Living with Complexity by Don Norman

Anyone who works in academia will be able to tell you that the new year officially starts in September, NOT in January. September is the month when academics and researchers officially ‘start’ afresh; clear up their overly cluttered desktops, catch up with emails and missed deadlines and temporarily feel ‘on top of things’.For me, this is the only time I win in the battle against the chaos on my desk.

The last two weeks of August were spent on mind-numbing activities (i.e formation of my Fantasy Football team) and now that I am back at work- my intellectual curiosity is being provoked.

So what better time to celebrate the new year than setting up resolutions, or even better a challenge?

I have made a list of books that I am intending to read this (academic) year. I have allocated 10 books for 12 months (one book per month did not seem very realistic) and the plan is to ‘review’ each book here. However my intention is not really to review these books as such- but more to articulate my own thoughts on them; mainly what I have enjoyed about them and made a mental note of while reading because I thought it mentions something that would be useful to me.


My book list is available here  and I have made it public and editable so I (or others) can make additions to it or share it with others.

Book 1:

Living with Complexity by Dan Norman

I have decided to start with a ‘classic’. I recall reading Norman’s ‘The Psychology of Everyday Things’ back when I was doing my Masters and I enjoyed it immensely. I read this one while on holidays and it was a good, gentle start to this challenge. I liked the writing style, its not too ‘rigid’ and ‘academic’, there are lots of everyday examples to illustrate the concepts and it’s in a more of a ‘story telling’ format  rather than your average textbook (and it certainly did not feel like I was reading a ‘work’ book). Norman beings by explaining the concepts of simplicity and complexity in design, how designers have to tame  and manage complexity. But he also argues that complexity is not necessarily bad- complexity is sometimes necessary and unavoidable- as we live in a highly complex world.


One of my favourite sections of the book ,was the chapter about social signifiers. Norman defines signifiers as indicators in the physicial or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully’. He goes one to explain in a later chapter, the difference between signifiers and perceived affordances. An example of a social signifier is the presence or the absence of people on a train platform- i.e the absence could mean that the train has just come and gone. Norman argues that we could use social signifiers to help us tam the complexity of our daily lives by using the salt and pepper shakers as an example of cultural complexity.

‘Which one is the salt? Each shaker is simple, but to know which contains salt requires a combination of practical and cultural knowledge. Moreover, the person who fills the shaker and the person who uses it must be in agreement. This is why so many of us test first, shaking some of the contents onto our hand before applying it to food.’


Another thought provoking chapter was about designing for waiting in line and the suggested design principles (one line-multiple servers, number assignment, targeted admission times, etc). Norman mentions real-world examples of how companies have dealt with the design of queues (examples from Disney world) and how wait cultures can be changed, such as the following excerpt from the book on changing McDonald’s queueing behavior in Hong Kong:

The social atmosphere in colonial Hong Kong of the 1960s was anything but genteel. Cashing a cheque, boarding a bus or buying a train ticket required brute force….McDonalds responded by introducing queue monitors-young women who channelled customers in orderly lines. Queuing subsequently became a hallmark of Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan, middle-class cultures. Older residents credit McDonald’s for introducing the queue, a critical element in this social transition.

Overall I really enjoyed the book -I felt there were some instances of disjointed narrative but Norman acknowledges this by thanking his wife for helping him out with it. As a researcher I was hoping for a bit more depth in regards to human factors, but the power of this book lies in its simplicity, accessibility and ability to convey design principles to everyone. I think the ‘mantra state’ of this books (and most of Don Norman’s books) is justified.  I think this is an excellent book for UX/UI designers and would be a valuable resource for HCI students. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Human Centred Design and design thinking (especially if they are relatively ‘new’ in the field).

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