied social sciences.