Don Norman Slams a University’s Design Dept Website. I Call Foul.

As a PhD student, I'm subscribed to the PHD-DESIGN mailing list. For those that aren't aware of it, it's a mailing list all about design research, normally related to — you guessed it — PhD designing. However, amongst the academics there are a few more widely known design and interaction names that turn up, such as Don Norman.

Yesterday 'the Don' wrote a post about a website:

Simon Sadler sent out a job announcement for UC Davis (California).
I've been advising another UC campus on design, but i didn't realize Davis had a design department so i thought i would check out their web page.

Font Size: Font size. Font size. (Gee, you mean soe one is supposed to realizealizead the words? Nah.)

Wow: believe it or not Davis teaches communication design, but you would never guess it from their website.

why do graphics and communication designers love tiny, tiny type?
Especially communication designers, who one would have thought would like their stuff to communicate. I have never seen such small type on a website for the main message.

There is one good side. Most graphical designers love to use gray letters on a gray background, with small font. At least here we have black on white. (Oh, another good side: maybe this can be my next column for core77.)

Moral: Never send anyone to study at UC Davis. That design department doesn't get it.


I did find a number of provlems with this analysis.

1. Bad design or aging site?

First, the site. I went and had a look at it, and through a combination of the technologies used (Flash: targeted 6/7), the related style (small verdana), and trawls from, I'd hazard a guess that the site probably hasn't changed that much since 2005. In other words, it's not about small font sizes as much as it's an old site. Which brings up bigger issues ….

2. Design is easy. Getting it past all the stakeholders is hard.

Why is it an old site? The same reason that other sites aren't as nice for users to use as they might like: because websites, particularly those that are part of some large corporate or government organisation, have a helluva lot of stakeholders involved, and can't turn on a dime. (I know a similar website where the public site is an ageing flash one, but they can't get a new one up because of red tape from marketing and other various departments. It happens).

[Since I wrote this, a person from said university added to the mailing list saying, yes, they do have another site in the works]

Norman mentions that he's been giving advice for other sites, but it's one thing to be brought into a project as a consultant, quite another to give unsolicited feedback.

3. Choose the right audience for critique.

Finally, what irks me about this comment was where it was done. Sure, we all find irritating sites (amongst other things) and bitch about them to people around us. But to tell those in design research (who I'd hazard a guess haven't had much to do with commercial website development) not to go to a school because of its website: well, that's just not cricket.

How about complaining about in a forum that's well informed about these things, such as the IXDA mailing list? I bet the links to Dustin Curtis's “Dear American Airlines” post and the subsequent reply from “Mr X” would have been fired out faster than you can say 'multiple stakeholders'.

And what's effectively a public shaming isn't as bad as some of the things I've seen out there, but it's pretty close.


I have a great respect for Don Norman's work: he's put forward some great works in his books, and he's often written a number of insightful posts on Core77. And to be honest, I don't disagree with his comments about the font-size. But this is one situation where I feel the commentary was more critical than critique. I'd hate to see a whole lot of design researchers be put off a site just because they weren't made aware of the complexities involved in updating them.

The discussion is still running, check it out on the site if you're interested.

[EDIT: I also started a thread on it on the IXDA mailing list, which in my opinion has had a far more valuable discussion]

The Question of Design: Steven Kyffin

For the start of the academic year (that still messed with my Antipodean head), Northumbria's School of Design dean Steven Kyffin gave an inaugral speech on what was called 'the question of design'.

Steven Kyffin

Some of his talk did touch on this (namely how design has changed to being about transformation), and how the left-brain world of research clashes with the right-brain world of design ….

Research and Desgin

Comparison of research to design. I particularly liked Chemistry vs Alchemy. (Though I've been told by a few academics that even science is more like alchemy than we're led to believe, it's just all retrofitted afterwards!)

… but most of the talk was about his background in both the design industry (a product design consultant in London and later working at Philips) and academia (Newcastle, RCA, and finally Northumbria).

I'd been aware of Kyffin's involvement with Philips (he was one of their design leaders for several years), but not of his connections with the RCA both as a Master's student in the 90s (“I spent three years there, which was a luxury”) and as an educator for Design Products in the late 90s (for those that are up with their design politics, that was when Tony Dunne was finishing his PhD on critical design there, and shaping the now-acclaimed Design Interactions course).

Kyffin's work with Philips was a reminder of just how ahead of the game they were in terms of concepts. He showed us a video of their connected house concept from near a decade ago (no Photoshop, all real if very expensive prototypes), and many of the intereactions are similar to what we're now seeing with iDevices.

For notes from the talk, see below:

Community Engagement and What the Greeks Taught Us: Professor Robert Young

Design and philosophy united last night as part of Newcastle Philosophy Week and the upcoming Design Event, when Bob Young spoke on how Greek philosophy can help us improve our understanding and teaching of co-design.

Bob Young

Young suggests that we forget the crafty or Metis (if the name does ring a bell, yes she was a Greek goddess who was the daughter of Zeus, and indeed crafty) element of design, and must help designers achieve enkratic (decisions considered correct and true) rather than the more usual akratic (going against ones better judgment because of other difficulties). We need to achieve this through phroesis.

Complex? A bit. I found afterwards that looking at a map of a detail of the diagram helped immensely in getting a grip on how all the elements relate to each other (this has been mocked up based off the above picture, so there are a couple of words I couldn't make out). 


As per the rest of the talk, check out the sketchnotes below.


Download PDF (sketchnotes and map)

Amongst others, Young referenced Latour's 2008 talk at the Design History conference.

Newcastle Photowalk: Alexandra Business Park

Yesterday, as Newcastle’s Indian summer came to a rainy end, a group of intrepid photographers set out to capture what there was to see of Alexandra Business Park Shipyard on the Newcastle Photowalk.

Walking Down Shipyard

For those that don't know, a photowalk is an event where a group of people go on a walk, and yes, take photos. (This group is largely twitter-based, though the actual discussions happen via Flickr).

Many were professionals (with kit to match) and came up with some amazing shots. (I'm only showing ones here that are available under NC-CC, but there are a lot more amazing shots in the group Flickr set).

Alexander Business Park NPWalk-1.jpg Outside In

Shots by Darrell Birkett

My PhD colleague (and experienced illustrator) Malcolm came with his own kit to do a sketchwalk (hampered a bit by the rain, but he did get some good shots).

Malcom Sketching Detail
Malcolm sketching…

Slated for demolition
… and his work (not from the shot above, but from the photowalk).

I decided to try taking pictures with an iPhone.

Parrot 2Claw 2 RubbishSafety Details on Digger

I did learn a few things from doing a dedicated photo session with an iPhone:

  • You have to look for things close-to-midrange. This is fairly obvious, but it is frustrating when you see something that would make an amazing shot could you zoom in a bit.
  • The darker it gets, the more your quality suffers. I know that iPhones aren’t great in the dark (I probably need to get a tripod), but even semi-darkness can be a problem.
  • The display is a bit different from the photo taken. I was a bit surprised by that: for some reason I’d assumed it would be the same. It is only slightly different, but different enough if you’re doing close crops. From what I can gather more is chopped off the top and bottom than you’d think from the viewfinder.

What I loved about the photowalk was seeing how other people would take shots of things you’d seen (or even taken photos of yourself) and made them amazing through attention to composition and detail (as well as some editing afterwards).

A couple of examples (theirs, not mine):

Orange boxes
I took my own shot of these 2001-esque boxes, but Craig Rodway's emphasis on the colors and fearful symmetry were far better.

The Watcher
The tower was interesting, but against a unimpressive sky. Darrell Birkett made the most of its imposing structure.

To see the full set, check out the official Flickr set (my best pictures are there, while all of them are in a set in my own photostream). For those that are interested in attending a photowalk, join the group (and follow @npwalk) to stay in the loop.


Photos all mine apart from Outside In, NP Walk and The Watcher, all NC-CC by Darrell Birkett; Slated for Demolition NC-CC by Malcolm Jones; and Orange Boxes, NC- CC by Craig A Rodway