3 min read

Don Norman Slams a University's Design Dept Website. I Call Foul.

As a PhD student, I'm subscribed to the PHD-DESIGN mailing list. For those that aren't aware of it, it's a mailing list all about design research, normally related to — you guessed it — PhD designing. However, amongst the academics there are a few more widely known design and interaction names that turn up, such as Don Norman.

Yesterday 'the Don' wrote a post about a website:

Simon Sadler sent out a job announcement for UC Davis (California).
I've been advising another UC campus on design, but i didn't realize Davis had a design department so i thought i would check out their web page.


Font Size: Font size. Font size. (Gee, you mean soe one is supposed to realizealizead the words? Nah.)

Wow: believe it or not Davis teaches communication design, but you would never guess it from their website.

why do graphics and communication designers love tiny, tiny type?
Especially communication designers, who one would have thought would like their stuff to communicate. I have never seen such small type on a website for the main message.

There is one good side. Most graphical designers love to use gray letters on a gray background, with small font. At least here we have black on white. (Oh, another good side: maybe this can be my next column for core77.)

Moral: Never send anyone to study at UC Davis. That design department doesn't get it.


I did find a number of provlems with this analysis.

1. Bad design or aging site?

First, the site. I went and had a look at it, and through a combination of the technologies used (Flash: targeted 6/7), the related style (small verdana), and trawls from archive.org, I'd hazard a guess that the site probably hasn't changed that much since 2005. In other words, it's not about small font sizes as much as it's an old site. Which brings up bigger issues ….

2. Design is easy. Getting it past all the stakeholders is hard.

Why is it an old site? The same reason that other sites aren't as nice for users to use as they might like: because websites, particularly those that are part of some large corporate or government organisation, have a helluva lot of stakeholders involved, and can't turn on a dime. (I know a similar website where the public site is an ageing flash one, but they can't get a new one up because of red tape from marketing and other various departments. It happens).

[Since I wrote this, a person from said university added to the mailing list saying, yes, they do have another site in the works]

Norman mentions that he's been giving advice for other sites, but it's one thing to be brought into a project as a consultant, quite another to give unsolicited feedback.

3. Choose the right audience for critique.

Finally, what irks me about this comment was where it was done. Sure, we all find irritating sites (amongst other things) and bitch about them to people around us. But to tell those in design research (who I'd hazard a guess haven't had much to do with commercial website development) not to go to a school because of its website: well, that's just not cricket.

How about complaining about in a forum that's well informed about these things, such as the IXDA mailing list? I bet the links to Dustin Curtis's “Dear American Airlines” post and the subsequent reply from “Mr X” would have been fired out faster than you can say 'multiple stakeholders'.

And what's effectively a public shaming isn't as bad as some of the things I've seen out there, but it's pretty close.


I have a great respect for Don Norman's work: he's put forward some great works in his books, and he's often written a number of insightful posts on Core77. And to be honest, I don't disagree with his comments about the font-size. But this is one situation where I feel the commentary was more critical than critique. I'd hate to see a whole lot of design researchers be put off a site just because they weren't made aware of the complexities involved in updating them.

The discussion is still running, check it out on the site if you're interested.

[EDIT: I also started a thread on it on the IXDA mailing list, which in my opinion has had a far more valuable discussion]