Image of a city wuth the text Design for the 21st Century  with Don Norman

Don Norman’s Top Tips from the Design for the 21st Century Course

by Laia Tremosa | | 26 min read

The design field is evolving. It’s been proven that aside from driving business success and delivering beautiful and successful products, design can be pivotal to solving complex human issues. For instance, GE Healthcare used Design Thinking to improve the MR scanner experience for children—which is oftentimes very unpleasant—and patient satisfaction rates went up 90%. As a designer, you have the opportunity to leverage your skillset and apply your design know-how to tackle major global challenges, influence strategic decisions and make a positive impact on the world.

If you're looking to steer your career in a more meaningful direction and work on major global challenges, here are the top 4 things you should learn.

1. Use Human-Centered Design to Tackle Global Challenges

In the 21st century, design is concerned with much more than making aesthetically beautiful objects. Design has become a way of thinking. In this video, Don Norman, co-founder and Principal Emeritus of Nielsen Norman Group, explains the valuable role that design—and designers—can play in addressing major global challenges.

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading...

To fully grasp the power of design and how you, as a designer, can contribute to tackling complex global challenges, focus on the four principles of human-centered design:

  1. Focus on the people.

  2. Identify and solve the root problems and not the symptoms.

  3. Consider everything as a system of interconnected parts. 

  4. Don’t rush to a solution; instead, embrace the iterative nature of the design process and execute small and simple interventions.

You already have all the tools you need to make an impact, effect meaningful change and design for humanity. Harness your designer’s mindset and remember that design is content-agnostic to a certain extent; you don’t need to be an expert in the issue you’re addressing; your value is in the approach and in bringing the right people together. There are many ways you can start. Find a challenge that matters to you and get involved.  

2. Learn What You Bring to the Table as a Designer

Many attempts to solve major global challenges such as hunger, education, universal healthcare, housing, etc., fail because solutions that should work in theory ignore the reality of the people involved or because they require such a high level of disruption that they inevitably lead to more issues and become unfeasible. 

In this video, Don Norman explains the significant impact that design, as a field of doing, can have in solving complex challenges. 


Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading...

As a designer, you’re a doer. Your strength is that you make ideas tangible and develop solutions that are appropriate for the people you’re designing for, ignoring your own bias. Being a doer will be one of your most valuable skills when working on a societal problem. Help your multidisciplinary team find ways to do small interventions and test solutions on the ground with the people and keep iterating, instead of working solely on a theoretical level. Although as a designer you’re probably not trained to work on complex societal issues, you can learn to apply your human-centered design knowledge to these challenges. 

3. Identify the Root Causes by Investigating the Entire System

What appears to be a simple approach is often an insignificant part of a very large problem. As a designer, you need to make sure to tackle the root problem—or problems—instead of focusing on solving the symptoms. 

There are several techniques you can use to identify root problems. For instance, the 5 Whys method is an iterative interrogative technique you can use to do a root cause analysis and determine the underlying causes of a problem, which more often than not are more than one. In any given system, cause-and-effect chains can be long and complex and the effects of one single action or condition can be so far-reaching that it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. 

To apply the 5 Whys method, you don’t need to ask “why” exactly five times. In this video, Don Norman explains how to use this method to identify the root causes of global challenges.

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading...

If you learn to use the 5 Whys method, you’ll be able to look at the whole system and find the potential root causes of the problem at hand.  

Think Big

Five different types of light bulbs with the title

© The Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

To have an impact on the world, you have to learn how to think broadly. Start by learning more about disciplines that can help you understand the bigger picture, such as finance, marketing or politics. Learn to think about the whole system, instead of focusing on its separate parts.

As a designer, if you harness the skill of looking at the big picture, you’ll be able to move up to decision-making positions, whether it’s in a company or in an organization, and have a greater impact.  

In this video, Don Norman explains why it’s important for designers to move up in organizations and to occupy leadership and decision-making positions.

Show Hide video transcript
  1. Transcript loading...

About the Design for the 21st Century Course

Design for the 21st Century is a 3-week course, taught by Don Norman, where you’ll learn how designers can improve the world, how you can apply human-centered design to solve complex global challenges, and what 21st-century skills you’ll need to make a difference in the world. Each lesson will build upon another to expand your knowledge of human-centered design and provide you with practical skills to make a difference in the world.

This course also includes an optional “Build Your Portfolio Project: Make A Difference” where you’ll be able to apply the principles of human-centered design to make your local community a better place. Completing these exercises will help you get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process, you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance clients.

Where to Learn More

The course Design for the 21st Century is now open for enrollment and is included in your IxDF membership.

Still undecided? You can sneak a peek into lesson 1. Simply scroll down the page and hit the preview links when you see them!

To become a member, sign up here.


© The Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Topics in This Article

Open Access - Link to us!

We believe in Open Access and the democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, world class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.

If you want this to change, , link to us, or join us to help democratize design knowledge!