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Book Review: Design for a Better World by Don Norman, Review by Shriyash Shete

Book Review: Design for a Better World by Don Norman, Review by Shriyash Shete


Shriyash Shete is currently working as a Senior User Experience Designer at Zscaler, a cybersecurity firm based in Silicon Valley. He holds a Master's in Human-Computer Interaction Design from Indiana University Bloomington. His work integrates a broad interest in design, technology, and innovation, informed by his unique background in data analytics, industrial engineering and social work. Committed to practicing sustainable and inclusive design, Shriyash engages with ongoing developments in design research, data visualization and emerging technologies.


In Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered, Don Norman once again proves why he is revered as a visionary in the world of design. The renowned design thinker, whose earlier works, like The Design of Everyday Things, have become seminal texts in design research, uses his new book to address broader and more urgent ecological and societal issues, such as climate change, inequality and global wellbeing. Norman collectively terms them as the ‘21st century’ design problems. Design for a Better World urges the design community to steer humanity towards a more sustainable, meaningful, and humane future by working with people, not for them.

In the beginning, Norman clarifies that the scope of this book diverges significantly from his previous works. While his earlier writings primarily focused on usability and human-centered design, Design for a Better World takes a macroscopic view. Norman stresses the responsibility of designers not just to users, but to society and the environment at large. He extends the concept of design beyond aesthetics and functionality, portraying it as a pivotal tool for systemic change.

The central thesis of Design for a Better World is that many of the issues facing modern society are fundamentally design problems that can be addressed through intelligent, systemic design thinking. Norman makes a compelling case that designers have a crucial role to play in tackling systemic challenges like climate change, poverty and more. He points out that while scientists provide key insights about the nature of problems, designers are uniquely skilled at finding actionable solutions.

Herbert Simon’s definition of design is well-known: To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Norman’s argument throughout the book complements this definition by emphasizing the importance of change in human behavior to drive the course of action as it also envisions the preferred situation for a better world. Through this book, Norman highlights the significance of participatory design with various disciplines such as science, technology, economics, politics and design approach to expand its focus from human-centered design to humanity-centered design.

The book consists of a total of thirty eight short chapters organized into six parts that stem from three overarching themes: 1. Meaningful, 2. Sustainable and 3. Humanity-centered. The author outlines them as three critical causal factors that need to be priortitized and reconstructed with the help of design thinking to reduce many of the planet’s ecological ailments.

In the first part, the author introduces the notion of artificiality to explain the root of the many crises facing contemporary society. He takes the course of history into account that he then holds responsible for bringing us all in this crisis situation. He then adeptly categorizes problems into societal, environmental, and technological realms, stressing the interconnectedness and artificiality of these domains. 

Part 2, 3 and 4 examine the current issues and gradually unfold the main themes of the book where the author discusses how we can transform our lives so that we achieve the goal of producing a meaningful, sustainable and humanity-centered world. Parts 5 and 6 focus on actions that must be taken and why they are not easy to achieve.

One of the highlights of Design for a Better World is how Norman moves fluidly between big picture ideas and pragmatic details. While he presents compelling arguments about design's role in shaping society, he also offers specific suggestions for how designers can incorporate social responsibility into their work. For example, he advocates for the use of design principles like co-creation and democratization to give people more agency over the systems that govern their lives. Norman provides actionable advice for designers, from emphasizing user needs over stylistic trends, to diversifying teams to include more perspectives.

Technology, a recurrent theme in Norman's earlier works, gets a nuanced treatment here. He acknowledges the power of technology in enabling innovative solutions but warns against tech-centric approaches that overlook human and environmental costs. The discussion on AI and automation is particularly insightful, balancing the potential benefits with ethical and societal implications.

A vital chapter of the book is dedicated to education. Norman proposes a radical overhaul of design education, advocating for curricula that foster systemic thinking, empathy, and ethical responsibility. He suggests that design education should not be confined to design schools but should be integrated into various fields, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the challenges we face.

In the concluding sections, Norman paints a picture of what the future could look like if his principles are embraced. He envisions a world where design contributes to solving pressing global issues like climate change, poverty, and inequality. This vision is optimistic but grounded in realism, acknowledging the challenges and complexities involved.

While the book offers plenty of optimism about design's potential, Norman balances this with thoughtful critiques of the field. He points out that designers frequently focus on incrementally improving existing products for individual gain, rather than addressing root causes of larger societal problems. For design to live up to its promise, the field needs more socially-conscious practitioners who prioritize public good over profit. Norman offers insights into how design education and practice could be reformed to nurture these types of designers. He also asserts that truly effective design requires collaboration across disciplines, since few problems can be solved through design alone.

Through this book, Norman has done a profound work of framing the complex, ill-defined and wicked global crises that our world is facing today, by keeping human behavior and humanity-centered design at its core. Norman’s thesis lies in his formulation of principles for impactful and humanity-centered design. These principles are not just guidelines but are articulated as moral imperatives for the design community. For instance, he advocates for ‘Inclusivity’, urging designers to consider the broad spectrum of human diversity in their solutions. Another principle, ‘Sustainable Design’, goes beyond the typical environmental focus, encompassing the need for designs that are economically and socially sustainable.

While Design for a Better World is a monumental work, it is not without its shortcomings. Some critics may argue that Norman's principles, though well-intentioned, could be seen as overly idealistic, particularly when confronting entrenched corporate and political interests. Additionally, while the book excels in breadth, certain areas could benefit from deeper exploration, particularly regarding the practical implementation of these design principles in resistant industries and governments.

Through this work, Norman reasserts himself as a guiding light in the design community, offering not just critique but a path forward. Design for a Better World is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the power of design to drive social change. This book is an urgent call to action, a blueprint for using design as a force for positive change in an increasingly complex and troubled world. Norman’s visionary perspective combined with pragmatic insights makes this work an essential read not only for designers but for anyone interested in the betterment of our global society. 

Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered
376 pp., 6 x 9 in, 8 b&w illus.
Published in Hardcover: March 2023
Paperback: April 2024
Publisher: The MIT Press


 November 08, 2023