Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Why are your books so badly designed?

For someone who writes about design, how come your books are so badly designed?

(Note from Don Norman: This is a distillation of many comments I receive, frequently. In The Design of Everyday Things, the most common complaints are about footnotes (or more properly, end notes), the really bad distinctions among levels of headings (it is nearly impossible to tell which is a major heading, which is minor, poor placements of figures, and so on.)

Readers always seem to think that the author has some control over the design of their books. Hah! Authors have remarkably little say. Hell, my book editor for "Emotional Design" didn't even want to put chapter numbers on the running headings of the text pages "because we never do it that way." I had to fight tooth and nail to get it. Worse, she argued with me that this was not necessary for the reader. I tried remind her that I was the authority on usability, not she, and the reason she was publishing my book was because of that. This argument did not convince her. All she cared about was whether or not her company had ever done it before. She only was convinced when she discovered that her company had indeed done this once before. Guess where: In Design of Everyday Things"! "Oh, I guess we can do it, then" she said.

Same with the cover design. I put approval of the cover in my contract, but I almost never get it. Once again, hours of fighting. I had to fight to get the Impossible Teapot (teapot for masochists) on the cover of DOET. I had to fight to get the Starck/Alessi juice on the cover of Emotional Design.

Readers complain about the crappy design of POET/DOET. They are absolutely correct. Bad use of footnotes (technically, end notes). Really poor heading style, so nobody (including me), knows which are main headings and which are subservient. And poor figure placement.

Hah! Would you believe the original editor of POET didn't want to include any of the photographs? I'm lucky I got photographs into the book at all, let alone getting them placed properly. All these decisions are made by artists and typographers who have no understanding (or care) for the contents of the book, but do care that all the pages line up nicely, and that no page has more text on it than another, and that figures are in nice harmony with the pages -- who cares if the figures are related to the text?

Cover designers are bizarre. Someone gets hired to do the cover. They glance at the book and produce bizarre drawings. I always have to fight hard to throw away their examples and get something decent instead (I always insist on cover approval in all my books, but publishers try hard to ignore this. I've had to draw my own covers for three of my books. And worse, the cover designer gets a huge credit line, even though all they have done is hold up progress.

As for endnotes. Publishers refuse to put footnotes where they belong, at the bottom of each page. ("Annoys the reader," they say, without any evidence whatsoever, ignoring that having to turn to the end of the book is even more annoying. And to make matters worse, they almost always organize the endnotes by chapter number at the end of the book, but make it difficult to figure out the chapter number inside the book.

My solution to this problem is to try to eliminate all substantive endnotes. The philosophy I follow is that if something is important enough to say in a note, then it is important enough to put in the main text. End notes are reserved only for citations to the works of other people, and they are listed at the end of the book by page number with some descriptive text to indicate what part of the page is being referred to. This solution seems to work reasonably well.

But I didn't develop this philosophy until relatively recently, so readers of DOET will have to suffer with endnotes.

Many designers complain about their lack of control over products. Let me tell you that the worst product companies are still far better and more responsive than book publishers. Book publishers live in the 18th century. They actually now use computers, but barely. As for understanding their customers (readers), they haven't a clue. They don't know how to decide upon a price for a book, they don't know how to stock them, or to advertise them. Trade books generally are advertised only when they are first released (if then) and never thereafter. Publishers do not collect meaningful data about books, customers, or readers. They still operate by intuition. Traditional publishers are failing. No wonder.

Still, books are the medium of choice for complex material. And book publishers are still the best way to get a book printed and distributed. Such is life.