Bad design: Deconstructing the Norman door

Bad design is everywhere. The people who make things, too often make poor design decisions that cause the rest of us to stumble and trip on the simplest of tasks, thousands of times, day after day.

The modern Sisyphus isn’t pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity, he is us, trying to rush through a closed door with a handle on it and a sign that reads ‘PUSH’.

All the while an audience of immortal receptionists mock us with eyes that silently scream, ‘What a moron! Can’t even read a simple sign.’

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Brain says, ‘No.’

The door above is in a hospital, where seconds lost can be a matter of life and death.

The solution is simple, remove the word ‘push’ and remove the handle. Leave the metal plate, (and maybe, if the context allows, double-hinge the door so there is no ‘wrong’ way)

This design f**k-up, as you probably know, is called a Norman Door, and they’re everywhere. In essence, a Norman Door is one that has a handle and the word ‘push’ in text in an adjacent position. The handle is suggesting the door opens by pulling it towards the user and the word ‘push’ suggests the door works in the opposite way.

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Hi Don, thanks for that. I wonder if you’re happy that pointing out shit design led to having one named after you?

But not all Norman doors are normal…

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Yep, also a hospital.

But, not your average Norman door.

Understanding why this one continues to fail even though the handle and the text communicate the same message demands a slightly more nuanced semiotic reading of the scene.

The Mental Screen

The world is essentially experienced in the mind as a screen, that we read like a child without a technical understanding of its grammar, but the learned ability to navigate (to varying levels). As designers we need to be able to deconstruct the text of the scenes that appear on the mental screen for which we design. Experience design is largely about designing for this mental screen.

The word ‘PULL’ means stop and pull this door towards you

The handle means the same thing


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Do you like Apple Stroop? (that is a niche joke for Dutch behavioural scientists with specific childhood memories, possibly only me)
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Green squares mean go forwards

Glass panels showing the space beyond means ‘keep coming, come in, there’s no barrier here’, onward, forwards.

The elongated panels are vertical lines drawing a strong forward vector, also saying ‘go forward’. (imagine them horizontal an consider the difference).

Dark panels and bright light through the panels draws focus on the light areas, the space with no barrier, ‘come forward’.

Double doors, a thousand scenes from popular culture play out in a split second, we know this scene, push the doors and they will swing open as we make a grand entrance.

The green colour is an important pattern that in the context of signage always means go. When the colour and the text are incongruent the brain struggles to process the information and this results in slowed reaction time. We call this the Stroop Effect . Specifically, the Stroop test concerned incongruence between colour and the word for a colour, so I am stretching the Stroop Effect to cover indirect incongruence of compound signifiers that come from the spatial metaphors built into language (see George Lakoff’s cognitive linguistic work on metaphors). In summary, green means ‘go’, and ‘go’ is spatially forwards, away from the front of the body (not back towards the user’s body — which is how doors pull open).

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The overwhelming message that is received by the motor control centre of the brain is nothing like what is actually required to get through these doors. The body needs to be told to: Stop walking, grab the handle, pull it backwards towards itself, step backwards and only then go through the doorway.

Getting this door right might be as simple as blocking most of the window section (or all of it), removing the green signs (including the ‘pull’ text) and the selective use of red to slow people down and suggest to their bodies stopping is required. At the very least we know the current approach is failing.

The Bastards Who Build Elevators…

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Product design, behavioural science and other things

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