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Belated Review: Emotional Design, by Don Norman

This review is not belated relative to my reading of the book — I only finished it this past weekend. But it is belated relative to the book’s initial release — which is getting on a couple of years now.

To its credit, Emotional Design is the best recent book on design I’ve read for the last couple of years. It’s success is due, in large part, to its simplicity. Don puts forth a theory on how design “works” — how people develop relationships with things in their life.

Designed objects (well, most everything, but we’ll focus on designed objects here) trigger three levels of responses — visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Visceral is the immediate, the unthinking, typically brought on by appearances, the initial experience. Behavioral has to do with use — utility and usability. And reflective has to do with higher-order concerns, how the objects integrate with our senses of identity and culture, how they get us to consciously consider them and us. The interaction of these three levels leads to what Don calls “emotional design” — a holistic appreciation of designed objects (and why we love or hate them).

This book is definitely worth reading. Its thesis is straightforward, and Don provides many examples. His discussion of the visceral and behavioral levels is rock solid. He starts to get… fuzzy when discussing the “reflective” level, if only because the subject is so necessarily fuzzy. It covers everything from identity (how does this object reflect on me) to culture (how is this reflection guided by my cultural circumstances) to memory (how do I think back on using that product, what stories do I tell about it?).

Don’s presentation falls down when he shifts from explanation (as the book’s subtitle says, “Why we love (or hate) everyday things”) to extrapolation. When Don imagines the could-be future based on his principles, it’s often ludicrous. His discussion on how video games, in order to break out of the young men’s market, need to project different kinds of appeal, and use the three levels of design to do so, is a bizarre stretch.

“…the physical appearances of the consoles and controllers need to be changed. Different markets should have different designs. Some designs should reflect a warmer, more feminine approach. Some should look more serious, more professional. Some should have a more reflective appeal, especially for the educational marketplace…”

This kind of prognosis continues for a couple of pages… I would argue that anyone writing about design should be wary of overuse of the word “should.” (And yes, I recognize the irony in that sentence).

For the bulk of the book, he talks about how devices trigger emotions in us, a valuable thesis that hasn’t been appropriately explored. But then he jumps the shark when he starts discussing emotional machines — how our objects will need to have emotions to appropriately interact with us. This set of discussions, with too-frequent references to C3PO, comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t blend with the rest of the text. I don’t know if this is Don’s quixotic pursuit that he insisted on including, or if he needed to pad the book to make it more sellable, but the two chapters covering this topic are the weakest in the book.

He is able to finish strong with an epilogue titled “We are all designers” — something so often forgotten by the professional design community. In it, he makes clear that our experiences with designed things are personal ones — that the professional designer can only contribute so much, and that each of us takes the important steps of making these things our own.