New designers. Watchword: humanity
edited by Marta Guarducci | 12 10 2023

«The world is in a mess» (p. 17): with these words Donald Norman – Founding Director of the Design Lab at the University of San Diego and Co-Founder and Board member of the Nielsen Norman Group, as well as one of the world’s leading experts in design, ergonomics and cognitive sciences – warns us about the terrible situation in which humanity finds itself immersed today. From the collapse of social structures to global warming, humanity is facing a crisis which is going on for millennia and, if further postponed,  it threatens to damage human life irreversibly. However, from Norman’s diagnosis – as ruthless as enlightening – emerges a key to change, represented by human behaviour in the three main themes in which it is declined within the book: «meaningful», «sustainable» and «humanity centered».

The book

Design for a Better World
Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered

Author: Donald Norman

Year: 2023

Publisher: MIT Press

Place of publication: Cambridge (USA)

From this consideration the author opens a discussion, shared with other experts in the sector, relaunching a series of questions to be explored further: how much of what we see is natural? How much is created by humans? Are our behaviours guided by values and beliefs decided by others? And if it was technology that led us to the current situation, then can it help us out? What role will the people, life and ecology of the planet play in the future?

These questions raise issues that have always been resolved in a critical or creative way: critical towards the risks of new technologies for human life and creative for their future potential. And on this frontier lies the central message of the book, which emphasises the recovery of humanity as the central point of the design and the development process of new technologies: «Technology has too much control over our lives. We have to change the entire fundamentals of technology to ensure that machines and technology are the servants of people, not the other way around» (p. 304).

Acta diurna

Design for a Better World.
Which values guide the technology design?

A Lectio Magistralis by Professor Donald Norman to reflect on the importance of human beings in the design of new technologies

Donald Norman’s position, therefore, does not concern a clear rejection of new technologies – «many of today’s new technologies can seemingly free us from the rigidity of the old technologies» (p. 39) – but it is in favour of their convergence towards the needs of human beings: «Both science and human experience are correct, so use both» (p. 42).

Norman’s experience as a scientist and manager offers him the perspective to show how today, to escape the stalemate in which our planet finds itself, it is urgent to move from a «human-centered»  perspective to a «humanity-centered» one, focused not on individuals but on the whole humanity and, more generally, on the entire ecosystem, including living creatures and the terrestrial environment.

A perspective that promotes the involvement of all humanity also in the scientific research, as an essential element to encourage innovation: «Projects intended to bring improvement to the communities of the world must be done in collaboration with and by the people for whom the designs are intended, providing them with resources and facilitation from a multidisciplinary pool of subject-matter experts. The design community must stop designing for people without their input or to get people to do or want something and instead act as facilitators and resources to the communities» (p. 53).

Therefore, the author suggests to adopt a new meaning to be attributed to designers as «Orchestral Conductors» (p. 219): any project, especially if it addresses complex social issues, requires the synchronization and balancing of the contribution of numerous disciplines, each of them with its own specific peculiarities but all strictly necessary for the successful development of the project. In other words, Norman suggests to us the idea of the designer as a communicator and encourages us to recognize this figure not only in a privileged élite, because «Everyone is a designer» (p. 188). What does it mean? If we all perceive ourselves as active subjects of change, then we can redefine our daily behaviours and way of thinking about what we want for our lives and our future. It is then that our needs, together with our experiences, would have a value in terms of knowledge on which experts can rely to guide future developments in science, first of all relating to new technologies. A definition of design – but we could say of research processes – which sheds light on an issue that is increasingly emerging as an essential element for designing a better world: it is no longer sustainable to continue to practice a vision of life that persists in dividing the world of those who generate knowledge (scientia) and that of those who are called to experience it daily (usus).

Intervention Area

Technologies to Enhance the Human Touch

sAu Research Center carries out research to help conceive, design and create new technologies that focus on critical intelligence and human creativity.

In this Area of Intervention sAu Research Center is working on the development of Atque Design and Communication System, a suite of tools which allows researchers and project partners to implement Generative Communication strategies.

The review is edited by

Marta Guarducci

Researcher at “scientia Atque usus” Research Center for Generative Communication ETS,
Research fellow in Sociology of cultural and communicative processes at the University of Florence